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Skilled trades offer a bright future for America’s veterans

BRAVE Act would connect millions of ex-servicemembers to good-paying, family-sustaining jobs

Troops march during a full honors procession in Arlington, Va., on Veterans Day last month. The BRAVE Act would help veterans reenter civilian life by  connecting them to the resources needed to find fulfilling, good-paying careers, Norcross writes.
Troops march during a full honors procession in Arlington, Va., on Veterans Day last month. The BRAVE Act would help veterans reenter civilian life by connecting them to the resources needed to find fulfilling, good-paying careers, Norcross writes. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg/Pool file photo)

Every year, an estimated 200,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces leave military service to reenter civil society in America. Around 3 million veterans served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and each of them has faced this difficult transition. I wrote the Bringing Registered Apprenticeships to Veterans Education, or BRAVE, Act, which the House unanimously passed last month, with them in mind.

I am a member of Congress and serve on the House Armed Services Committee. I am the father of a veteran. And I am also the product of a registered apprenticeship. Our veterans are highly trained and skilled, making them uniquely suited for careers in the skilled trades. The BRAVE Act was designed to help their reentry into civilian life by connecting them to the resources they need to find fulfilling, good-paying careers.

When we send our servicemembers to war, we train and equip them with the skills they need to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We do this because we want them to succeed in whatever mission they are assigned — be it on the battlefield or rendering humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disasters. They deserve the same level of support when they leave service.

One of the best ways to help our veterans is by providing them with meaningful work opportunities. Most men and women join the Armed Services out of a desire to serve; this mission-oriented mindset is not likely to end even when their formal service does. Registered apprenticeships allow servicemembers to build promising careers for themselves while building their communities.

I still take great pride in knowing I was a small part of building enduring monuments in my community. As an electrician and graduate of a registered apprenticeship, I worked to electrify the Ben Franklin Bridge — an iconic landmark used each day by thousands of commuters and that connects my hometown of Camden, N.J., to the city of Philadelphia across the Delaware River. By participating in registered apprenticeships, our veterans can pursue careers that are meaningful in the sense of service but also beneficial individually.

Indeed, the latest data by the Department of Labor shows that 92 percent of registered apprentices remain employed after graduation. The program would allow veterans to “earn while they learn” — or get paid while acquiring the new skills of the trade and avoiding mountains of student debt. Furthermore, the average starting salary for graduates of a registered apprenticeship is $72,000. To put that in context, the average starting salary for graduates of Brown University — an Ivy League school — is around $74,000. (Starting salaries for registered apprenticeships beat those of traditional four-year college graduates by nearly $20,000.)

The pipeline and demand for veterans in the trades already exist. Programs like Helmets to Hardhats help connect veterans with careers in construction. But veterans are not consistently educated about these opportunities — and the BRAVE Act would change that. It would connect veterans to resources that are eligible for VA education benefits, ensuring that when veterans begin considering their career transition, they are provided with up-to-date and easily accessible information about registered apprenticeship programs.

It’s also worth noting that the BRAVE Act passed during National Apprenticeship Week and the same week that President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. The time is now to connect the millions of veterans to the good-paying, family-sustaining jobs in the trades — which are about to receive trillions in funding to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.

From one apprentice to the future apprentices who I hope are reading this: Consider the trades. Your service to our country and community doesn’t need to end just yet.

Rep. Donald Norcross is a Democrat representing New Jersey’s 1st District. He serves on the Armed Services, Education and Labor, and Science, Space and Technology committees. He worked as an IBEW union electrician for over four decades before his election to Congress.

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