PORTAGE | With a father and grandfather in the industry, David Brightwell Jr. knew at an early age he wanted to work as an ironworker. After serving in the Army, he has followed in their footsteps to become the third generation of his family with the Iron Workers Local 395.
“I always looked up to what they do as it is very interesting, and I decided when I was a kid that it was one of the things I wanted to do,” said Brightwell, of Lowell.
Doug Strayer, business manager of Iron Workers Local 395, said veterans are a good fit for the construction industry and the Helmets to Hardhats and union’s apprenticeship programs can help them settle into a career.
“Veterans make ideal candidates (for the apprenticeship program) as they are educated, drug-free and have a dependable record. Most of them have been trained in leadership, and they have a lot of skills that we use in construction,” Strayer said. “When they go through the military, they come out and have discipline and are mature.”
The nonprofit Helmets to Hardhats program is an avenue to help connect National Guard, reserve and transitional active duty members to career opportunities in the construction industry. The union’s three-year program allows apprentices to earn money while they learn and with the majority of their time on the work site, they receive on-the-job training.
“Helmets to Hardhats helps direct veterans in our direction,” Strayer said. “When they leave the military, they don’t always know what to do. It’s like, 'What should I do now? Go to college? Sit behind a desk?' They are used to working with their hands.”
Brightwell Jr. signed up for Hardhats to Helmets while in Afghanistan. He served as an Army infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division for just under five years. He also underwent medical treatment at Walter Reed hospitals for injuries he sustained in combat.
He is now wrapping up his apprenticeship program and recently placed 12th out of about 12,000 at the Iron Workers National Apprentice Competition in Indianapolis. The event is an opportunity for apprentices to showcase their skills through exercises including a written test, knot and rod tying, burning and welding competitions, and a column climb.
“It was a good experience,” Brightwell Jr. said. “I met a lot of good ironworkers from all over the country. We were able to show them what we know in Local 395. We make some of the best ironworkers in the country.”
“When you get to know David and learn about his background and consider what he has seen and gone through and accomplished … doing as well as he is doing and exceeding in training,” Strayer said. “David is one of our success stories.”
Strayer believes continuing to work with veterans is vital to the union’s community role.
“We feel as former members of the military, they deserve the best opportunities. We believe as iron workers and as a union, we can provide them excellent opportunities to raise a family, make a living and retire with dignity and a pension. After serving, we owe it to them to give them the best life afterwards.”