Guide to Choosing a Trade Career for Returning Service Members
Many returning service members worry about choosing a civilian career they'll like — and that will give them the quality of life they deserve. The skilled trades offer a work environment that many veterans like, along with steady, reliable pay.
- Why choose the skilled trades?
- Which skilled trades align well with veteran skills?
- Which skills are most common?
- Challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life
- Trade school & training resources for veterans
- Trade job opportunities for veterans
Resources for employers & hiring veterans
Why choose the skilled trades?
Training in the skilled trades gives you knowledge that is always in high demand, and the chance to earn high wages. Best of all, it's easy to find the training and job placement assistance you need.
Skilled trade workers are in high demand
Many skilled workers can expect employment opportunities to grow over the next decade. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects faster than average growth in these skilled trades:
- Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: 3% growth expected
- Plumbers: 4% growth expected
- Ironworkers: 5% growth expected
- Elevator and Escalator Installers and Repairers: 7% growth expected
- Electricians: 8% growth expected
- Industrial Machinery Mechanics: 13% growth expected
Higher demand for these trades will mean more job opportunities — or even the opportunity to use your knowledge to start your own business.
Skilled tradespeople can expect to earn tens of thousands more over the course of their lives than they would making minimum wage. And they can expect to start earning a much higher starting salary than many college graduates do. Salaries for the skilled trades vary based on industry and location, but it's not unusual for skilled tradespeople to earn starting salaries of $50K and more.
Here are the average salaries for the fast-growing occupations mentioned above, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians: $64,310 per year ($30.92 per hour)
- Electricians: $56,180 per year ($27.01 per hour)
- Plumbers: $55,160 per year ($26.52 per hour)
- Masonry Workers: $46,500 per year ($22.35 per hour)
- Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $42,490 per year ($20.43 per hour)
- Carpenters: $48,330 per year (23.24 per hour)
Abundance of resources
Without skilled tradespeople, buildings don't get built, equipment doesn't get repaired, and the economy grinds to a halt. That's why many skilled workers were considered "essential workers" during the COVID pandemic.
Businesses are very motivated to train and promote new skilled tradespeople — especially as the baby boomer generation begins to retire.
Training programs are available for many of the skilled trades industries, for anyone with a high school degree. Service members often can receive additional benefits to help them complete these programs.
Rewarding, hands-on work environment
Offices aren't for everyone. Office jobs result in a lot of sitting, a lot of working on the computer, and a fair amount of personal schmoozing and cajoling in order to accomplish more or move up the ladder.
Work in the skilled trades is usually more task-oriented and more hands-on than office work. In many skilled trades, your place of work changes from day-to-day, even hour-to-hour, as you move between different job sites. The skills you learn are also much more transferable in case you decide to move to a new place.
Which skilled trades align well with veteran skills?
Below is basic information about the most common skilled trades professions.
- Welders use tools to join pieces of metal together, and are needed in a wide variety of industries.
- Most welders work indoors at a manufacturing plant, but may also sometimes work outside.
- A high-school diploma is the minimum requirement for a beginning welder, but training through a certification school is the best route to employment. The armed forces operates its own welding training programs.
- The median annual wage for a welder as of 2019 was $42,490. The top 10% of welders earn more than $64,240 per year.
- Employment in welding is expected to grow 3 percent by 2029, about the same as the growth in other industries.
Industrial machinery mechanics
- Industrial machinery mechanics service factory equipment, often with the help of computerized diagnostic equipment.
- Work is usually performed within a manufacturing facility.
- Some industrial mechanics earn an associate's degree in industrial maintenance. On-the-job training is also common.
- The median annual wage for an industrial machinery mechanic as of 2019 was $52,860. The top 10% of industrial machinery mechanics earn more than $79,150 per year.
- Employment of industrial machinery mechanics is expected to grow 13 percent by 2029, much faster than the growth in other industries.
- Electricians install electrical systems and units in homes, office buildings, and factories. The work must meet building blueprints and national standards.
- Work is usually on a job site, whether indoors or outdoors.
- Training usually comes in the form of a 4-5 year apprenticeship program, which can be partially completed via training while in the military.
- The median annual wage for an electrician as of 2019 was $56,180. The top 10% of electricians earn more than $96,580 per year.
- Employment of electricians is expected to grow 8 percent by 2029, much faster than the growth in other industries.
HVAC mechanics and installers
- Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers install the heating, cooling, ventilation, and refrigeration systems in buildings, connecting them with the electrical system. They often repair and consult on equipment maintenance.
- Work is performed at a residential or commercial job site, or at multiple sites for service calls.
- Trade schools and community colleges offer degree programs in HVAC installation. Apprenticeship programs are common as well.
- The median annual wage for an HVAC mechanic as of 2019 was $48,730. The top 10% of HVAC mechanics earn more than $77,920 per year.
- Employment of electricians is expected to grow 4 percent by 2029, about the same as the growth in other industries.
- Plumbers advise on and install pipe systems and fixtures in buildings. They work with and may help prepare blueprints.
- Work is at residential and commercial job sites, and may be indoors or outdoors.
- Training is typically through an apprenticeship program, followed by a licensing exam. Another exam is needed to become a master plumber.
- The median annual wage for a plumber as of 2019 was $55,160. The top 10% of plumbers earn more than $97,170 per year.
- Employment of plumbers is expected to grow 4 percent by 2029, about the same as the growth in other industries.
Aircraft mechanics and technicians
- Aircraft mechanics test and repair aircraft so that they can fly safely, following detailed federal government regulations.
- Most work at or near major airports, in hangars, at repair stations, or on airfields.
- Many aircraft mechanics enter the profession after completion of an FAA-approved training program. On-the-job training or military training are also common. Passing an FAA exam is a requirement of employment.
- The median annual wage for an aircraft mechanic as of 2019 was $64,090. The top 10% of aircraft mechanics earn more than $101,070 per year.
- Employment of aircraft mechanics is expected to grow 5 percent by 2029, faster than the growth in other industries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies the top skills needed for each job in the skilled trades. Veterans may find themselves better qualified for certain professions, based on the skills they learned in the military.
Which skills are most common?
Nearly all of the trades require attention to detail — whether that means following instructions, keeping accurate records, or using precision tools. Among the trades discussed above, welders, electricians, HVAC mechanics, and aircraft mechanics must be detail-oriented to succeed.
Trade work may require manipulating small parts — often with only their hands — in tight spaces. Welder, industrial machine mechanic, plumber, and aircraft mechanic are all trades requiring manual dexterity.
Physical strength & stamina
Most trades require the strength to lift and manipulate heavy objects. In particular, welders, electricians, and HVAC technicians need stamina to operate effectively and safely even after a long day of standing, lifting, and moving.
Spatial orientation skills
Welders must be able to look at two-dimensional product or repair specifications and execute what's needed on a three-dimensional object.
Critical thinking / troubleshooting skills
When working in complex environments like large commercial buildings, or with complex machines, things don't always go according to plan. Skilled tradespeople are expected to be able to identify problems and find workable solutions — fast. Industrial machine mechanics, electricians, HVAC technicians, and plumbers all benefit from critical thinking skills.
While some skilled trades are somewhat solitary work environments, others require working with other tradespeople, directing co-workers, and dealing with customers. Electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians, especially, often work as part of a team and have to handle communications with contractors and customers.
Challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life
Approximately 1 in 4 service personnel say they find the transition from military to civilian life difficult, according to a Pew Research poll. Steady, rewarding work in the trades industry doesn't guarantee a better transition, but may address some of the common challenges that transitioning veterans face.
Preparing to enter or re-enter the workforce
Re-entry to the workforce includes unfamiliar steps like creating a resume, participating in a job interview, and even choosing appropriate civilian clothes. Entry into the skilled trades smooths this transition. A high-school diploma is all that's required, so you don't need to impress anyone with a perfect resume or outfit. Unions and businesses are always looking for dedicated, qualified people to join their teams.
Joining or creating a community
After discharge, some veterans miss the camaraderie of the service, and the satisfaction of working towards collective goals. The friendships that can spring from shared sacrifice are no longer as easily formed.
When someone becomes a skilled tradesperson, they are once again joining a community. Many of the skilled trades are part of unions, with their own leadership, customs, and history not entirely dissimilar from a service branch. Skilled tradespeople share unique talents, and there's a camaraderie that goes along with that.
The transition from having a clear chain of command to essentially being the boss of your own job search can be disorienting. Entering an apprenticeship or training program immediately reestablishes supervision for a transitioning veteran. The purpose of these programs is to gradually relax the oversight of the prospective tradesperson, so that they can succeed independently. This gradual approach may be just right for someone newly discharged or retired from the service.
Government programs: Transition Assistance Program
The VA's Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is the primary resource for transitioning veterans. People leaving the armed forces, have access to these services as early as two years before retirement.
Available classes include the Employment Fundamentals of Career Transition (EFCT), Department of Labor Employment Workshop (DOLEW) and Career and Credential Exploration (C2E).
Each service branch also has its own transition assistance programs, including one-on-one coaching.
Employers support many different programs to help veterans identify a successful post-military career path.
- VetNet is a series of webinars geared toward veterans interested in basic transition information, careers, or entrepreneurship.
- Hire Heroes USA pairs veterans with resources to help them get hired, and connects companies with qualified veterans.
- The Veteran Jobs Mission is a coalition of 200+ U.S. corporations who have collectively hired more than 500,000 veterans.
Trade school & training resources for veterans
The GI Bill is the gold standard benefit of military service. But it's not just for college. Eligibility has been expanded, so veterans can use their GI benefits to pay tuition for non-college degree programs, such as an HVAC training school. For veterans enrolled in on-the-job training or apprenticeship programs, GI bill benefits can be applied toward housing or training materials.
To find GI Bill vocational schools near you, or to check eligibility for a particular school or program, use the VA's online GI Bill Comparison Tool. The tool lists schools/programs, shows how much money can be applied toward tuition, and even shows how many other GI Bill recipients are enrolled.
GI Bill coverage rates for vocational training programs depend on the overall cost of the program. As of 2021, the GI Bill will cover up to $25,162 in annual tuition for vocational training programs.
Additionally, the Veterans Readiness & Employment program helps veterans with service-related disabilities, providing counseling, resources, and special tools to help them succeed in their new careers.
Trade job opportunities for veterans
Online resources make it easy for any veteran of any age to find trade job opportunities.
Job opportunity resources from the U.S. Government
The best place to start for veterans looking for job opportunities is Veterans.gov, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Labor, multiple federal agencies, and state employment services. The site provides links to a range of employment opportunities, including those offered by the federal government, which prioritizes hiring veterans.
Also, careeronestop is a job search site recommended by the VA and provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Public/Private job opportunity resources
This is a short list of trades industry jobs resources for veterans.
- United Association Veterans in Piping Program, The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada
- Helmets To Hardhats, Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans' Employment.
- SMART Heroes (sheet metal industry)
- Veteran Outreach, Independent Electrical Contractors Association
- Operation Armed Forces to Welding Torches, American Welding Society
- Military & Veterans Services, Universal Technical Institute
- Use Your Veterans Benefit to Get HVAC Training, National Technical Institute
- NTI's Commitment to Veterans, Northeast Technical Institute
- Military Information, Aviation Institute of Maintenance
Job boards for veterans
Google provides a helpful interactive job listings site for veterans. Search "jobs for veterans" on Google, then scroll down to see a search box where you can enter your military occupation code to see a listing applicable jobs.
There are many job boards specifically for veterans; here are some of the best.
Resources for employers & hiring veterans
Said former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis: "The best way to honor our veterans is to employ them."
The federal government provides many layers of assistance to employers who wish to hire veterans, from salary subsidies to accessibility technology. The best overall resource is the U.S. Department of Labor's Employer Guide to Hiring Veterans. This in-depth guide has information about veteran demographics, best practices, and even sample job descriptions that will appeal to the veteran.
When you're ready to post a job, consider using the U.S. Department of Labor's Hire a Veteran job page, which posts to a federal database and a database within your state.
Tax breaks for hiring veterans
Employers may also be able to reduce their tax bill by hiring and supporting veterans as employees.
The Work Opportunity Tax Credit allows employers to claim a credit of up to 40% of the first-year wages of certain employees, including some veterans. To qualify, the veteran who is hired must meet these criteria:
- Is a member of a family receiving assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
- Was unemployed for at least 4 weeks prior to being hired.
- Is a recently-discharged veteran with a service-connected disability.
The Barrier Removal Tax Deduction credits businesses that incur expenses relating to removing architectural or transportation barriers for people with disabilities, including veterans with disabilities. The deduction can be up to $15,000 per year.
Make the next step a rewarding one
Returning service members will find camaraderie, structure, and a hands-on work environment in the skilled trades. A technical degree, apprenticeship program or on-the-job training — funded by the GI Bill — is the first step on the path to career with personal and financial rewards.