Former US marine on how military veterans can build a construction career
19 September 2023
Thousands of former military personnel are benefitting from a move to step up efforts to bring more veterans into the construction industry and to better transition battlefield skills to worksites. Lucy Barnard speaks to one of them.
Craig Knight spent the first years of his career as infantry sergeant in the US Marines, squinting through gun sites at the Middle East dust.
Stationed in some of the most dangerous war zones on the planet, as an MOS 0352, an anti-tank missileman, Knight was responsible for operating shoulder-fired and vehicle-mounted hi-tech weapons systems capable of destroying enemy targets at a range of more than 3,000 metres.
“Actually, being there in combat – you can’t prepare yourself for it,” Knight says slowly. “I’ve always been in shape so I felt like the physical aspect of it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be but the mental and emotional aspect of it all, seeing death and destruction – and being away from family – that was difficult.”
“I originally thought I’d do it for 20 years – go in there full time and then retire. No problem,” says Knight, now 34. “But in the military, the years, they’re like dog years. They really wear on you.”
After two tours of duty – first in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, taking on “disruption operations” against the Taliban and then in Al Anbar province in Iraq, taking part in operations against ISIS – Knight was ready for a less traumatising career.
Having originally signed an eight-year contract comprising four years active duty and four years of inactive service, by 2017, at the age of 28, Knight had had enough.
“My contract was coming to an end, and I had to make that decision – do I want to keep doing this for another four years or should I try a civilian job doing something else,” Knight says.
But eight years in the Marine Corps left no obvious career path.
“I felt I didn’t have a skill. I don’t know how to lay brick or connect steel or something,” says Knight. “For some, military jobs, say a lawyer or mechanic, come with those hard skills which you can transition fairly easily to civilian life,” says Knight. “But being in the infantry, it’s a little bit more difficult to transition those hard skills.”
Despite having had no experience of the construction industry, Knight decided to use his GI Bill education allowance on leaving the army to enrol on a master’s degree course in construction management at Wentworth Institute of Technology.
“Outside of digging in a defence – sandbag huts and some fighting positions and stuff like that, construction was never a part of my job in the military,” Knight admits. “But I always was intrigued about how things are built and I was good with my hands and building things so I figured I would transition into that.”
The move paid off. While studying at Wentworth, Knight met a friend of a friend who worked for Suffolk Construction, the largest construction contractor in Massachusetts, and who was able to secure him an interview for his job at Suffolk.
Knight is just one of thousands of former military personnel benefitting from a move from recruiters to step up efforts to bring more veterans into the industry and to better transition battlefield skills to construction sites.
Transitioning battlefield skills to construction sites
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction is one of four major industries in the country to employ a higher proportion of the veteran population, compared to the proportion of the overall, non-veteran population. Construction accounts for 6.6% of veteran in employment, whereas it employs around 3% of the non-veteran population (although obviously the non-veteran population is much larger in total).
According to the US Census Bureau’s survey of business owners, construction is the industry with the third largest share of veteran-owned firms (behind finance and transportation), accounting for 11.4% of the total 2.52 million businesses majority owned by veterans.
“I think construction is a great transition for veterans,” he says. “In many ways it’s similar to the military. You’ve got a common goal or objective. And even though its cold and windy and rainy, it’s a tough job but you know that the person to your left and the person to your right is suffering in the same way and I guess that brings a kind of camaraderie.”
With the construction industry continuing to suffer from a shortage of skilled workers, and government and private initiatives encouraging private sector firms to do more to acknowledge and make use of the skills veterans develop during their time in the armed forces, construction companies have been stepping up their veteran recruitment programmes.
According to trade association Associated Builders & Contractors, US firms need to hire an additional 546,000 construction workers in 2023 in order to meet demand – and that figure is likely to rise further as more older workers retire from the industry.
Soon after becoming First Lady in 2021, Jill Biden reintroduced Obama administration White House initiative Joining Forces which had previously encouraged more than 100 construction companies and associations, including some of the biggest contracting firms in the US, to sign up to a commitment to hire more than 100,000 vets.
Yet, veterans’ groups point out that finding a job in construction as a veteran and finding the right job can be two different things.
They say that veterans as a group are often hampered by the difficulty of converting skills gained in wars to private-sector jobs, a lack of strong professional networks and a culture of treating veterans as charity cases.
Unlike students, many of whom choose their majors, a majority of people enlisted in the military are assigned their tasks and points of focus. When they leave, many veterans are eager to use the skills they have learnt but lack clear pathways to do so.
Industry bodies have been working to make the transition to construction easier for veterans and to better recognise their existing skills. Construction education foundation The National Centre for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) has set up a scheme enabling veterans to gain NCCER credentials for the skills and training they received while in service based on their MOS (military occupational speciality) code.
Moreover, most of the US’s biggest construction firms, including Aecom, Fluor and Bechtel, run programmes designed to attract, retain and advance veterans to their businesses with many creating their own veteran support groups and appearing in annual lists of military-friendly employers.
And this drive is not limited to the US. Some of the world’s biggest construction firms including Skanska, Bouygues, Lendlease and Balfour Beatty have set up initiatives specially designed at recruiting veterans from a range of different armed forces.
Knight, who benefitted from Suffolk’s Accelerated Military Program, says that veterans bring skills such as leadership, a strong work ethic, the ability to work as a team with people from a variety of backgrounds, to think on their feet and to ensure tasks are carried out safely.
“Veterans have life experiences already that they’re bringing to the table,” he says. “They typically come in with a strong work ethic whereas someone coming straight out of college, it perhaps takes them that little bit longer to get them going. And the actual hard skills can be taught a lot easier if you have those softer skills and a willingness to learn.
Parallels with construction
Knight says his work as an assistant superintendent at Suffolk, running the day-to-day operations on the construction site for a 12-storey laboratory building for Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and coordinating subcontractors, has strong parallels with his former life.
“I’m not the main person in charge of the job site but I’m in charge of some of the trades,” Knight says. “Right now, I’m working with the roofer trades and the façade and landscaping. If I were to equate it to something in the military, it’s like a platoon commander. You have your different squads that you are trying to move towards a common goal. Each trade has its own task to accomplish, and I just make sure those details go properly and make sure they’re getting the job done on schedule and on budget.”
“I didn’t think my resume stacked up properly for construction, but Suffolk took a chance on me and went out and hired me,” Knight says with a grin. “And I’ve been working hard for them for the last five years.”