From Serving America to Building America

SMART Heroes provides a free, accelerated sheet metal industry training program for active-duty U.S. military members and recent veterans who are transitioning to civilian life.

By the end of 2023, SMART Heroes reached a major milestone, graduating 500 people from its program, which provides sheet metal industry training — free of charge — to active-duty U.S. military men and women and recent veterans.

That means 500 more people who the program helped successfully transition from military work to the civilian workforce were one stop closer to entering a satisfying career in the sheet metal industry. 

But there is still work to do, explains Joshua Moore, field representative and SMART Heroes specialist with the International Training Institute in Falls Church, Virginia, as well as a veteran himself from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Considering there are 200,000 service members who get out of the military every year through retirement, medical discharge or finishing their U.S. government contracts, this makes up a huge potential pool of future sheet metal workers.

Trey Pettijohn, graduate of the Colorado Springs SMART Heroes (Local 009) program, works on the Air Force Academy Cathedral project.

As the sheet metal industry faces a continued need for workers as megaprojects increase and business booms, learning about existing programs like SMART Heroes can help Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) contractors have better access to potential workers who graduate from this program and give them opportunities to support programs like this that draw potential workers to the sheet metal industry. 

Planning That Next Step After the Military
International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) started the SMART Heroes program in 2017 in collaboration with SMACNA, Helmets to Hardhats, the International Training Institute and Western Washington Sheet Metal JATC.

Service members approaching the end of their military careers can enroll in SMART Heroes. Once accepted into the program, they spend seven weeks at one of the program’s two military installations — the Local 66 in Washington state or the Local 9 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was added in 2019. One of these places becomes the service member’s new duty station; they report to the program like they would their military base. 

This seven-week program fast tracks what would be an entire first year of apprenticeship, Moore explains. 

After graduation, these service members generally transition out of service, turn in their gear and go to a location of their choosing to start their second year of apprenticeship, which gives them health insurance and a livable wage. “It’s a solid plan for those leaving the military for civilian life when they have to replace that regular paycheck and benefits,” Moore says. 

Sergeant Tyler Petersen, who graduated from the program, says he thinks the trades are the best-kept secret as far as cost to compensation goes. “The sheet metal trade can be lucrative and rewarding,” he says. “The atmosphere at SMART Heroes was a welcomed change for me, and I can’t put a price on the ability to network with the individuals here as well — people with similar experiences and trajectories. The knowledge I gained here has set me up to be the perfect apprentice.”

SMART Heroes graduate Sergeant Codey Herman agrees. “I decided to join the program because I had friends go through it,” he explains. “I like that the program is taught by prior service members. I know if I have a skill that uses my hands and my mind, I will not be out of a job.”

Many times, graduates decide to stay at Local 66 or Local 9, but others will go back near their army bases or their hometowns. Some will even go to where the sheet metal work is, such as at Ford’s BlueOval City in Tennessee, where the manufacturer is building a $5.6 billion, 4,100-acre, 6-square-mile industrial park and electric vehicle center. 

While there’s no requirement to stay in the sheet metal trade or in Washington or Colorado where the SMART Heroes training takes place, a majority of the service members — roughly 85 percent — do remain in the industry. 

According to Sergeant Tyler Petersen, who graduated from Cohort 30 at Local 66, “this program has opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities in the outside civilian world. I’ve been able to map my new career during this transition, leaving less stress.”

Choosing Their Paths
During the SMART Heroes seven-week program, students are exposed to multiple facets of the sheet metal industry. 

During week three, otherwise known as “elective week,” attendees get exposure to five specific facets of the sheet metal industry: welding, service, testing and balancing (TAB), architectural, and business information modeling (BIM) and AutoCAD. Then they get to pick which area they’d like to focus on for the last 32 hours of the seven-week program.

“A lot of them pick welding,” Moore says. “Service is probably the second most popular one. But this third week showcases the different avenues you can take in sheet metal. BIM, for instance, is technology driven. Just because you’re in the sheet metal trade doesn’t mean you have to be in the field putting duct together. There are so many areas you can go into. Education is another one.”
SMART Heroes graduate and Petty Officer Second Class Brett Calkins liked the scope of the program. “It exposed me to all elements of the trade, giving me a better understanding of the direction I wanted to go in,” he says. “I decided sheet metal is the best fit for me because it has a little bit of everything I enjoy doing, and I love a hard day’s work. 

As service members approach the ends of their military careers, they can enroll in SMART Heroes, where they can spend seven weeks at one of the program's two military installations.

“I worked in the engineering department on board the ship I was stationed on, and much of the equipment used in this [SMART Heroes] program was used on board,” Calkins continues. “This program puts you and your experience first. It is a job well worth the time and effort.”

Service Men and Women Make Solid Sheet Metal Employees
Moore says the interest in SMART Heroes graduates from SMACNA contractors has continually grown. 

A big reason is because through the military, these men and women have learned discipline. They are used to showing up on time, taking good care of equipment and being dependable, which makes them excellent and reliable employees. 

“Skills I built in the military that serve me now are a good eye for detail, the ability to adapt to a new challenge and, of course, a good work ethic,” explains SMART Heroes graduate and Specialist Wayne Pave.  

“My mechanical skills, such as operating and maintaining heavy machinery that I learned in the military, helped me familiarize myself with machines in the shop,” adds SMART Heroes graduate Diego Plascencia. “My soft skills, such as time management, have also been helpful.” 

This combination of skills plus professionalism makes them highly attractive workers. 

“This industry needs people who are going to show up on time or even 10 minutes early for work and who aren’t going to be on their cell phones when they are on the clock,” Moore explains. “These individuals already have the intestinal fortitude and good mindset needed. This puts them ahead of the curve when it comes to entering an apprenticeship.”

In the military, many of these service members also held leadership positions like SMART Heroes graduate and Master Sergeant Daniel Noone, who held such a position for 10 years and missed working with his hands when he was transitioning out of the military. “[In the SMART Heroes program], I enjoyed the work and camaraderie among the apprentices,” he says, “and the brotherhood/sisterhood in the union is very similar to the military.”

SMART Heroes continues planning for growth to reach that next milestone of 1,000 graduates. “We’re always looking for another base to expand the program on the East Coast,” Moore shares. “People continue to recognize the importance of apprenticeships and how they can finish a program and gain experience and education without gaining over $150,000 in debt.”

Plascencia agrees, recommending this program to other service members who are planning their transitions to civilian life. “Not only do apprenticeships pay you to learn the trade,” he says, “but this program guarantees you direct admission into the best unions in the country while others have to wait years to get in.” 


SMART Heroes is a free program for service members that is funded by industry contractors and manufacturers. If you are interested in learning more about the program or donating, visit