At 28, John Ryder did something not many that age would do: He joined the Army.
With the Great Recession taking away his job as a delivery driver for DHL, he wasn’t sure what he would do for work. And for the next eight years, Ryder didn’t have to worry as he made his living at Fort Campbell, which sits astride the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
But as he began the process of leaving active military duty, Ryder faced the same employment quandary he started with.
“The military is not as focused on soldiers who are leaving as they are for the ones who are coming in,” Ryder says.
At Fort Campbell, there’s a whole unit dedicated to incoming soldiers, making sure all the boxes are checked and everything goes according to planned.
For those soldiers leaving, however, there’s no such unit.
“You’re kind of just left on your own,” Ryder says. “And everyone around you can only help you so much because none of them have left the Army. They don’t know what the procedure is.”
Eventually, Ryder discovered a training program launched just a year ago called Transition to Trades, which offers four-week classes on plumbing, HVAC and electrical. And so Ryder has been hopping on a bus Monday through Friday at 5:30 a.m., for a class that starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m. He’s back at base by 2 p.m., studying for the next day’s assignment.
“When a program like Transition to Trades comes around and you see it as part lifeline and part ‘Hey here’s something that I could do that would be stable, something I could get into and carry me wherever I go,’ then it’s going to be needed,” Ryder says.
Transition to Trades is a program developed by Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, and Electrical, a home services business based in Nashville along with Fort Campbell, to train transitioning active duty military service members for new civilian careers as plumbers, electricians and HVAC service technicians.
Launched in 1990 out of a duplex in Antioch, Tennessee, with a single employee and just $500, Hiller has grown to include over 470 trucks festooned with the Happy Hiller “happy face” logo, 14 locations, more than 600 employees and has responded to more than 1.4 million service calls. In the past decade alone, Hiller has experienced over 900 percent growth in revenue.
Hiller, recently honored by inclusion on the Inc. 5000 List of Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America for the 11th time, has achieved 100 percent growth over the past three years, reporting 2016 annual revenues over $97.6 million.
The 100-hour trade classes are taught at Total Tech, Hiller’s training subsidiary located inside the company’s Nashville headquarters. Total Tech offers a unique approach to technician training through classroom and hands-on laboratory instruction in a 15,000-square-foot facility.
“Out of those 100 hours, 80 are spent in the lab working on equipment of all types,” says Don Miller, institutional director of Total Tech. “With that 100 hours, our students get the basic foundational knowledge of most of the service calls they’ll see.”
The best way to sum up Miller’s teaching approach is “see it, hear it, do it.”
The plumbing classroom features seven full-house simulators with every plumbing fixture found in the home. During our visit, students were at work learning DWV and busy crawling under a makeshift crawlspace to join pipe as they made the common system. Later, they performed a static pressure test on the work.
By the end, the plumbing students will have plumbed entire systems from the pipe to the fixtures that have to pass a final inspection to code. They will have diagnosed problems with tank and tankless water heaters, fixed and installed toilets, urinals and faucets, put in sump pumps and cleaned drain lines.
Training and jobs
Since its inception, Transition to Trades has graduated 156 members ready for tech jobs in the three trades. Of those graduates, 103 soldiers are now employed full-time in the industry, while 23 have reenlisted or gone back to further their education.
Jimmy Hiller, founder and CEO of the company says he’s hired 60 of the returning civilians.
“Soldiers are the perfect people we need to address the industry’s labor shortage,” Hiller says. “These men and women know teamwork, how to follow directions, conduct themselves, wake up early, show up on time and get the work done.”
Unfortunately, some of the skills they’ve learned in the military don’t mean much to the civilian world.
Frederick Robinson, another soldier on that morning bus with Ryder, joined the Army right out of high school and served 20 years. Now on the way out, a married man with three kids, Robinson quickly noticed the difficulties in translating his skills.
“When I went through a resume writing class, the instructor was telling me, ‘You’ve got to translate it into something meaningful outside the military,’” Robinson says. “Well, I’m typing and typing, and none of it made much sense. I haven’t really done anything else except serve in the military.”
Both Robinson and Ryder had checked out other plumbing and welding apprentice classes but were discouraged by the limited number of classroom spots and the lengthy process before becoming a full-fledged professional.
“Here’s what’s really important about our program versus everybody else’s program,” Hiller says. “We have training, which the military likes. But really, what we have are jobs. Getting all the training you need isn’t very good if it doesn’t equal a job.”
Daphne Frontz, Transition to Trades program manager, takes this part of her job very personally.
“I’ve known these soldiers since they first considered joining the program,” Frontz says. “I’ve seen firsthand the anxiety and uncertainty that go along with getting out of the Army, wondering how you’re going to support your family. These people become my friends. Doing whatever it takes to help them start a great job is the most important part of what I do.”
Frontz works with employers all over the country, contacting them personally, setting up interviews for her graduates, forwarding resumes and recommendations, following up after interviews and advocating for her trainees.
“This is a very personal business to me,” she says, “because what we do is change people’s lives.”
Miller and his wife Shawna started the Total Tech program in 2006. At the time, Miller had been in the HVAC industry for more than 30 years, first running his own business and later taking a position with the Carrier Corp. in 2003 as a customer assurance manager.
Miller originally stuck with teaching only HVAC classes and capped the class size at 15 to ensure plenty of face-to-face instruction.
A systematic approach and progression are the hallmarks of Miller’s training methods, particularly the original concepts he taught for HVAC.
“I’m a firm believer that whatever the scenario, if a student takes a step-by-step approach of progressive diagnostics — that is, takes a step back, follows the physics of what’s involved, takes a look at the numbers — they will head down the path to success,” he explains.
When Miller was starting out on his own, one of his best customers was Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical.
“Don has a great methodology on how he does his processes and procedures,” Hiller says. “He's old school. He's been doing it a long time. He really knows what he's talking about, and he can explain it in such a way, and explain the process that he goes through, so somebody can really, really get it.”
That reputation came in handy as the Millers started experiencing difficulty attracting students. For them, the labor shortage meant a student shortage. Instead of continuing to try to attract the general student to the trades, Miller thought it might be a better bet to go in with a company for in-house training.
Long story short, Hiller liked the training company so much he bought it in 2013. As the build out for the new training facilities was underway, Total Tech added plumbing and electrical instruction and individual classrooms and labs, too.
It was a short time later that Hiller and the Millers keyed in on partnering with the local army base. Total Tech continues to be open to any student willing to invest $4,325 in tuition for each of the three classes. However, when we were there, out of 16 students all but three were from Fort Campbell.
Training for a trade
When the soldiers we met heard about this program, it was music to their ears.
“My wife is still a government employee,” Robinson says, “so there’s still a good chance for us to move around the country for her work. I was looking for something that I could go anywhere with and still maintain a job and support my family. This is a great way to do it because I know there is a shortage everywhere with skilled labor and any type of trade.”
Multiple instructors teach each course. For the plumbing course, there is Dewayne Wilcox, who is the only instructor with military experience; David Allen, who has worked in the plumbing field on-and-off since high school, works for Hiller as a plumber, and has been an instructor with the Total Tech plumbing program since day one; and Terry “TD” Wilson, whose father was a preacher before he decided plumbing fit his mentality a little more.
We first met Wilson, 61, crawling underneath one of instruction modules as he helped teach two students the basics of DWV.
“I try to spend more time with the guys who are struggling with the concepts,” he says. “I can usually tell who gets it right away and who needs a little extra help.”
Instructors mix in their experience, expertise and personality into the hands-on training sessions.
“I like the way it’s all involved because I can use experience to build confidence in these guys,” Allen says. “I don’t want them to be discouraged if they make mistakes. This is the place to make those mistakes. It will happen, but this is the place we want them to learn from mistakes.”
Wilcox knows exactly how bewildered soldiers can feel as they prepare to leave the service.
“As soon as you went into the military, you had this structure,” he explains. “You walked in this line. You had directions you followed every day no matter what. On or off the base, you were held to different standards,” Wilcox says. “But then they get out and they are like, ‘What happened? What do I do now?’”
Of course, those traits are exactly what make the soldiers a great fit for this program. Sure, some of it is a need for a new skill to secure a new job, but another part of it is just how a solider is wired.
“You learn in the military pretty early to have your stuff together,” Ryder says. “To have your stuff squared away. So showing up here, I already have the habit of taking a quick look around and getting organized to complete the task they are teaching.”
And as Hiller notes, soldiers know how to act professionally.
“We know how to deal with people and treat them with respect,” Robinson adds. “I understand from talking with the people I’ve met who work at Hiller that a lot of young guys coming out of high school and going to work for an HVAC company or a plumbing company don’t know how to talk to customers, or they don’t know how to talk to their own boss. I think there’s just a higher maturity level at this point for us.”
Since the Transition to Trades program is still very new, not many soldiers at Fort Campbell knew what to expect. While the length of time required for most apprenticeships was a no-go for Robinson, he still was skeptical in a class that only took four weeks.
Lately, however, the buzz at the base has begun to grow.
“I’ve had a few soldiers come up to me from my unit and ask, ‘That program that you entered, how’s that working? Do you have any information on that? Is there a number I can call, a card you can give me?’” Ryder says. “There’s definitely interest.”
To sign up for the courses, soldiers are using their G.I. Bill to fund whichever class or classes they are interested in. Oftentimes, soldiers will go in wanting to learn one specialty and find that their interests may lie somewhere else.
“I originally signed up for only plumbing,” Ryder says. “That was the only one I was going to do because my brain links up with plumbing very nicely. But I started learning so much here so quickly, that I wanted to hedge my bets. Plus, I was enjoying myself. So I signed up for the other two. That was a great move on my part.”
Robinson has a similar story. He intended on just taking the HVAC class and being done. His wife recommended that he sign up for more classes “just in case.” He registered for the plumbing class, and his future has changed.
“By the second day of plumbing class, I was pumped to come in,” Robinson says. “I am still excited to come in. I like knowing how to do something or fix something myself.”
Originally, the program was open to only Fort Campbell soldiers since the Army limited this type of travel to within a 50-mile radius from base. Last December, however, the Army relaxed the travel limit, which allows soldiers from all over the country the chance to be temporarily stationed at Fort Campbell and have the opportunity to attend Transition to Trades in Nashville.
Since the start of the program, Hiller has pledged to interview every soldier who graduates and offer them a job at one of his locations, if there is an opportunity for them.
Of course, not every solider stationed at Fort Campbell is from the immediate area. Home might be anywhere else.
When it comes to creating a broader network of job opportunities for graduates, Hiller is leaning on two of his old mentors, who are now his partners in a separate venture. Hiller met Jim Abrams and Terry Nicholson when he was a struggling contractor with only two employees, and he credits the two for much of his success.
Now, Abrams and Nicholson are part of Hiller’s effort to help the soldiers as well. In 2016, he partnered with them to found an educational organization called PRAXIS S-10 Success College for Contractors, which is dedicated to teaching HVAC contractors how to manage a successful business. The byproduct of this organization is that it has created a receptive network of contractors across the country who are ideal employers for Transition to Trades graduates.
“Anyone in our business who wants to grow can easily get any of those plans hindered when there isn’t enough qualified and talented people to immediately put in the trucks,” Hiller says. “I can’t think of a better group of people than soldiers looking for a new career outside of the military. It’s just a goldmine of great people.”