Eric Leigland, a fourth-year apprentice from SMART Local 10 in Minnesota, is self-admittedly not a writer. But when he was approached by Helmets to Hardhats to pen a column about his experience in the union and his military career for Pioneer Press/TwinCities.com in St. Paul, he couldn’t say no.
The column, which ran the week following Veterans Day, discussed his 26-year career in the military and how he came to be a sheet metal apprentice in his late 40s.
“I assumed it would be all younger people, but it was kind of a spread,” said Leigland, 51, in an interview. “In my class, right now the youngest is 22, maybe, and obviously, I’m the oldest, but the second oldest is 40. So, there is a fair amount of people who got into this later in life, as well.”
For Leigland, choosing to start a third career was a simple decision. He had not only retired from the Army Reserves and completed six years of active duty as a Marine, he also retired from his local Department of Corrections. He values the union’s benefits package and retirement option not offered by many careers anymore.
His first stop was the Helmets to Hardhats website, where he started researching different building trades. Knowing he wanted to work with his hands, Leigland asked around for current members’ opinions on their trades of choice.
“I knew people who worked in different trades, and they said, ‘you don’t want to do this.’ They really didn’t promote their field. They had been doing it for a while and were burnt out,” he said. “Sheet metal appealed to me. There was no one deterring me away from it.”
For most of Leigland’s apprenticeship he has worked in HVAC and has come to realize he enjoys sheet metal because of the gratification he has at a project’s completion.
“When you get to a job, it is a shell, and when you finish, there is a functional building standing in front of you,” he said. “It’s easy to see what you’ve accomplished.”
In life, as in his column, Leigland mentors young adults and explains the benefits of apprenticeship and seeking a career — not just a job — after military life is over.
“Regardless if you’re right out of high school or you’re a 40-something-year-old, you want to start a career, especially veterans,” Leigland said. “There are some great opportunities for a career in the trades.”