Veterans of Iraq War transition to union careers in Long Island City

Veterans of Iraq War transition to union careers in Long Island City
Photo courtesy Helmets to Hardhats
By Bill Parry

Two Iraq War veterans in western Queens have found post-military careers as steamfitters.

Louis Gonzalez, 32, who was born and raised in Astoria and Matthew Bargellini, 28, who recently moved to Sunnyside, both served in the Marine Corps before gaining entry to the apprenticeship program at Steamfitters Local 638 in Long Island City.

Gonzalez and Bargellini came through Helmets to Hardhats, a national, non-profit program that connects returning U.S. military veterans with good-paying, quality careers and training in the construction trade. As apprentices, the two will undergo an extensive five-year, union-paid training program to learn the steamfitting trade of designing, building, installing, maintaining and repairing gas, steam and water piping; fire sprinklers; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in commercial, residential and industrial buildings throughout the five boroughs.

“There are certain parallels between the Marine Corps and the steamfitters apprenticeship as far as camaraderie, chain of command and accountability,” Bargellini said. After he returned to civilian life, his grandfather told him about the Helmets to Hardhats program.

“My grandfather was my father figure growing up,” Bargellini said. “He was a steamfitter for more than 40 years and I saw how he was able to provide for his extended family, so I figured it was worth pursuing.”

Gonzalez graduated from St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows and spent two years studying at St. John’s University.

“I upped in the Marine Corps just after 9/11,” he said. “After eight years in the Corps ,I took courses on transitioning back into civilian life. After I got a degree in finance from Brooklyn College, I remembered mention of Helmets to Hardhats during transition training. That’s when it was brought to my attention the different unions and trades in New York City.”

Helmets to Hardhats advocated for both during a selection process that is always competitive. The apprenticeship program, in which Steamfitters 638 invests nearly $100,000 per each enrollee, leads to occupations with a living wage that allow steamfitters to raise their families comfortably with health-care coverage, disability protections and pensions at the end of their labor intensive careers.

In 2012, Gonzalez joined a line that stretched for blocks outside the Steamfitters Industry Training Center in Long Island City just for an application to the apprenticeship program. More than 5,000 people, including some that traveled from as far away as Texas and Florida, applied for just 500 positions that would be offered over a three-year-period.

“I knew it was an opportunity that people pursue,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a profession that takes care of you financially, but it’s also about being a part of the process of construction, putting up buildings and schools. There’s a certain pride in knowing you’re building the infrastructure of this city.”

Bargellini didn’t have to stand on that line in 2012, but he saw it on the TV news.

“It tells you how sought after the position is as far as job security and benefits,” Bargellini said. “I’m two years into the apprenticeship and it’s going very smoothly and the healthcare gave me the confidence to get engaged to my fiancée Cecilia in April. The job does take its toll on the body, but you get that piece of mind that I’ll be able to retire comfortably one day and enjoy my life with Cecelia.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.