The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

Union Matters: Veteran Training Programs with Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster

August 26, 2021 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 3 Episode 13
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
Union Matters: Veteran Training Programs with Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster
Show Notes Transcript

Labor unions provide workers with better wages and safer workplaces, but did you also know that they train transitioning military veterans in career pathways for civilian life? Our next guest develops and implements veteran training to placement programs with the Department of Defense and labor unions. The CEO of EMB Consultants, Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster, shares her experiences with the DOD’s SkillBridge program and why more organized labor should invest in these programs.

Some highlights from Union Matters: Veterans Training Programs include:

01:48 – Getting Endorsements
06:26 – Transition is a Culture!
11:45 – Nothing Happens in a Vacuum
14:57 – Why Aren’t We Doing These Programs Everywhere?
18:44 – Case Studies: the Teamsters and Utility Workers of America
25:45 – The DOD’s SkillBridge Program

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Narrator  0:02  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started.


Traci Shanklin  0:36  

My guest today on the podcast is Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster, president of EMB Consultants. Elizabeth is an expert in strategic development of training to placement for veterans into the private sector across the country and works in conjunction with the Department of Defense. She has worked as a project manager for the American Legion and the Lumina Foundation. And she serves as a board member on the Women for Wounded Warriors Foundation. Thank you, Liz, for joining the conversation.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  1:07  

Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here today.


Traci Shanklin  1:10  

That's great. One of the reasons I created this podcast was to dispel myths about the labor unions, I wanted to show who the labor community is; its humanity, and tell those stories. The stories that show who and how the labor union gives back to the communities that they serve while improving the lives of both members and non-members. I believe that the work that EMB Consultants does in partnership with various unions is a perfect example of how unions give back. In this case, labor unions are providing opportunities to American veterans. Could you please share with our listeners what EMB Consultants is?


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  1:48  

I started my career, many years ago, probably 25 years ago, in Chicago, working political campaigns to be quite honest with you, district by district. They were judicial campaigns and was very successful in it -- came into that very accidentally. I was very active with my kids in a community that I lived in. I had a cousin that was a judge. He had a friend who was running for judge. And he said, "Hey, can you do the campaign?" And I was like, "Okay, I'll do it. I mean, I'm good at organizing, I could probably do this." That's when EMB Consultants kind of was born. I basically had to sit down and come up with a name of a company, and I used my initials. And here we are 25 years later. Had a lot of success in that and really came into working with the unions specifically out of political campaign endorsements. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  2:35  

So, I worked a lot with the unions and getting endorsements for candidates. And through that came an opportunity -- probably in 2007 -- I was working with the Teamsters quite a bit, community by community. Those endorsements were important, but they really helped us get people out there from union members to labor leaders to endorse and support candidates going door-to-door with us on voting. Things that people don't know about the labor union, right. It's just one of them. I was brought in by the Teamsters to help organize an event for veterans. At the time, veterans' unemployment was almost at 15%, so the Department of Defense was paying almost a billion dollars in unemployment. The economy had just collapsed. There were jobs to be had, but they were scarce, so you really had to pivot over to job projections as well. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  3:24  

The State of Illinois and the city of Chicago put together a job fair. Somebody from the union asked me to help stand that program up. I did. And we put about 600 veterans to work that day with federal unions, Illinois Department of Transportation, and a few other federal projects that were happening in Illinois. We knew that we could place them there. It was enormously successful. The Teamsters then, later on, asked me if I would help stand up an overall military program. I have since stood up several programs training to placements. And really my role is to really network, the Union, the industry partners, the military agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Labor, they all are stakeholders in their own industries and at some level marrying them up and partnering them up together does a much-needed service to the industry gaps, industry desires and needs, and to the members of the Union. And that overall covers all of America, right? Globally, it covers everybody. And I think what we've done is we created this portal, where partnerships are meaningful, and they mean something to a lot of people. Quite frankly, they should mean something to everybody because it really is impacting on our economy, impacting on service members who have taken time out of their life to stand up and fight for our freedoms. And I think it's critically important, and I'm really proud of the work.


Traci Shanklin  4:49  

Do you have a story or an experience from growing up or early in your career that really empowered you to do this vital work?


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  4:56  

Well, I think, you know, my father was a union worker like your father. My grandfather was a union worker. My father being a veteran, an Army veteran, and my grandfather being a Navy veteran. Little did I know that that work ethic, combined with their service independently, would really carry me throughout my career. At some level I - I leaned back on some of that. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  5:20  

I've also had some great mentors over the years. I've been really, really lucky. And I think you and I talked about the story of my friend, Cheryl Johnson, who at the time was a vice president of the Teamsters. I think one of the only woman that was the vice president early on, and she was also with the Human Rights Commission, and she was the woman that hired me directly from the Teamsters. She came down to Chicago when we put together that big job fair for Helmets to Hardhats, another union program early on that was out there. That was the National Building Trades, that stood up a program called Helmets to Hardhats. I was so good at my job. I was always good at my job. And I was really proud of my work ethic. But she really recognized it and brought me under her wing and was a great, great mentor to me. And I still have a great relationship with her. We talk all the time. But, you know, without those things in your DNA, at some level, my family, my grandfather, my father, the mentor that I had in my friend, Cheryl Johnson, I don't think you just get there. I think you really have to work for it. But having good role models really helps a lot.


Traci Shanklin  6:26  

I completely agree. You clearly have a connection to the veterans, so can you speak to the impact these retraining programs have on assisting veterans and their families?


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  6:38  

As I said early on, initially, we kind of were trying to fill the need of finding employment for veterans. It was very specifically veterans at the time because the Department of Defense was putting out so much money in unemployment, which directly impacts taxpayers. We, as taxpayers, we pay for their training; we pay for, you know, a lot of things that are aligned with service when they enter into the military. So, when they exit the military, we kind of showcase that the bigger investment into the soldier the more lifelong success that they will have. And at some level, we owe them that, right. If we, as taxpayers, are paying for their training for the time that they're in service, for housing, for everything that goes within service. At some level, we all had to be stakeholders in what the outcomes were when they transitioned out because transition is a culture. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  7:29  

It's clear today, as it was back then, that service members that were transitioning that didn't have jobs, were struggling with post-traumatic stress. They were struggling with addiction issues, family issues, divorce rates were going up by the minutes during that time to for service members and their families. So, to me, it was like the golden key. You have a large community that has population of industry jobs, industry by industry. And it really made sense at the time to just drawdown and start working with the unions independently. As I said, that the Building Trades stood up the Helmets to Hardhats program. That program came into play at that time where the economy was struggling. But it was something that the union did and gave back to. Very quietly, they came in and did it. This wasn't like a grandstand. This was like, "Oh, we have jobs." We don't have jobs for everybody because, at the time, the economy was still struggling. So, bringing those unions together at some point made a whole lot of sense where they could be impactful. The Teamsters and some of the others that are not necessarily Building Trades-affiliated really started to look into their own spaces on job projections. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  8:40  

And at the time, it was when the Obama administration stood up the Joining Forces effort. It was the first time that industry, unions, academia, and military as well as agencies sat at a table together and said, "Hey, I've got this. You've got this," and everybody kind of threw down the resources, whatever they could to make some of those formulas work. The Joining Forces' efforts were important because they started the dialogue. But quite frankly, it was a much bigger picture. Because internally, I was tired of going to meetings. It was like we're talking about this way too much. And so, we did come up with these internal formulas with the Teamsters. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  9:18  

The Teamsters Military Assistance Program started branching on their own and utilizing our training centers to train veterans immediately with contracted employers that led into a much bigger dialogue and conversation with the military. And today, I mean, you know that the truck driver looks very different in a telescope today, right? The lens of a truck driver is saving our planet right now because of COVID and other things. So really, it was about taking the resources internally from those unions that represent specific industries and putting some pieces together that could manifest into career pathways, not jobs. We had seen so much of a turnover with job fairs. Things that we're putting people to work at McDonald's, and that's not to say that McDonald's isn't for everybody. But we were really trying to make sure that it was impacting. They didn't have to go home and work three jobs. They can go home and work one job and get on that career pathway. So, that was an important part of the equation as well. And it still is today for a lot of different reasons. And I can probably get into that a little bit better later on. But that's kind of what it is. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  10:26  

You've got most of the unions: The Veterans in Piping; the Helmets to Hardhats program is your Building Trades. The Teamsters Military Assistance Program and the VIP, Veterans in Piping program, were two that really started the dialogue amid military installations, the army, and the DOD. And the Teamsters, early on, started doing training for truck drivers in Washington states long before there was programs like this. And the Veterans in Piping did the same in Washington State.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  10:55  

So, I remember I was walking down the halls of the Pentagon was my first trip to the Pentagon. And I thought then, you know, God, this is amazing. You know what I mean? My dad's like, "You're going to the Pentagon for a meeting?" And I was like, "Yeah, this is great." But, I remember I was walking next to the commander of the army reserves, Lieutenant General Stultz, and Major General Carpenter. And on one side was Stultz, and on the other side was Carpenter, and we had a very independent dialogue. And he said, "Hey, you got trucks, and I've got trucks. We should do something with this." And that really resonated with me like, "God, there's a million other industries that we could look at where the occupations match up at some level." And quite frankly, at that point, military training was military and civilian with civilian, so there was a whole lot of onion peeling that had to happen in the process of.


Traci Shanklin  11:45  

Just to back up for our listeners who may not know that most Building Trades have journeymen and apprenticeship training programs. That's what you're talking about when you're talking about marrying the training to placement for former veterans.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  12:02  

In the space of a training and apprenticeship programs -- yes, but not every union in the country has a training and apprenticeship program. The Building Trades very specifically for all the right reasons in God's earth have these great training and apprenticeship programs that lead into either a journeyman position or a long-term pathway. Under the umbrella of that apprenticeship programs comes lots of credentials, certifications that are necessary within those industry standards, which is the reason for the apprenticeship programs, quite frankly. There's a lot of regulations that fall under construction and other things. And the union's historically, as 150 years back, their goal was to create a safe work environment. And that is certainly what those apprenticeship programs have been built upon and have succeeded dynamically with. So yes, that is the Building Trades and their training and apprenticeship programs is one space. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  12:57  

With the Teamsters, it's the truck driving license. It's a six-week program. That's it. But there was some obstacles even with that. I mean, you've got liability on the job. Were insurance companies willing to insure these folks? There was some risks for the employers for the contracted employers. There was some who set the bar high. If you come in and you set the bar high, the employer and the union will succeed. They will have a healthy, wealthy environment for their workers. But there had to been some intake to from the employers in the union. And, quite frankly, the successful programs that are out there, and the projections that we're seeing that we have talked about when we initially talked are just phenomenal. I mean, it's just unbelievable.


Traci Shanklin  13:40  

And I think it's an example of there is often a misconception that labor, the union, and management, are at odds. In most cases, that is not the truth. They are partners through this and programs like this; they both have to get on board. And I think that's such an important piece for people to understand. I said at the top of this podcast that I want to tell the stories about what the unions are doing that are positive. And they do it to your point very much under the radar. It's also the employers that are behind these programs. That nothing is happening in a vacuum.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  14:20  

Yeah, I think that if you show somebody common thread, there's a good chance that if you have resources, the common thread will bring the teams together, right. I think that's really important. And I've seen that over the years on so many levels, bringing military into the union space to meet with the employer. Everybody feels good when they leave the room, but they also are very realistic about what each person can participate and bring to the table. And I think that's relevant. When you see the outcomes of some of those efforts, and still very much under the radar by some of the unions, I will say that. I think it's a really telling story. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  14:57  

I've been working on this economic impact report from some of the unions that are doing programs. And I just got the numbers from VIP, the Veterans in Piping, yesterday. It's mind-boggling on what these numbers are over the years, and how much of a commitment came from the union and the employers. Every Congressman and every elected official will see these reports, and they'll see these numbers. And it's really life-changing, that's for sure. But, it actually rolls right back into the economy. I love good equations, right. And I love good data. But the equation of, you know, the unions growing their union; the military successfully transitioning people out. They're going home to jobs. The service member is going home with a paycheck already in hand like they're not looking for a job, they're going home to the job, which is really different. It defines geographics for them. It defines family matters, you know what I mean? Where are we going to live? Can we afford a home? Yes, because you already have a job. You already have a career pathway, so it's kind of the win-win-win-win for everybody. I will say not even today. Do I think that there's enough unions that understand how this can grow their union. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  16:03  

But I will say, I was at a meeting in Maryland yesterday at a military to maritime by the Seafarers Union. And we had the new Secretary of Department of Labor, that's there, and a few others. Really, I think the problem that I always have is every two years either a leader from the military or a new politician is coming in, so it's kind of like Groundhog's Day. The only difference is the stories get better and better as the years go on, so I never mind going back in and introducing and telling people about this. But, one of the comments that was made yesterday is like, "Why aren't we doing this everywhere? Why isn't every union and company doing this?" And I still don't think enough of the unions know, if they knew what they could invest, what the outcomes would be, it would really fill a big gap for their industries, as well as for their unions.


Traci Shanklin  16:49  

Do you have any of that data? Because my next question is really what is the more significant impact these programs have on the economy? So, you just lead right into that with filling industry gaps and job creation. Can you talk about that more specifically?


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  17:08  

I'll tell you where that gets a little bit tricky, right, is that not everybody wants to divulge their successes and their failures. But, I know that most that got into this space early on, like the Teamsters, and VIP, and the utility workers, I was part of some of those teams. And part of what we went into with this saying that you've got to be transparent with everything. This isn't going to be where you're gonna go in and sign an MOU and say, "I'm going to hire 60,000 people because that was happening a lot, too. But, you had no business plan to do it and you weren't willing to share the data and moving forward. And that's everything from the cost of the training, to developing curriculum if it was something in that space, instructors' costs, all of those investments needed to be populated into overall and those organizations needed to be able to share it. So, we did that early on. And I think that was one of the greatest things we ever did. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  18:00  

And like I said, my first meeting at the Pentagon, the first time I went down to a military installation, it was life-changing for me. I was like, "Gosh, I can't believe I'm here. Like, I can't believe they let me on the military installation." Because at the time, you know, those were sacred grounds. They still are. Don't get me wrong, but I really never saw the civilian space recognized as much as it is today. It's not unusual for industry to be doing a meeting on a military installation with regard to jobs. It was very unusual back in the day. The job projections and some of that that's come out of this is really what I've been tracking and the good examples I can give you, and I'm going to pull up the VIP numbers right now because I just got them. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  18:44  

The first example I'll give you is - I had talked to you a little bit about Veterans in Piping, but the Teamsters is one that's easily recognized by anybody in the country. Teamsters are truck drivers, your UPS drivers, your Amazon drivers in some spaces, any kind of fuel tank that you see; your bread and bakery driver is under the umbrella of the Teamsters. They have 33 different divisions.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  19:06  

So, the partnership that we did with the Teamsters started in probably 2010. As I talked about early on with one of our training centers in Washington states. I guess the good example is the program that we have now the Teamsters Military Assistance Program in partnership with ABF Freight, one of the biggest freight companies, you'll see their trucks all over the highways. That's a six-week training to the placement program. So, service member is still getting paid while they're going through the training program. It's a SkillBridge program, a Department of Defense program. The company itself is not paying the service member while they're being trained. It's a big burden of savings for the company. And then when they separate from the military, they've already picked the location of where they want to go to work. So, they're coming home with salaries that that are inclusive to. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  19:54  

And I'll give you some numbers that we drew up from 2016, which is when we started the program, to 2021, total in benefits and pay. So, service member will walk out the door, leaving the military, we have to remember that service members are getting paid, but the rate in which they're getting paid, we always want to make sure it's more than what they're making in the military. So, a lot of these folks that go through the programs are enlisted service member, service members, that are in the service for two years, up to six years, some more than that. But, that's really the audience that we were targeting those enlisted service members. It was a little bit more difficult for them to find jobs and really to engage in career pathways. They weren't prepared when they were leaving. We weren't preparing them -- we as a country. And those are lessons learned too. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  20:43  

But, a service member that leaves the military that goes home and is making about $85,000 a year plus benefits from 2016 to 2020. The total benefits paid out by the company was $30 million 678 754 90 cents -- $30 million. The total gross pay, that's benefits I'm sorry. Total gross pay was 62 million 224, and some change. And that was for 565 graduates. Now, if you think about those two numbers, there are several layers and equations you can put those two numbers in, right. But, the more important number is the cost for the training per students came out to be for 565 students -- $772,000. Now that's a really simple equation, right? You marry up the cost, the investment of what you put into those service members, and how much is rolling back into the economy. And that rolling back into the economy for the 565 students is that 62 million number. The investment to what was gone into the program initially, and what the outcomes and, you know, that are going back into the economy as the numbers that I was really focused on. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  22:02  

However, many of my colleagues now showcasing the TMAP case. The TMAP ABF has become a case study for the Department of Defense, so I thought it was really important for us to start putting the numbers out there. So, we showcase the TMAP, and ABF as a case study with the Department of Defense and a platform in which we had many leaders, and the numbers just became like a bigger conversation. Like even any congressional person that has constituents that are veterans or military families, that number is really important. That's what you're rolling back into your own community, right? Anybody on the Armed Services Committee. We haven't showcased these numbers. This is really the first place I'm showcasing these numbers, quite frankly, beyond some internal meetings that we've had. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  23:49  

Utility workers is another case study that we're working on, and utility workers started a veterans’ program. It wasn't designed to be returning servicemembers. It was veterans, and it was the needs and desire to fulfill a contract between the union, the local union, and People's Gas, which was the gas utility company in Chicago. They had a 30-year infrastructure project that they knew that they were going to have to bring in new hires for. This is a Chicago story that the Teamsters office that I was working out of in Chicago, the utility workers office was downstairs. And two gentlemen that were both great union leaders, Mick Yauger and Rick Passarelli, were both also veterans. Rich Passarelli saw what Mick and I did with the Teamsters, and he said, "I could probably use this with my new contract. I probably could put some veterans to work." 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  24:40  

And that program independently since 2012 has placed over 700 veterans, and the company made the commitment at the time to only hire veterans as new hires. That program has since advanced to Michigan, now Southern California, New York with three of their companies. I think people are starting to get that the numbers mean something. It means a lot to our economy, quite frankly. And I'll be really happy to see the University of Chicago is actually going to formally turn this into a study, and a case study that we can share with others. Like I said, I'm not an economist in any way, shape, or form. I want to make sure that we're utilizing the numbers in the right spaces. That they certainly do showcase a story for so many other people besides just us. I can showcase the numbers. Liz Belcaster can go out and say, these are the numbers. But, the University of Chicago will be much more impacting if it comes from that space. So, we're sharing these numbers with a few people that are going to probably publicize what this will look like in the near future.


Traci Shanklin  24:44  

I don't want to in any way by asking that question discount the more important aspect of these programs is really putting veterans to work and giving them that job continuity, if you will, and something to come home to for themselves and for their family. So, I think that's the most important piece. But, I think that it really does warrant a piece of the conversation because they are such impactful numbers and such an important piece.


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  25:12  

The numbers are more reflective of the success that we've had for those service members. And I really want to make sure that your audience's understanding, that's really where it all begins is finding a solution for service members that aren't going to go home and commit suicide; that aren't going to go home and have issues with addiction. The job is always the answer to that and the industries that we represent. And those unions that are fulfilling this, those numbers are reflective of that commitment to those service members. There is no question in my mind on that. And I completely agree with that. 


Traci Shanklin  25:45  

Yeah, I could not agree more. You've done a lot of work retraining veterans in conjunction with the Department of Defense. You mentioned the TMAP. That's the Teamsters Military Assistant Program. You mentioned the VIP program, and then this utility company program. What are some of the other ones in which you've partnered with the Department of Defense?


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  26:05  

So overall, the Department of Defense is a fairly new program, I would call a small child in the eyes of government programs called the SkillBridge program. Utility workers program -- and there is a difference that I want to clarify. The utility workers program came in 2011 when the economy had collapsed, and we were just trying to find jobs for veterans. That was a very specific program partnered with City Colleges in Chicago. We filled the seats at City Colleges for almost 12 years, right, cohort by cohort for six months at a time, semester driven. This was really specific for veterans, and the veterans were the only ones in those classes. There was no civilian population of folks that were combined in those classes. That was just veteran cohorts. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  26:50  

The training to placement side of it is the Skillbridge program that I talked about. That program, although the Teamsters and VIP started doing training to placements in the early 2009, 2010, it was under the umbrella of the Army's career skill program, which is different than Skillbridge, but now they're one in the same. So, some of the good work that the Teamsters and VIP and others have done on military installations with the army then turned into an overall policy by the Department of Defense called the SkillBridge program. Skillbridge is a policy that was driven and authorized by the Department of Defense, to the services, to all the services. That a service member can be allowed to leave the service 180 days prior to a separation to go into an approved training program. The training program has to be approved by the Department of Defense, and then they have to be released by their commander, so they have to be approved by their commanders. That service member is still being paid. They're still under the umbrella. They're still under the dime of the United States government. But they can be released to go through a training and placement program. 


Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster  28:01  

VIP, Veterans in Piping, the Utility Workers Union of America, the UMAP program, which is the Utility Workers Military Assistance Program, the Teamsters Military Assistance Program, the Painters union now has a program. Sheet metal workers has a program and quite frankly, a lot of those Building Trades programs fell under the umbrella of the Helmets to Hardhats program. Many unions that fall under the umbrella of the Building Trades: your plumbers, your pipefitters, your welders, all of those folks that fall under construction. So, that's quite a few of unions in its own space, right. I don't know the exact numbers, but it's the National Building Trades. Almost every single one of those trades has some level of programming. And if they don't have programming, they have a veterans’ preference where they can bring in veterans early. They can go through testing and get mentorship and that's so important, too. The mentorship piece from the unions is really critical.


Traci Shanklin  28:54  

You've been listening to The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds. And since I'm running a little low on time, I'm going to pause my conversation with Elizabeth Murray-Belcaster, the president of EMB Consultants. Liz develops training to placement programs for veterans into the private sector in conjunction with the Department of Defense and labor union partnerships. I hope you'll join me for the second episode, where Elizabeth and I continue our discussion about the personal and economic impact of these training to placement programs, how changing presidential administrations affects these programs and the importance of having good mentors. 


Traci Shanklin  29:33  

If you've enjoyed today's podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a five-star review on your favorite podcast platform. You can always find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and many other podcast platforms. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at our website at That's Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change. 


Traci Shanklin  30:14  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast. We'd love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions or suggestions, head over to and let us know. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.


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