Though Rashad Merchant-Bey grew up in what was “definitely a union household” in Harlem, he had to find his own path into the trades.
It wasn’t until after he enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent a few years exploring the world that he started thinking about a future in the unions. That’s when he found Helmets to Hardhats, a program designed to help veterans transition from military service into careers in the building trades through direct-entry apprenticeship. Merchant-Bey said he found it remarkably smooth to move from the military into a carpenters union apprenticeship.
“With helmets to hardhats you make a 10-minute phone call you’re in, basically,” he said.
Though Merchant Bey’s father had been in the carpenter’s union, he said that when he was in high school the prospect of joining himself just wasn’t on his mind. He said he wanted to go out and see the world — to get out of New York — and make friends that he would nt have otherwise met.
Merchant-Bey’s older brother joined the Marine Corps two years before he graduated and gave him the idea that he could use it to explore other countries. At 18, he enlisted and became an artillery cannoneer in 2017. He trained at a base in North Carolina, but by the time he deployed and found himself on a ship in the Middle East, Covid had taken hold, and he spent several months out of a 10-month tour “floating around” from port to port.
After his wife gave birth to a son during his service, Merchant-Bey eventually decided he needed to be back in New York, and his work in the military made him realize that he wanted a “task-oriented,” physical job.
“I feel like the military definitely helped me with that because everything we do, we plan ahead,” he said.
And of course the physically demanding nature of military service translates well to the construction site.
“I had kind of like a little step forward, carrying sheetrock and a bundle of studs wasn’t too hard for me,” he added
When he got back stateside after his service had ended, the apprenticeship programs had begun to normalize after some Covid-related suspensions. He had a quick phone call with Helmets to Hardhats, told them he wanted to join the carpenters, and he got a date for orientation. Just like that he was in.
“I’ve had a harder time returning some clothes from H&M,” he joked.
Throughout his apprenticeship, Merchant-Bey said that he’s already begun to enjoy the financial security of his work with the Local 157 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
“A sense of security definitely puts a relief on the entire household in my eyes,” he said