Helfman was educated in the public schools, attending elementary schools in Omaha, Nebraska and secondary schools in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He earned a BS degree in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MS degree in Collective Bargaining and Labor Economics from Cornell University.
Helfman started his professional career at the Pennsylvania State Education Association in 1980. Beginning in the research department, he specialized in school finance, compensation and bargaining support. Immediately prior to leaving PSEA twenty-five years later, he was assistant executive director for program services, responsible for the educational services/professional development, research, and communications divisions. He was recently elected to a second term as president of the National Council of State Education Associations.
A certificated employee benefit specialist, Helfman has taught college-level courses in pension theory and finance as well as group health plan administration.
Helfman and his family reside in the Broadneck area of Anne Arundel County. His wife Karen is a licensed clinical social worker. They have two sons, a standard poodle, and a home filled with music and laughter.