Marine Lance Cpl. Drew Bolzman wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do when he got out of the military. He knew one thing for certain, though: he didn’t want to jump into college classes.
That’s when an opportunity presented itself through DOD SkillBridge. A program called Operation Next prepares fresh-from-the-military men and women for careers in America’s most in-demand manufacturing jobs.
“Operation Next is an amazing program; I really don’t have one thing bad to say about it,” Bolzman said. “It just helps you get your foot in the door with finding a decent job when you get out.”
Operation Next recently expanded to troops serving at Fort Knox and those who are in the Kentucky National Guard or reserves ― spouses included.
Operation Next is run by Lightweight Innovation for Tomorrow (LIFT), a nonprofit public-private partnership between the DOD, industries and schools around the nation. The idea is for transitioning service members to fill the shortage of skilled tradesmen.
“Our service members are a great fit for advanced manufacturing jobs, because they oftentimes learned some of these skills while in the military, so Operation Next gives them credit for what they already know,” said Joe Steele, LIFT’s senior director of communications and legislative affairs. “We also know that they are disciplined, show up on time and want to see a job well done, which are all things employers are looking for.”
For no cost, program enrollees can study and become certified or credentialed in fields like welding, industrial technologies maintenance, computerized numerical control and robotics maintenance. Operation Next accepts separating military members, National Guardsmen and reservists and their spouses. Classes are available online and in-person through training centers in several states (Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin).
Interested in skilled trades from high school onward, Bolzman served as a combat engineer in the Marines. He then enrolled in an Operation Next-backed welding program in March and graduated on Aug. 18. He said he fully expects to find a quality welding job “pretty easily,” as Operation Next “really sets you up for success.”
“I’ve told all my friends about what SkillBridge and Operation Next provides,” Bolzman said. “Mostly just how great it is and how much I have learned.”
The DOD Manufacturing Engineering Education Program provides funding for Operation Next. Its latest expansion features a second post in the Bluegrass State. A pilot version succeeded at Fort Campbell, Steele said, so growth to Fort Knox was “natural.”
“Every new location is exciting because it helps us support those service members by meeting them where they are,” he said. “We are a Detroit-based, public-private partnership, but we have reach across the county, and these partnerships allow us to expand that reach.”
It’s all part of an ever-growing national growth plan, Steele said. Over the next year, Operation Next hopes to enroll at least 1,500 former service members and their spouses. Once finished, the graduates should “be able to join the civilian workforce immediately.”
“Operation Next provides us the opportunity to give back to those men and women who have bravely served our nation,” Steele said. “By giving them the chance to begin their civilian career, or begin a new career in advanced manufacturing, we are helping to not only fill the advanced manufacturing skills gap, but provide our service members with an opportunity to move ahead in their career.”