New campus to help vets, manufacturers

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A Colorado Springs campus that trains veterans in manufacturing could soon be in the works, if Blackfox Training Institute sees enough employer interest in its program.

The Advanced Manufacturing Program for Military Veterans teaches courses geared toward the requirements of aerospace and defense manufacturing, Blackfox president and CEO Allen Dill said, and aims to boost the available local workforce by training and certifying veterans transitioning out of the military.

Dill said the “huge gap” in advanced manufacturing skills is a national problem.

“It’s a very limited available workforce that has the skills required for mostly aerospace and defense-type electronic manufacturing,” he said.

Veterans are becoming part of the solution. In Colorado, hundreds transition out of the military every month with the majority seeking civilian careers, Dill said, and they are typically “ready for this type of career position: one that requires dedication and a commitment for a longer-term career path.”

Blackfox has graduated more than 200 veterans since establishing the program in 2013 in Longmont, where the institute has been headquartered for 21 years.

The aim now is to position another campus on or near one of the Springs’ military bases, with teaching to begin late this year.

Blackfox will host an event from 8-10 a.m. June 6 at Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence in Colorado Springs, to provide manufacturing employers with information about the program as well as to gauge employer interest and learn about employer needs.

Dill said the five-week, 200-hour accredited program operates at no cost to the employer or the veteran. Funding comes from federal training grants, and Blackfox is eligible for the G.I. Bill.

Until now, the distance to Longmont’s campus has been a major deterrent for Springs veterans.

“Expecting people from Colorado Springs to commute every day for five weeks is a lot to ask,” Dill said.

He emphasized the program is demand driven; Blackfox only starts teaching when there is “at least a verbal commitment from employers to consider hiring our graduates.”

“The primary intent for our June 6 meeting is to listen to the employers’ interest and hopefully gather enough support to expedite the move in the area,” he said.

In developing the curriculum, Blackfox worked with Colorado employers to understand skill requirements for their businesses. Dill said Lockheed Martin, Cobham, Linear Manufacturing, QCMI, GPS Source Inc., Spectrum Advanced Manufacturing Technologies and Harris Corporation have expressed interest in a Colorado Springs campus.

Jay Palace, president of Linear Manufacturing, said finding workers with manufacturing and electronic assembly skills in Colorado Springs is a challenge, and the company usually has to provide training.

A program that collaborates with manufacturers and teaches veterans the skills the industry needs could change things, Palace said.

“It would certainly put more people in the workforce that know the [skills]. I deal with engineers that don’t even know how to do any type of assembly,” he said. “They can do design, they can do software, but they don’t know how to do the hard manufacturing — actually putting the part on the board and knowing what it’s supposed to look like.”

Palace said another challenge is that manufacturers are competing with offshore companies in a tight market, so workers entering the industry “have to learn a lot more skill sets than [the basics] in order to compete with the other people that want to make a $40,000- or $50,000-a-year salary.”

Software skills, manufacturability and IPC-A-610 electronic assembly standards are essential for workers, Palace said.

Dill said graduates are prepared for mid-level technical manufacturing jobs and have “huge opportunities” for advancement.

“It’s typical for our graduates to be hired … and before long there’s an opportunity to move up, especially with a lot of the prime manufacturers,” he said.

“[We have] retention rates that are almost unheard of for this type of program. We’ve had our employer partners … experiencing 90-plus percent retention rates beyond the first year.”

This is partly attributable to the program’s screening and interviewing processes, Dill said.

“All the work on the front end is really setting up the student for success,” Dill said.

Dill said everything taught in the program is Class 3 level — the industry’s most stringent quality standard — which is required by many manufacturers.

Blackfox worked with the Colorado Department of Labor and Pikes Peak Workforce Center on the program in Longmont, and will continue those partnerships in Colorado Springs.

Dill said representatives from Fort Carson, Peterson [Air Force Base], USO Colorado Springs, Mt. Carmel, and Sen. Cory Gardner’s office expressed interest in supporting the program.

The Colorado Springs campus will take a new approach, giving soldiers the chance to train, with permission, during their 180-day transition out of the military.

“That’s our goal — to make sure by the time they transition out, they have an opportunity to go directly to work,” Dill said. 

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