By Jan Wondra
A program jointly developed by Blackbox Training and Lockheed Martin is the first program of its type to prepare veterans who have military electronics experience, as well as those who have little or no industry experience, with the skills training and certifications that enable them to enter and create a career path in this growing aerospace/defense industry.
The program, which began in 2013, is funded through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and has depended particularly on cooperation with Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson and El Paso counties’ workforce centers.
“The goal is to create and maintain a top-of-the-notch talent pipeline for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, for our
Electronics Manufacturing Facility,” said Brandon Toya, manager of the Lockheed Martin-Blackfox Partnership, and a veteran who has been with Lockheed Martin since 2008. “The aerospace industry is growing very rapidly here in Colorado and we reached out to Blackfox to customize a program with a good curriculum to develop the talent we need for our critical electronics assembly work.”
At the program’s inception, Lockheed says it found that the Denver manufacturing pool wasn’t big or deep, but noted that there were 500 people per month coming out of the military in Colorado needing to transition to civilian life. The firm made a decision to focus on training veterans in the electronics certification needed for its space programs. Some 65 percent of those entering the program are veterans.
“I’m very passionate about our program that provides transitioning veterans an opportunity for a career path as a civilian,” said Al Dill, CEO of Blackfox Training Institute. “We work in conjunction and collaboration with various state departments. Right now, we are primarily working with the Colorado State Department of Labor and Employment, Veteran Services Group and with manufacturers that want to hire qualified people. They come to Blackfox and we filter their interest with skill-based assessments and the like, and then we collaborate with potential employers … to train and certify to those unique requirements.”
Graduates of the four-week program come out with nine Blackfox skillset certifications, known in the industry as IPC certifications. While several are needed for work in the Lockheed Martin EMF, others are marketable across other manufacturing categories outside aerospace.
“We’d love to keep every graduate, if not at Lockheed Martin, then within the robust aerospace industry here in Colorado,” said Toya. “But the certifications are mobile for up to two years with the employee and these skill sets are very marketable across the country.”
Since 2013, 113 people have graduated from the four-week Blackfox program, which is funded through state and federal training grants. There is no cost to the veteran and there is no cost to the employer. If graduates don’t go to Lockheed, they go to other aerospace companies into communications or work on weather satellites. Two-thirds of graduates work at Lockheed Martin’s Waterton Canyon EMF, an 85 percent retention rate. Among them is Johnny Grant, who separated from the Army in 2002 and jumped at the training chance.
“I went to the workforce center in mid-2013 to see what options there were. I went past my allotted time with Uncle Sam to use it at college and the workforce counselors at the Department of Labor told me about the program,” said Grant. “It didn’t cost me anything as a veteran, as long as I fulfilled the program. Everything is provided by Blackfox and it was all paid for by the workforce center.”
Colorado Workforce Centers are aware that those attending such intensive programs are often between jobs and struggle with living expenses during the program.
“They even gave us King Soopers gas cards that we could use for groceries or fuel,” said Grant. “When we got short during the curriculum and we needed a little bit of help, we got it.”
EMF technician retention rates are improving at Lockheed Martin. Prior to the program’s inception, retention was about 50 percent, but since the program’s 2013 inception, overall retention rate jumped 30 percent to above 80 percent and continues to improve.
“Since May of 2015 until now we’ve hired 35 from this partnership and our retention rate rose to 92 percent,” said Toya. “It’s higher than average – the state customized their recruiting and our job is retaining them. We’ve begun a veteran mentorship at Lockheed Martin with this program to cut the one-year attrition rates. Our veteran mentors meet with the vets in the Blackfox program, explain what it’s like to work on the outside (of the military). He sees them before they’re hired and stays with that group of employees for a year.”
Program graduates are quick to explain the Blackfox Training benefits.
“I was given every tool I needed to succeed. If you’re willing to sacrifice a little to get to school, you can do it,” said Grant. “You get a sense of pride and fulfillment. I could take these certifications and go to Ford or Sony, but it wouldn’t give me nearly the satisfaction of being here contributing to the aerospace mission.”
The program manager says he has gained too.
“Being the facilitator of this program is extremely rewarding, to give back to our veteran community,” said Toya. “To further their education with our tuition supports a strong and capable workforce and helps veterans integrate back into the civilian workforce.”