63 students receive certification through Operation Next in first three semesters at Highlands College

Operation Next student welds

A dedicated team at Highlands College has experienced great success since January 2023, when it began educating veterans and their families through a program called Operation Next.

Operation Next provides free welding or CNC certification and training to veterans or immediate family members. It's a program that fills a gap for military families. While the veteran unemployment rate was 2.9% in May 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Defense surveys note that rates of unemployment for spouses of military members has been higher than 20% for more than a decade.

Approximately 63 students have earned certificates so far. Classes meet on the weekends to practice on CNC machines and with welders, after having completed online coursework. At the end of the class students are able to take national certifying examinations. Classes are free and sponsored by the National Frontier Advanced Manufacturing Institute (NAMFI), a nonprofit founded by Universal Technical Resource Services, Inc. (a majority-owned Universal Technical Resource Services company). Enrollment is usually capped at approximately 30 students.

“For our veterans and military members in, or approaching their exiting phase, having the ability to start a career or enter a trade immediately has shown to be extremely beneficial in easing the transition to ‘civilian life,’” said instructor Nathan Whetsel. “It is also way to give back to those who gave for this country. Furthermore, we are giving more than an experience, we are giving skills and knowledge which can be lifelong. Also, active duty members whose military job may involve machining, have taken the course to better their skills and knowledge base.”

Whetsel says the opportunities offered through Operation Next are rare.

“If this course was offered in the private sector, it would be extremely expensive,” Whetsel said. “But thanks to Operation Next, and all the amazing people who help and help with Operation Next, our students get to make their own parts on a million dollars with of equipment at little to no cost to them. Without being employed as a machinist, enrolling in a school that teachers machining, or buying your own machine, it is nearly impossible to find anywhere who would let a walk-in off the street run a CNC machine.”

Mark Samson coordinates the program and says he’s seen great results.

“People are getting jobs and promotions due to Operation Next, including better paying positions and better opportunities,” Samson said. “It really opens up doors for them.”

The majority of participants are from Butte, Helena, Bozeman, Anaconda, or Deer Lodge, but some have come from as far away as Fort Peck, Billings, Flathead Valley, and Missoula. The program includes women and men from diverse backgrounds, including high school students. It’s not uncommon for participants to take one of the classes and register for the other, as space allows.

“It’s a great program,” Samson said. “We’re getting better and better every year.”

Adam Karlin is a 44-year-old from Clancy, who serves in the Montana Army National Guard. He and his 17-year-old son Mason finished the CNC machining class in Spring 2024.

“I found out about the program sort of by accident,” Adam Karlin said. “I was researching opportunities for Montana National Guard Service Members. When I reached out to NAMFI Executive Director Ben Kohler, and he told me all about the program.  At the time I was looking toward retirement and had just bought a CNC machine for woodworking. Thinking it would be good to learn the ins and outs of CNC, I signed up for the Operation NEXT program.”

Mason Karlin was able to get hired full-time in a CNC shop in Helena prior to completing the program. His dad has nothing but good things to say about the program.

“The experience was great,” Adam Karlin said. “Mark and Ben were great to work with.  From communication to making sure everyone was successful, they did a great job. They both work hard to ensure that there are little to no out-of-pocket expenses for the students. It's a great program. I can't thank Mark and Ben enough for getting this program started in Montana.  Nathan and Connor were great instructors who have a good vision for where the CNC program will go.”

Operation Next is seeking participants for Fall 2024. For more information about Operation Next, click here. For more information, contact Program Manager Mark Samson at msamson@mtech.edu or 406-496-3737 or Executive Director of NAMFI Ben Kohler at 406-494-8113.