Helping Our Heroes:

Operation Next Gives Servicemen and Servicewomen—and their Families—Opportunities for Employment


America's debt to its veterans and their families is immeasurable. A new program at Highlands College works to help connect families who have sacrificed so much with careers in the welding industry and CNC machining industry.

Operation Next is a program that 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 2.5% in February 2023, 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.

Staff Sergeant Brandon Bauer, 29, of Jefferson City, knows the challenges of finding a job as a veteran. He is a member of the Montana Army National Guard's 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion. He works full-time as a welder at Fort Harrison. It was a struggle to get where he is today. Bauer has been working with metal for nearly 15 years, but a lack of certification was holding him back from taking things to the next level.

"I ran my first weld at 15 years old and was instantly hooked," Bauer wrote in an email to his instructor. "I spent hours obsessing over the whole process and the idea that I could make anything I wanted out of metal by simply applying thought and an electrical circuit to melt my ideas together. I spent all four years of high school trying to take in and learn as much about welding as possible. During my junior and senior years, I became a Welding Aide and was tasked with helping younger students learn the basics of all the welding processes, which further solidified the fact that I wanted to go to school for welding and see where that would take me." 

Bauer didn't come from a family of vast means, so when he graduated, he had no way of funding further education. He decided to join the Montana Army National Guard.

"I had every intention of going to school after I enlisted, but it didn't work out for whatever reason—my life always had a different plan. I have acquired 14 years of welding experience since I ran my first weld, but the lack of welding certificates has limited my options and held me back from where I should be," Bauer said.

In December 2021, leaders at Fort Harrison let Bauer show them his skills, instead of disqualifying him for not having certifications. They were impressed and he landed a good-paying job. However, Bauer still would need welding certifications to move forward into his career. That's when he got connected with Operation Next.

"Operation Next will help me achieve the certifications I need to justify the experience I have acquired over the years to apply to be an Allied Trades Warrant Officer," Bauer said. "I then would be considered a subject matter expert in anything shop/welding related. This would boost my career in the military and allow me to provide for my newborn and 2-year-old son and help me give them the life I never had."

Operation Next came to fruition because of a bipartisan collaboration, according to Ben Kohler, who helped get Operation Next off the ground. Kohler is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Universal Technical Resource Services, Inc. (a majority-owned Universal Technical Resource Services company) in Butte, which has contracts with the U.S. government. Through Kohler's government relations work, he was contacted by U.S. Senator Jon Tester's office, which connected him with information about available funding for veterans' programs.

"The men and women who risk their lives to defend our country deserve to be treated with dignity after their time in uniform, and the same goes for their spouses and family members," U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Chairman of the Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee, said. "This training will directly connect our transitioning servicemembers and their loved ones with the education and tools they need at no cost—setting them up for success as they pursue new careers here at home."

Kohler's employers jumped on the idea, and NAMFI (New Frontier Advanced Manufacturing Institute) was born as a nonprofit. Their goal is to be an advanced manufacturing institute organization focused on a mission of supporting and elevating veterans and transitioning servicemen and servicewomen through training and certifications in advanced manufacturing.

Less than a year later, a network of partnerships, including Governor Greg Gianforte's Accelerate Montana initiative, worked together to welcome a class of 20 welding and machining students who all attend with tuition covered by the nonprofit.

"Our rapid training course focuses on veteran men and women and adult children ages 18–25," Kohler noted.

The courses in welding and CNC machining have an online coursework portion and in-person training at Highlands College, done on the weekends to accommodate weekday work schedules.

"This program is designed to help students have full-time jobs," Kohler said. "They can meet existing responsibilities but work toward nationally recognized certifications."

Karen VanDaveer, Dean of Highlands College, noted that the program is a great addition to campus.

"This is such a natural fit for Highlands College, with our incredible faculty and facilities," VanDaveer said. "When NFAMI came to us with the concept of supporting our military personnel to obtain these certifications, we jumped at the opportunity. To bring this to fruition in less than a year is a true testament to NFAMI and my team."

Kohler says companies or community members can make tax-deductible donations to NAMFI if they want to help fund the program's expansion.

"We have a large waiting list and our goal for August is to have 35 to 40 students," Kohler said.

Bauer has a message for prospective students: "I would like veterans and veterans' family members to know that this program is an amazing opportunity to learn a new trade or even to compound experience a person already has," Bauer said. "The online coursework is easy to understand and follow, and the instructors are extremely knowledgeable and would be able to help anyone at any skill level. Everyone in this program is very hospitable and welcoming, making Operation Next an amazing opportunity."