Blackfox Trains Veterans for Good Manufacturing Jobs

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Blackfox Training Institute has been training manufacturing technologists for over 20 years. Based in Longmont, Colorado, Blackfox is now focused on helping veterans of our armed services transition into good jobs in the manufacturing sector. During IPC APEX EXPO 2020, Editor Nolan Johnson spoke with Blackfox CEO Al Dill about the company's veteran training programs, and how this effort is helping companies fill jobs that might otherwise go unfilled. 

Nolan Johnson: Al, let's start with what Blackfox does in general.

Al Dill: Blackfox is an IPC-approved training center. We've been an approved training center since 1996. We are the only international IPC training center. Our headquarters is in Colorado, in Longmont, we have a training center in Tempe, Arizona. We have two in Mexico, one in Malaysia and one in Singapore.

Johnson: A global presence.

Dill: A global presence. We've grown the business to include the same kind of coverage at every training center. We offer all the standards at all the training centers, so that's our core business since 1996.

Johnson: Now, in this industry, and IPC talks about this regularly, we have a skills shortage in the manufacturing sector that we are working on filling. There are both age and skills gaps, and that is growing in general. It's become a particularly important need. IPC is really working on putting out skills training. You're in the middle of that.

Dill: We are, we are. I personally always had an interest in being able to help those who are in need of some skill enhancement in order to advance their careers. We worked in the past with the State of Colorado and the Federal Government, preparing folks that were underemployed or unemployed and preparing them for jobs. We've done that for a lot of years. For the past five years, we elected to work more with our military veterans. I have a personal interest in helping our veterans, and this adds another opportunity for that.

We engaged with the State of Colorado and some of our Federal Government to qualify for training funds to pay the tuition of our veterans to prepare them for civilian careers and then connect them with employers, which turned out to be our customer base as well, and offer them an opportunity to hire our graduates. For the past five years, we've helped train over 200 folks, all military veterans. These folks are out of the service, underemployed or unemployed, 98% graduation rate. We placed them all, with companies such as Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace and a lot of midsize companies. In the last report I saw, they were reporting at least a 92% retention rate of these individuals.

Johnson: Do you know what the standard is?

Dill: I've heard that the standard, at least with most state government programs, is more like 30% (laughs). Everyone is very impressed with those statistics, and a lot of those folks are still employed with the same company. There's some movement like there is with today's life, but most of them are still employed.

Johnson: This is a great synergy really, to use that word; it's a great synergy where a number of things come together. We need skilled workers. Military veterans certainly are skilled.

Dill: They are.

Johnson: How do you help them adapt the skills and the discipline they learned in the military into a civilian role? You're making them very employable, going into technology where military expertise has a lot of benefits and great retention rates for the employers. Everybody's winning.

Dill: Right, exactly. The primary reason why the retention rate has been so good, not just because of the military discipline that they've learned, but we spend a lot of time on the front end to ensure that this industry is a good fit for the individual. We'll assess their interests. We'll expose them to the environment. We'll take them on tours of manufacturing floors, show them videos, introduce them to the IPC standards, tell them what the environment is like, what's expected of them, how they dress, how they behave, all those kinds of things. That's the first thing we'll do.

Then, those who are still interested and qualified will go into more of a job readiness program where they're trained to do basic skills within a manufacturing floor, understanding documentation and how product flows, how do I handle materials, what's ESD and all those basics. Then, the next level is to give them more of the skill-based training. How do I solder? How do I comply with class three-level soldering standards?

Then, on top of that, we will certify them in a series of the IPC certifications, the J standard, the 610, the 620, and so on, so they have the credentials to move on to almost any electronics manufacturer within the state. We've just recently sponsored a new nonprofit called Evolution Foundation.

Johnson: OK. The Evolution Foundation…you were just leading up to that before we started this interview. Tell me about it.

Dill: It's an exciting venture. We created Evolution Foundation in order to create a funding channel, a nonprofit funding channel for corporations, individuals, and other organizations to donate and sponsor the tuition for veterans. Then, Evolution, in turn, selects the training facility that best matches their interest and their skillset and actually funds, through the training center, their tuition. Then, Blackfox, as a training center and a recipient of some of the veterans that are funded, will connect them, once they graduate, with the employers. The employers are typically within our database already.

It's a natural flow, and there's no fee to the employer. We don't charge anything to the employer. Our interest is to do the right thing and give our military veterans an opportunity for a career path. That's our goal. Blackfox is not after making a lot of money on this thing. We'd be happy if we break even, but it's the right thing to do for the individuals, for our industry and for the shortage you pointed out, Nolan. That's why we do it.

Today, we're looking for employers who are interested. We want to develop a whole list of partnering employers. We're looking for sponsors; we're looking for contributors to the cause. We just recently have been accepted by programs at military bases, such as Fort Carson in Colorado, to be a part of their program and interface with the transitioning veterans as they move through their final six months of military duty. Hopefully, we'll have them prepared by the time that they depart the military. They're paid during this whole timeframe. When they leave, they'll have a place to work.

Johnson: I really hear a call to action in this conversation for manufacturing companies that are hiring to get involved in some fashion.

Dill: Exactly.

Johnson: What better way than to get somebody who is not only trained and up to date, and the statistics show that they’ll stay put?

Dill: Absolutely.

Johnson: You get your money's worth out of that effort.

Dill: Absolutely. That's our call to action. That's one point. We need employers to step up and let Evolution know, on our website, if they're interested. I'd be glad to reach out to them personally and talk to them about it. We need sponsors, additional sponsors, so anyone that's interested—corporate-wide or individuals—let us know. It's a great program that works. It's proven, and we're excited to go forward with it.

Johnson: I'm excited to hear about it. I think you're doing a great job filling a really important niche on so many levels.

Dill: Thank you. Yes, we're excited about it.

Johnson: Thanks for stopping by and sharing this with us.

To watch this video interview from IPC APEX EXPO 2020, click here


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