FORT BLISS, Texas — Clad in a navy blue industrial smock and bubbled safety glasses, 23-year-old Anthony Nall deftly assembles a circuit system based on intricate schematics. Meanwhile, a seasoned instructor with a furrowed brow paces the floor behind him, looking on, judging his every move.
Nall is in the fourth phase, or gate, of a seven-week renewable energy and communications tower technician course given by Airstreams Renewables, Inc., a renewable energy career training school with campuses throughout the United States.
Class is definitely in session for Nall and fellow students, also being evaluated on Gate 4: Intermediate Electrical Theory, but these students are far from a traditional college campus, and the pressure of test time is nothing new — they’re Soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Through Bliss Garrison Command’s Transition Assistance Program, Pfc. Nall and Soldiers like him are currently enrolled in career skills programs; hands-on, industry-led training courses held year round at that help connect Soldiers nearing their separation or retirement not only with post-military job training, but to also introduce them to educators and employers keen on hiring veterans, all while still getting to serve their country at near the end of their time in uniform.
In addition to Airstreams, Bliss is currently home to eight other CSPs, with two more — automotive skills and HVAC — expected to begin operations soon according to Doug Piltz, Bliss Transition Services manager.
“Most Soldiers make it out of the Army and think that nobody wants them out there,” Piltz said. “I tell them, ‘industry wants you, trust me.’ I get phone calls everyday from people saying ‘can we get onto your program to hire transitioning service members?’ It doesn't matter if you're a private, to a general officer. Everyone out there wants service members.”
Graduates of the Airstreams program receive an array of certifications for functional job areas like OSHA requirements; electrical safety; and fastening, torque and tension as wind turbine blades can weigh more than 10,000 pounds. They also receive emergency rescue and first aid training as graduates may find themselves and their teammates in hard-to-reach places on high-altitude towers as part of the job. There’s a scaled down tower in the yard at Bliss where Soldiers train and must certify as part of the 240-hour course.
Karen Martin, Airstreams’ regional admissions representative, who recruited Nall, agreed that the demand is real. According to 2014 Rand Corporation research, employers value the leadership, flexibility, dependability and loyalty veterans on average tend to add to the civilian workforce.
“It's very common that they end up with a job offer after their first two or three days in class,” she said. “By the end of week two or three, they have already made the commitment with employers that are located throughout the United States to start working after graduation.”
The walls of Airstreams’ buildings at Bliss are covered with snapshots of smiling graduates with their new employers from places around the world. Opened in 2005 as the company’s second military campus, Martin said almost 500 transitioning service members have graduated from Bliss, as well as family members in some cases. While priority goes to service members, Army family members are also eligible for CSP school seats that would otherwise be vacant.
“There's more opportunity than just going back through those doors and re-enlisting because there's nothing out there,” Martin said of the many CSP opportunities available to transitioning troops and family members through Army TAP. Martin, who is also a retired Army command sergeant major, credited TAP at Bliss for broadening her own post-military plans when she transitioned to civilian life in 2015.
“I had spent 25 years In the Army and I was ready to do nothing,” she said. “It just happens that I happened to walk through [the Transition Center at Bliss] that I was able to see a different process for my future.
“I didn't want to go home,” Martin said. “The opportunity presented itself to still take care of service members. You just don't have to be in the military to do that, and I didn't know these opportunities were available until I walked through those doors.”
Although graduation is still a few weeks away for Nall, he seemed confident in his decision to go with a CSP, and was glad to find the proactive support he found with the TAP office at Bliss and Airstream Renewables Inc.
“At first I didn't know what to do,” Nall said. “I was really nervous about getting out — I didn't have a plan. Coming here they said, no matter what you do, you have to put your first foot forward — start taking those steps and start looking around. Right now I can say comfortably that I already have a job, I have a secured start date and everything with all the knowledge they've given me.”
Far from a traditional classroom setting, Nall and Soldiers like him are getting the chance to prepare for post-military life before their final day in uniform. Nall said thanks to the efforts of Army TAP and companies like Airstreams Renewables that offer CSPs on post for troops and family members, transitioning from the military has been easier.
“It's good to see that they're putting 110 percent of their energy into us,” Nall said. “It makes us want to put that same energy back. It's been more than worth the time. They're here to make us successful and we want to be successful.”