By Amber Kennedy

U.S. military personnel answer the call of duty, moving around the country and the world in the name of service. But alongside them are often military spouses who experience interruptions to their careers and struggle to find steady employment. A new partnership between the Maritime Industrial Base Ecosystem (MIBE) and LIFT, a Detroit-based national manufacturing institute, seeks to connect those spouses in Hampton Roads with in-demand manufacturing job opportunities.

Operation Next, an advanced manufacturing certification program, will be available to active-duty service members and their spouses through a collaboration between MIBE, LIFT, the Hampton Roads Workforce Council and the Community College Workforce Cooperative.

The program's expansion into Hampton Roads was announced Tuesday at the Town Point Club in downtown Norfolk. The program included remarks by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.); First Lady of Virginia Pamela Northam; Kathleen Jabs, acting secretary of veterans and defense affairs; Morris Foster, vice president for research at Old Dominion University; Doug Smith, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Alliance; and Susan Jacobs, vice president for human resources and administration at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Operation Next Offers Training for Manufacturing Jobs

Operation Next is an innovative, self-paced, advanced manufacturing-focused training initiative. It blends hands-on and virtual learning, giving service members and their spouses the opportunity to earn a credential in many of the most in-demand advanced manufacturing jobs, including welding and computer numerical control (CNC) machining - at minimal or no cost to them. Credentialling opportunities in industrial technology maintenance and robotics are expected to be available in the near future.

Following in the footsteps of the Biden administration's "Joining Forces" initiative to support "the military and veteran communities through economic and entrepreneurship opportunities for military spouses," LIFT and Operation Next are putting an additional focus on military families.

"As an Army family we felt privileged to serve our country; however, living in multiple states and countries meant constant challenges in my career," Northam said. "We are so grateful to those who serve, and we must ensure our transitioning service members and spouses are connected to all available opportunities, such as Operation Next."

"This Operation Next initiative is critical to provide military families with training for in-demand jobs and help them recover from the impacts of COVID-19," Kaine said. "I'm very glad to see that this program is both supporting the military families who support us and helping our economy thrive. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I'll keep working to improve job opportunities for our service members and their spouses."

The Hampton Roads region, home to more than 80,000 active-duty service members, is the first new region to offer Operation Next to enlisted members since the program completed a successful initial pilot at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 2019. The announcement is part of Operation Next's ongoing and planned expansion to nine new military installations. The initiative is also being made available to National Guard and Reserve members and spouses in Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin, all with funding provided by the Department of Defense Manufacturing Engineering Education Program.

Active-Duty Spouses' Employment Affected by COVID

Making the program available to active-duty spouses is critical. According to the Department of Defense's 2019 Active-Duty Spouse Survey, 22% of military spouses are unemployed. That number worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when 34% of military spouses reported that they had lost their jobs between April and December 2020.

MIBE will recruit service members and their spouses to enroll in the Operation Next program and will guide students through their educational experience to the attainment of nationally portable and industry-recognized credentials from either the National Institute of Metalworking Skills, American Welding Society or the Smart Automation Certification Alliance. MIBE, a consortium housed within ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, mobilizes regional partnerships needed to help sustain and modernize the maritime industries in Hampton Roads.

"Old Dominion University is proud to work with the Commonwealth Department of Military Affairs and LIFT through Operation Next to connect service members and their spouses with educational opportunities and, at the same time, work with our regional industry partners to develop a skilled workforce," Foster said.

"Our military veteran employees are disciplined, dedicated, and demonstrate a strong work ethic. For these reasons, separating service members are always a top choice for our recruiters," Jacobs said. "We look forward to a productive partnership with Operation NEXT that will help Newport News Shipbuilding and our exiting military service members bridge the gap from serving our country on the front lines to supporting our nation's defense from the waterfront."

"We have long known that our military members have the leadership, commitment and skills to have successful careers in advanced manufacturing, and their spouses deserve such opportunities as well," said Nigel Francis, chief executive officer and executive director, LIFT. "As a Department of Defense national manufacturing innovation institute, we drive American manufacturing into the future through technology and talent development. The exceptional talent here in Hampton Roads will help us further that mission and goal for this country."

In addition to Operation Next's expansion, the program is currently being piloted in industry to support small- and medium-sized manufacturers in Detroit and Pittsburgh, helping them recover from the pandemic. That expansion is funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and was awarded to LIFT by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Interested service members and their families can enroll at

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