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Full STEM Ahead
For military personnel, STEM-based education programs provide an opportunity to quickly transition into civilian careers.
By Len Vermillion 

While serving in Afghanistan in 2008, Cpt. Robert Stevens was thinking about changing careers. On his second deployment – he served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 – the 13-year National Guardsman already had a degree in graphic design from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. But having just found out his wife was expecting their first child, he was thinking about a more secure career choice.full-stem-ahead

Now an integrated degree candidate for a master’s degree in engineering management and a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering, Stevens explains why he looked to move into a career based on the STEM (science, engineering, technology, math) disciplines as he plays with his now 2½-year-old son in a break room in the John Jay Center on the campus of Robert Morris University (RMU) in Moon, Pa. “I felt like [with a graphic design degree] I’d be hired for a little while and then let go, or just be doing freelance. Anything in the media arts just never seems to be conducive to being in the military,” Steven says. “I feel there will be a lot more opportunities [in engineering].”

Dr. Arif Sirinterlikci, the interim head of the Department of Engineering at RMU, puts it more succinctly. “STEM fields are the fields for today and tomorrow,” he says, matter-of-factly. And he believes that transitioning military personnel are ideal for STEM-related positions in manufacturing, such as mechanical engineering, machining, programming, and other industrial-based jobs requiring technical expertise coupled with an aptitude for math and science. “A lot of veterans come here with the technical background already, so if they can handle the math and science, they do very well.”

Stevens isn’t the only military veteran in the engineering department at RMU. With approximately 350 students enrolled in seven programs, many walk around the corridors carrying signs of their military experience, such as military issue backpacks. One of them is Rene Manges a six-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, where she was a nuclear machinist. At RMU she is turning that experience into a degree that she hopes leads her to a comfortable career in the manufacturing sector.

Like other RMU graduates – the department boasts a 100-percent job placement record – she can expect to be employed within three to six months of graduation and earn somewhere in the range of $55,000 to $70,000. 

Closing the Skills Gap
Recently, the STEM skills gap has received a great deal of media attention, especially as Congress and the president grapple with the issue of STEM visas. The House of Representatives recently voted to allow the STEM visas, which make green cards available to foreign students graduating with advanced science and math degrees from U.S. universities. The president opposes the measure.

While STEM skills are becoming more and more valuable to the American economy, STEM skills among the up-and-coming generation of industrial workers is lacking. “There is a big demand, but with attrition taking place, the retirement of baby boomers, there is a great need for technicians,” says Keith Tolleson, a 16-year veteran of the offshore oil and gas industry and, for the last 10 years, a process technology (PTEC) instructor at Nunez Community College in Chalmette, La.

Tolleson, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, says returning military veterans have shown to be a viable solution to closing the skills gap for STEM-based jobs in the manufacturing and industrial positions. “The military guys that we’ve seen are just about at 100-percent successful,” he says. “They come in with hands-on skills. They come in with the political correctness; they know the chain of command. Industry follows all of these rules. That gives them an advantage coming into our industry.”

James Spell is one of those young veterans who are proving their value to STEM disciplines. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Spell was wounded in combat in the Middle East. Spell returned to Louisiana and began studying at Nunez Community College. “He needed to get something going, saw the opportunity, studied and put some passion into it,” Tolleson says of his former process technology student. “Now he’s making mega-money. He’s moved to Houston and is working on a rig, and he’s very successful.”

Tolleson says there are several industries in need of workers with STEM backgrounds. “We have what we call upstream, which is everything offshore: pipelines, compression, drilling and production. Everything downstream we have the oil refineries, there’s the food and beverage industry, the pharmaceutical industry, chemicals, power generation, pulp and paper industry, you name it. They are all hiring our students.”

Tolleson says many of the military veterans studying in the program are infantry who tend to grasp the learning well and are able to move onto industrial jobs rather easily.

Regardless of industry, it’s likely that STEM principles will be needed in many positions in the years ahead. While the nation works to close the STEM skills gap, opportunities for transitioning veterans are becoming more abundant. With STEM skills attached to a résumé, the future for any veteran is looking brighter.

Securing a Career
Cyber security jobs are growing, and getting certified for one is a quick and focused process.full-stem-ahead3

STEM skills aren’t just needed in industrial positions. White collar positions, especially in engineering and computer sciences, are also finding former military personnel ideal for filling much-needed positions.

Since 1991, Sondra Schneider has been educating and certifying IT professionals specifically for cyber security positions at Security University, the school she founded in Herndon, Va. Schneider, who was on the front lines of many big advancements in cyber security during her career, says writing secure infrastructures for computer networks is becoming more and more needed with each passing year.

Security University teaches IT professionals who already have a background in information technology about building a much more secure network. “Becoming a Qualified Information Security Professional (Q/ISP) has always been about performance-based, hands-on education,” she says. “We’re not a degree program, but we are accredited by ACCET.”

For transitioning veterans looking to take their military experience and translate it to a civilian career, Schneider says cyber security is a natural fit for some. For starters, the program is targeted to one specific skill set designed to place its graduates in needed positions.

“The placement rate is 100 percent,” she says. “For vets, everyone who has come in has been picked up [by an employer] pretty easily. Now, we are starting to see people come to us so they can improve their MOS when they’re active duty.”

The curriculum at Security University is short and focused at just 325 hours.


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