Operation New Uniform, founded in 2014, has established itself as a trendsetter in the veteran service organization space. The mission of the organization is to ensure all U.S. Veterans have a successful transition after service by treating each Veteran as an individual, serving as many Veterans as possible without reducing quality, and meticulously tracking the results and successes of our Veterans.
Plant Services editors Thomas Wilk and Anna Townshend recently had the chance to talk with co-founder and executive director Michele McManamon and Dr. Kim Bynum, ONU’s director of Veteran training and transition, about what it takes to graduate more than 350 alums from the program, and the skill sets possessed by Veterans that impress employers in industry.
PS: Can you tell our readers who may not be aware of Operation New Uniform, what are some of the goals for the organization? And how is it setting trends, specifically for veteran service organizations?
MM: Sure, I think the main thing is understanding what Operation New Uniform does for our nation’s Veterans. Most often people hear that name and they think we need them to donate suits, but Operation New Uniform actually equips Veterans with the training they need to successfully find their post-military career.
There’s a lot of confusion out there, as far as what our veterans are looking for when they get out, and there’s a lot of confusion on their part on what they really want to do. We say, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Because some have served for just a few years, and some have served for multiple years, and are figuring out if they want to do the same thing they’ve done while they were in the military, or if they want to do something totally different.
Our organization really helps with this mindset. We also focus on careers, not jobs. Most organizations are looking to just help Veterans get a job, or introduce them to people to help get them a job. We’re looking to help you get that next career, and that’s why partnerships with Plant Services help to identify great opportunities that are available, opportunities available for our veterans. We love to partner with folks like you guys.
PS: This reminds me of a friend who was in the first Gulf War in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who was a helicopter tech specifically, and he ended up doing maintenance and reliability work once he transitioned out of the army. How long does each new class in the ONU program spend in the program? And how specifically does ONU work with employers to connect those workers with the right jobs?
KB: The course actually lasts two and a half weeks, from 8:30 to 3:30. And we attend class every other day because we want that day in-between to allow time for that self-reflection and also for some homework and activities that we’re asking them to do.
I will tell you that for Operation New Uniform, not everybody that’s served by ONU goes through the actual course. So, we’ve got folks that will call into us, and they’ll need a specific resource or they’ll just need a little help with their resume, so we try to plug them in wherever they’re at.
The course, though, allows for those that are really looking to spend time and make that mental transition and be really reflective and serious about the mental work to help people prepare so that it’s a smooth ride, and not just a stutter step until they finally figure it out. (And I kind of speak from my own experience there.)
Like Michele said, we cannot do this without partnerships, and we are so blessed that the business community has just really embraced and understands the value of a veteran as an employee, what they bring to the table. How we do that is really just through our own networking and building our own relationships within the business community, so that they are aware that we have these candidates. We also partner with other folks that have candidates, so we can provide that steady stream of talent to them, and also to bridge the gap that I’m sure your audience is aware of.
Sometimes it’s hard to translate that helicopter mechanic blowing up tanks in the Gulf War to how is that going to add value to you over here at Google or IBM or Amazon. And so, bridging that gap, we try to do that on the employer side as well. We’re helping the veterans be able to articulate what they’re doing, and then helping the employers to give a little bit of grace and how to maybe dig out that information that they’re looking for. It’s been a great partnership.
MM: Kim mentioned that it’s a two-and-a-half-week program, and that’s just scratching the surface. When we first communicate with the veteran who’s looking to come through our program, it could be months before our program actually starts and they’re part of our ONU family. They graduate from our program, and they continue and we tell them it’s for a lifetime they are with us (I don’t know whose lifetime, theirs or ours).
Sometimes they go through multiple transitions and we’re always there, so they know they have this extended cohort, they have this extended family like they had in the military, someone they can depend on and rely on to always reach out to us. As an example, we had an alumni event last night, and there were 75 of our alumni and resource partners from town that all came together to support them. So, it doesn’t ever end. We’re there for a lifetime.
PS: I appreciate your point about the extended family. That family feel is very much what our readers are accustomed to in this area of industry.
MM: For sure.
PS: Can you talk a little bit about what skills and attitudes veterans have gained from their time in the military that will help them in the manufacturing world?
MM: I’ll kick that off, and then I’m going to throw it over to Kim because she is a 21-year Navy veteran and an amazing person, I just love having her on my team. You know, she might be 4-foot-nothing but she is mighty and can kick your butt, so for all of you maintenance and reliability, folks, she’s the one to talk to.
The basis of our training started originally with a franchise my husband and I own here in Northeast Florida called Sandler Training. We help businesses and companies and individuals to learn how to sell more effectively, leadership skills, that type of thing. So, we took that training system, the Sandler Training System, which is a worldwide training system and I called the owner Dave Mattson in Baltimore and said, “Hey, would you be willing to donate all your copyrighted material so we can train veterans on how to sell themselves?” And he said, “Absolutely, it’s yours, Michele, whatever you want to do.”
And we did, we took that curriculum and massaged it and made it this two-and-a-half-week program to be able to really focus on attitude, behavior, and technique. On how to get that career, how to communicate to the business community, how to translate what they’ve done to be able to do what you need to do to be able to get that career, and maintain it and love it. That’s where the basis of this stuff comes from.
From the perspective of our veterans, Kim, do you want to talk about that?
KB: It’s a great question that you asked because my own experience through my transition and then watching thousands of veterans, and trying to help guide them through their journey, what I’ve found and what I experienced is we don’t understand or we underestimate the value that military experience has brought to us as a human being.
Talking to employers, what we found is they’re really excited about the fact that our veterans are able to lead and be on a team with incredibly diverse populations because that’s what we do in the military, and there’s no room for issues. It doesn’t matter, boy, girl, black, white, whatever religion, you could have somebody from Louisiana, and then somebody from New York, and we’re doing it, get it done, right? There are soft skills that we sometimes took for granted in the military of adaptability and resilience, when there’s no option to not get it done—you have to be a creative problem-solver. Those types of things that we did through our military career, we don’t realize how valuable that is out to the business community.
Listen to the entire interview
Even just simple things like the integrity and the commitment to show up every day and give 110%, that’s just been instilled as a culture and value for the military, and we bring that to the employers. I believe that that’s why employers are so excited about partnering with organizations like Operation New Uniform because they know the innate value that every veteran brings to the table, whether or not that veteran actually realizes it about themselves or not.
Sometimes they’ll say to me, “Well, all I did in the military was X, Y, Z, and, you know, nobody’s going to understand that I was a search and rescue helicopter guy making sure if any helicopter went down, I would save their lives.” That’s a pretty big deal, but mentally we’re just like, “Yeah, that’s no big deal, that’s just what I did.”
PS: That’s amazing. Can you talk about some program or placement success stories that you guys have had?
KB: One of the things that you guys talked about, and your listener group has, is that culture of family and always being integrated and involved with one another. One of the greatest successes that I love about Operation New Uniform is we have 358 ONU alum out there nationally, all over the place. They tend to be the ones that reach back to the Operation New Uniform program, through our events and through LinkedIn, and they will find our ONU graduates and then help get them hired in the companies that they’re serving in.
So, one of our favorite success stories is one of our Operation New Uniform alums, and he works for a big bank. He is now on our board, he’s gone from being a student to serving on our board. He’s helped, I think, five or six of his ONU alums to navigate that interview process, and to get into some great programs at this bank with salaries in the six figures. He just does that, he just reaches back and mentors, so that to me is a testament to ONU’s great program. That ability to have that synergy as we grow, and our family, our extended family keeps that ball rolling.
MM: The collaboration that we have with other veterans’ service organizations is something worth noting, and I think that’s one of the beautiful things. I don’t know if that’s a northeast Florida thing, but it really is amazing how we help each other. If an organization calls us and says, you know what? I’m looking for somebody with these skills, but we’re only able to pay this, and they’re talking hourly. Hourly is not really our niche, but we always want to help every veteran or every organization that says I want to hire veterans.
Between Kim and I and our staff, we are looking to figure out how we can get you those folks. So, we will refer you to someone like Wounded Warrior, or K9s For Warriors, or the USO, there’s other veteran service organizations in town that want to help. We all partner together because we know we’re not in competition with each other. Our best interest is to our veterans, and whatever they want, and whatever our companies can do to hire them is a blessing.
But I’ll tell you one quick story if you allow me to about one of our graduates, and it just sticks in my mind how I don’t think people realize that if you see a veteran, but you don’t see anything physically wrong, there are hidden wounds that nobody knows about that they may be facing. And nothing that’s going to keep them from doing an incredible job at your company if you hire them, but certainly things that they may be dealing with, just the frustration of this whole transition.
I remember this one gentleman that came in and he was not broken, he just was in a bad place. He didn’t have the help he thought he was going to get when he came out, because his team members that he served with weren’t there. They were all still serving, and here he is out in this world that he was so unfamiliar with. But through our program and the confidence and really the cheerleading that we do on the back end of just being with them, whether it’s just loving on them, telling them how awesome they are, and praying with them, and just being part of their new family, this is so important.
At the graduation, and we make a big deal of graduations at every class, his wife and his kids came up to me and she was sobbing and she hugged me and she said, “Michele, I can’t tell you what this program has done for my husband. You gave us back my husband and the kids’ dad.” To me and us, I mean, that’s why we’re here, that’s what we do. And if an organization hires our folks and calls us up and says, “That was the best hire I’ve had in so long, who else do you have?” You know, that’s a day in paradise for us.
PS: Kim, I think you said ONU works all over the country. Are there specific regions you’re focused on, or is your focus national?
KB: I love that question, because the first couple of years, we were very focused in northeast Florida. And like a lot of organizations, COVID hit and we adapted, and we said, “What are we going to do? We got to keep training.” That opened our scope and our mind up to have the same training available virtually. We do hybrid classes, so we have folks in the class here. But if they’re not able to get there for whatever reason here in Northeast Florida, they can Zoom in, like we’re Zooming right now, and they can see everybody just like we can, and they’re part of the class. That has opened up the aperture for us to be able to provide the actual classroom training to veterans from California to Seattle, Washington, Massachusetts, Maryland.
So, where are we focusing? Great question, we’re focusing where the veterans are. So, where do they populate? Where do they aggregate when they’re transitioning out? And so, that’s one of the reasons why we are next expanding and have our next live class in Tampa, FL this August. There’s CENTCOM, there’s SOCOM, there’s a lot of folks that want to retire and settle in that area in Tampa.
But we have plans and have been strategic with our partners also to figure out where are those areas where we can best and most efficiently get there to provide these services. Even outside the classroom anybody can call us, anybody on LinkedIn can hop in and say, “Hey, Kim, I heard about you from so and so. Can you help me with XYZ?” And it’s just been fantastic to see our aperture go from here in Jacksonville to just exploding nationwide, and being able to serve vets everywhere.
PS: I was looking at your website before we talked, and one of the recent graduates stated that the program “polishes the diamond that we already are.” One of the reasons it resonated, was that in terms of the maintenance and reliability mindset, we’ve got a team of readers here who are dedicated to taking a look at that motor that’s rusty or has leaks in it, or that printing press, or that food processing equipment which has a bunch of corrosion on it. They’re specialists in asset care, and specialists in making sure that the machinery in the plant runs as it’s supposed to. And I love the similar metaphor that here you are with your program, working with people to polish the diamond that they already are, to make sure that they are operating as they should and as they can. Can you talk about some more of the things that your graduates and the veterans are gaining from being part of the ONU program?
KB: I will tell you that I believe that this metaphor that you’re talking about, it really is the crux and the niche of what makes Operation New Uniform who we are, and how we’re able to impact. Michele’s the expert and so wonderful at teaching our veterans that their identity is not tied to their role.
Twenty-one years in the Navy wearing a uniform, I was OPS, WEPS, sailor, shipmate, and I really lost who I was, just Kim. And so, Michele provides this training to our veterans that comes from sailors, the IR theory that says, hey, when you were born, you were a 10. You were amazing. You, just like that new piece of equipment, before it started getting used and had circumstances happening to it and the environment hitting it, it was this pristine thing. Well, that machine still has that wonderful value, just like our veterans do. Just because our circumstances and our roles and these things hit us inside of who we are at the core, we’re still 10s, we’re still as pristine and wonderful as the day that we were born, or the data that machine was created and first used.
That has been such a focal point of who ONU is and what we represent, and Michele is able to instill that concept. We really see the light bulbs go on, and the aha’s, and that is where we see that start to them figuring out, what do I want to be when I grow up? Who am I going to be next? Because it’s not about what uniform I wear, or what job I have. This is me and this is what I bring to the table.
MM: Thanks, Kim, I appreciate you very much for saying that. This is the Sandler Training concept, the IR theory and it really is so powerful, it really is the basis of what we do, whether you’re teaching someone how to sell a product or service or whether you’re teaching them how to sell themselves. Our identity has to stay strong because our role side is going to get dinged all day, every day. Just think about it: for every person that wakes up in the morning, I might be a good mom one day, but ask my kids, the next day I might not be. So it could be a good employee, it could be a good sailor, or a good soldier depending, or a good employer for that matter. Every day is going to shift and we have to be prepared for that, and if our identity is sound and good and is a 10, like Kim said, everything else can kind of fluctuate, but as long as we stay that perfect 10 inside, all else is well.
PS: Sounds like that could be good training for everybody.