BMW Establishes Auto Workshop for Transitioning Marines

Vehicles lined up on car lifts at Camp Pendleton’s 13 Area Auto Skills Center. (Photo: Pfc. Michelle S. Mattei, USMC)
Vehicles lined up on car lifts at Camp Pendleton’s 13 Area Auto Skills Center. (Photo: Pfc. Michelle S. Mattei, USMC)

CAMP PENDLETON -- Nicholas Fonte is passionate about the F-18 Hornets he's maintained at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Each time family comes to town, he takes them on base for a tour of his shop and spends hours talking about the intricate engines and systems of the combat jets.

But while maintaining an F-18 isn't a skill even a lot of Marines have, Fonte wasn't sure how his know-how would translate to a job in the civilian world once he leaves the Marine Corps in August.

"For the past five years, I've known my place, what to do and where to report to," the 27-year-old Marine said. "When I get out, it's like, 'What will I do?' It's a scary thing."

As father to a two-month-old daughter, Avery, Fonte worried how he would support her and his wife, Kristin.

"He was reaching out for anything," said Kristin Fonte, a special education teacher. "He was thinking about going to college or a trade school but that wouldn't allow him to support us. He was asking family members and friends for anything and said he could do it."

On Monday, Feb. 26, Fonte's post-military life came into clearer focus.

He was one of nine Marines in the first group selected for the BMW Military Service Technician Education Program, a joint partnership with the Universal Technical Institute. The program, held in a newly christened auto workshop at Camp Pendleton, is the first of its kind nationwide, set up to train active-duty Marines for civilian career opportunities with U.S. dealers. It is the first time a premium automotive brand has opened a training program for military service members on a base, officials said.

Participants train eight hours a day, five days a week, for 16 weeks.

There are 364 BMW and 121 Mini Cooper dealerships nationwide and employment at one of the sites is a probability for those who complete the training, said Bernhard Kuhnt, CEO of BMW North America. Typically, a BMW auto mechanic would attend a technical college for two years and then hope to be selected for BMW training.

Fonte and the others were selected from more than 70 Marines who applied, each interviewed by BMW and UTI representatives and given an aptitude test. Participation also requires authorization from each of the Marines' commands because it takes them away from their jobs on base.

Depending on the training program's success at Camp Pendleton, BMW officials say they could expand it to other military bases nationwide. "Everyone of these Marines are highly skilled," said Kuhnt. "This is a win-win for us. They are looking for careers and we want to help them."

The idea to launch the program at Camp Pendleton started as a conversation at a barbecue in New Jersey when Kuhnt learned of the difficulties military personnel face in securing jobs once they leave their service branch.

Transitioning out of the Marine Corps

Each year, nearly 35,000 Marines transition from the Marine Corps to civilian life. At Camp Pendleton, it's about 9,000 annually -- 77 percent of those after completing a four- or five-year contract, according to military officials. Of that group, about two-thirds hold the rank of corporal or below, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West -- Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

"This is a serious turnover for any organization," said Killea. "We know we have serious responsibility to help them transition to the civilian sector.

"Programs like this six months before transitioning are critical," said Killea. "I want other companies and organizations to take notice of this. I'm hoping Amazon and Google will come out. BMW just raised the flag: 'Look at what we're doing.'"

After years of following orders and structure, transitioning into the outside world can be challenging.

Since 2011, The Veterans Opportunity To Work Act (VOW) has assisted Marines leaving the military in preparing for civilian jobs through the Transition Assistance Program. TAP, an inter-agency workshop coordinated by the departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs, makes it mandatory for transitioning Marines to receive assistance in resume writing and career counseling. In some cases, civilians from nearby organizations come to the base to help Marines prepare for civilian life.

In 2014, the Department of Defense initiated its Skillbridge Program, through which private sector companies and labor unions started coming on base and began transitioning Marines into internship opportunities.

According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for military veterans age 18 to 24 was 30.2 percent in 2011. That dropped to 7.9 percent in 2017.

Others lending support in the transition

In January, the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy opened at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. The program, which expands on training provided by Microsoft since 2013, helps transitioning Marines and veterans to become cloud developers and is focused on the growing demand for cyber security professionals. More than 90 percent of Marines participating in the program have found jobs with a starting salary of about $70,000 annually, officials said.

Kolin Williams, a veterans counselor at Saddleback Community College, teaches Boots to Books, a college-transition course for recently discharged Marines. He also works at Camp Pendleton's School of Infantry to help Marines navigate re-entry into the civilian world.

Williams served in the Army from 1995 to 1999. When he got out, he recalls, his sergeant told him, "Well, good luck out there." There were no veterans services, no counselors.

Since 2011, he said, he has seen many changes in how Marines are prepped. He points to resources such as Working Wardrobes-Vet Net and Bob Hope Veterans as programs that have made a difference. Trade unions have begun accepting veterans and are putting them on the fast track to Journeyman status. The GI Bill pays veterans benefits for apprenticeship training that vets can combine with their hourly wages.

"Veterans who got out after four or five years of service often find that many of the jobs are entry level which is why many choose to pursue higher education instead," Williams said.

Excited for new opportunities

Many Camp Pendleton Marines are trained in infantry specialties which leads them to related jobs in law enforcement. But for those like Fonte, who are mechanics supporting infantry, the road to employment is more murky.

On Monday, Fonte's new training began with an orientation and a chance to pop the hood and check out the motors.

To prepare, he spent the weekend poring over his books and PowerPoints. The learning became a family affair when Kristin helped him make flashcards with some of the new acronyms he needed to learn.

"He's really excited and focused on this," she said. "He's approaching this like he doesn't know anything. It's like, 'I've never done this and I need to learn as much as I can.' Even though he has all this training, he's not taking this as, 'I got this, I'm an F-18 mechanic.'"

For Kristin, life has become a bit less stressful.

"We're a little bit more laid-back now because we know we have a plan."

This article is written by Erika I. Ritchie from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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