Onward to Opportunity (O2O) , a program offered through Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), has gone completely online in recent weeks in accordance with nationwide stay-at-home orders. The program provides career preparedness training for transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses, as well as National Guard and Reserves. This shift to online delivery allows O2O participants to continue their transition to a post-service civilian career.
The O2O program, which is normally available on 19 military installations in addition to its online option for distance learners, trains participants in both technical and soft skills, serving as the gateway to employment with over 40 different training pathways. Established in 2015 in partnership with the Schultz Family Foundation, O2O aimed to reduce a then-16% unemployment rate among veterans, says Mike Bianchi, senior director of education and career training at IVMF.
“Program participants can earn free certifications for in-demand career fields, including information technology, project management and human resource management in classes that run on a quarterly basis at the installations and monthly online. The program also connects participants to career services provided by its operational partner, Hire Heroes USA.” To meet the needs of military-connected students, courses are offered both online and on or near military installations. “Last year we enrolled over 12,000 people in the program,” says Bianchi.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), just south of Seattle, was one of the very first installations to offer O2O in 2015. After Washington became the first state to record a COVID-19 case in January 2020, participants there wondered about the possibility of an online option. “Three or four weeks ago, to the credit of our JBLM team, they started to ask about a contingency plan to start offering distance learning,” says O2O’s national program director, Mike Schoeneck ’06. “They really laid the groundwork for our teams.” The switch to the virtual model took five business days.
In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, O2O installation teams (all of whom are Syracuse University employees based on or around the 19 military installations) worked with the Syracuse-based curriculum director and user experience managers to modify the program for a virtual learning setting. While a typical training module would be held over three to four eight-hour days, the online model has condensed the work to about four hours a day. The classes consist of 45 minutes of instruction followed by a 15-minute break.
“We've also relaxed our requirements for the time being so not all portions of that delivery are mandatory,” says Schoeneck. “There are a lot of people at home now with kids. We’re sensitive to that, but we also maintain a high level of delivery.”
Current participants have been given a 90-day extension to complete all program requirements. Other modifications to the course include virtual meetings with industry experts or speakers. “This program has always utilized technology as a major point of communication, so we were able to repurpose that,” says Schoeneck. “This model is very fluid. We have weekly check-ins with our managers, and we're reevaluating on a day-to-day basis. While we have something of a blueprint, we give each location the autonomy to deliver programming in the way they need to.”
“We wouldn't have been able to shift to distance learning across the country so quickly without the support of the resources provided by Syracuse University,” says Bianchi. “Having the platforms and technology in place and supported by teams both here and out in the field is one of the largest factors in our ability to do this so quickly.”
Bianchi says it’s important for O2O to remain operational, especially with so many questions about the type of economy transitioning service members and their families will enter. O2O’s transition to online delivery enables participants to connect with Hire Heroes USA, which has a portfolio over 850 national employers who are actively hiring. “We haven't taken our foot off the gas when it comes to aligning our participants with career services,” Bianchi says.
Aligning participants with meaningful careers also includes equipping them with the soft skills needed for successful civilian employment and removing potential financial barriers to give them a running start. “O2O really goes beyond just training these service members and their spouses. We help them capitalize on their military experience and their trademark get-it-done mentality, which is both needed and desired in the civilian business world. With support from the Schultz Family Foundation and other private funders, we’re able to pay for the certification exams at the end of the training, thereby creating a straightforward path for these participants to succeed.”
To further support transitioning service members and their families, Syracuse University and IVMF will provide free skills training to a select group of IVMF alumni. “There's an amazing amount of material in there for anyone who wants to upskill or pursue another certification,” says Bianchi. The new opportunity comes on the heels of program expansions in 2019 that included tools and curriculum created in partnership with Google to help military spouses find remote work—a common issue for spouses in light of regular duty-required moves and deployments—as well as additional curriculum tracks through Dell Boomi, a subsidiary of Dell.
“Our services are needed now more than ever, because transition is always a time of uncertainty, and COVID-19 has introduced a higher level of uncertainty,” says Schoeneck. “We want to make sure that we are supporting transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses.”