Soldiers 'shift gears' into new careers

Training transitioning service members into certified GM auto techs

After two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stephen Kelley can probably change a flat tire as fast as a NASCAR pit crew.

And sometimes he’s had to; when you’re traveling outside the wire — off base, in potentially hostile territory — time is of the essence, he said.

“The objective is always to get the vehicle back on the road, or, worst-case scenario, tow it back,” said Kelley, a wheeled vehicle mechanic. “The longer either of those processes takes, either repair or recovery, the more danger everyone is in because you never want to stay stationary.”

By the end of the year, though, staying in one place will no longer be a liability but a goal for Kelley, 39, and his family. They’re looking to stay in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex when Kelley retires from the Army and finds work, he hopes, “at a climate-controlled Cadillac dealership, working in my own dedicated space.”

He has a good shot. Kelley is part of the latest graduating class of “Shifting Gears,” a 12-week program at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, where soldiers who are headed for civilian life train to become GM-certified automotive technicians.

It began in 2014 through a partnership of the U.S. Army, General Motors and the former Raytheon Company. Nearly 500 soldiers have graduated, and in 2019, Raytheon Professional Services, the Army and GM extended it for three years.

The program “has opened up a lot of doors and really put me at ease as I retire,” Kelley said. “Between my background, the training and the certification this course will provide, there's dealerships open to me all over the place. So, pretty much anywhere we want to go, there's going to be multiple options, especially up there in the Metroplex.”

To date, the program has admitted more than 550 soldiers and 487 soldiers have already graduated. Every six weeks, Raytheon Professional Services, which has trained GM technicians worldwide for over two decades, brings in a new class of 15 soldiers.

GM dealerships across the nation need about 2,500 additional qualified technicians each year, but qualified candidates are often in short supply. By training skilled technicians – and supporting them with career counseling, job placement recommendations and access to technician job openings through GM’s dealer network – the Shifting Gears program helps both transitioning soldiers and GM dealerships.

“I contact dealerships all across the country, and our graduates are very much in demand, because dealerships know that they will add value to their organization,” said Steve Bailey, Shifting Gears engagement specialist for Raytheon Professional Services. “They know soldiers have a desire to learn; they have discipline; and they have a work ethic second to none. They’re reliable, responsible and productive.”

The soldiers train on the latest GM makes and models using the latest tools and diagnostic equipment. They also receive the same training that their counterparts receive in GM training centers located across the country.

They start with the basics like shop safety and how to properly operate automotive equipment and move on to subjects like braking systems, fuel systems, HVAC systems, multiplexing communications systems, diesel technology and diagnostics.

“We’re not turning out mechanics; we’re developing highly skilled automotive technicians,” said Brian Johnson, RPS’ National Training Center operations manager. “Some vehicles have four to five networks operating inside the vehicle and more than 100 computers. I remember the days when we had around 25 trouble codes…now, some vehicles have 500 to 1000 trouble codes.”

Kelley hopes that his more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. Army and the Shifting Gears program will jump-start his second career.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited,” Kelley said. “In 21 years, the longest I’ve stayed in one place was four years, so we are very much looking forward to growing roots and starting on this new journey.”