More than 7,500 veterans or active-duty service members are currently enrolled at the California State University, plus 13,000 military dependents (family of veterans or service members).

"Veterans often have different needs than other students, both during college and after graduation," says Marshall Thomas, Ed.D., director of Active Duty and Veterans Affairs at the CSU's Chancellor's Office. "At the CSU, we prioritize their success, which means guiding them into a successful career once they earn their diploma."

At California State University San Marcos—a campus with more military-connected students per capita than any other in the CSU—one program in particular is excelling in creating opportunities for vets who want to go into engineering or science. This workforce development program, Veterans To Energy Careers (VTEC), is funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and aims to secure a signed job offer for every enrolled veteran, even before graduation. VTEC gives veterans paid internships at private sector aerospace, gas and electric companies, along with professional development and one-on-one mentorship

To date, the program has had a 100-percent job-placement rate with the 80 students who have gone through it, says Patricia Reily, Ed.D., director of Veterans Services at CSU San Marcos and a former senior officer in the U.S. Navy.

Meeting a Workforce Need

VTEC evolved from a National Science Foundation-funded program called Troops to Engineers started by Dr. Reily in 2011 at San Diego State University. Reily, who was director of the SDSU program, says it was designed to meet a specific and increasing need: "We get a lot of wonderful engineers from countries around the world, but for whatever reason, in the U.S., we're not producing enough engineers to meet the demand for those industries," she says. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that over 139,000 new engineers will be needed in the U.S. between 2016 and 2026.

One of the advantages for defense-industry companies and government agencies who employ U.S. veterans is that the vets have already had a security clearance, so they can start work more quickly. "Oftentimes, it takes a while for an international student or graduate to get those clearances," explains Reily.

vtec is a real fast track for veterans into sustainable energy careers. 
—Dr. Patricia Reily, director of veterans services, csu San Marcos

In 2015 Richard Carlin, Ph.D., head of the Sea Warfare and Weapons Department at ONR, established the Energy System Technology Evaluation Program (ESTEP) at CSU San Marcos, which got veterans into internships with the Department of Defense for energy sustainability projects on military bases. Then, in 2018, VTEC was launched with a broader focus on STEM workforce development.

"We looked to expand the program and it just really took off," says Reily. "It's a real fast track into sustainable energy careers—and California is a great place to do this because we have had the leading edge in sustainable energy for a long time."

To date, the program has included students from San Diego State, CSU Northridge and Sacramento State, as well as two outside institutions. The program is open to any CSU system veteran student in a STEM field, Reily notes. In addition, for students wanting to continue their education beyond a bachelor's degree, VTEC provides resources and connections to another ONR program, NEPTUNE, for graduate and doctoral studies. 

The Importance of Internships

Part of the success of the VTEC program is the emphasis it places on interning.

"Internships are really important because for someone transitioning out of the military, they don't know yet what it's like to work in the civilian sector," Reily says, noting that many veterans entered the military right out of high school.

In addition, paid internships help to bridge the financial gap some students face if their GI Bill funding is paused during a summer or winter break when they're not enrolled full-time in school. "Many veteran students are non-traditional; half of them are married and many have children," says Reily, making this type of support essential.

U.S. Army veteran Bashar Ameen had two internships through ESTEP, with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) in San Diego, before earning his bachelor's in electrical engineering from San Diego State in 2017.

"The internships gave me a great idea of what engineers deal with on a daily basis," Ameen says, adding that during his SPAWAR internship, a few colleagues were also alumni of the ESTEP program and served as mentors to him. 

Ameen accepted a full-time position at SPAWAR after graduating, turning down offers from private sector companies, including Northrop Grumman; he now works on research projects to help the U.S. Navy save energy.

His brother, Ammar Ameen, also a U.S. Army veteran and 2017 SDSU graduate, followed a similar path with NAVFAC and SPAWAR internships and now works full-time for SPAWAR. "I have gained so much experience from these internships, so much technical experience. I've also gained so much confidence," Ammar says.

Why Veterans Make Good Scientists & Engineers

"The military is so high-tech now," Reily says, citing examples such as nuclear-powered ships and high-tech sonar equipment. Men and women serving in the armed forces are getting real-world, hands-on technical experience with these advanced technologies.

When service members come to the CSU, they bring into the classroom their rich experience, then they can learn the theory behind what they did in the field; that makes their coursework so relevant, notes Reily.

Arthur Rubio, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and  an alumnus of the ESTEP program, earned his bachelor's in electrical engineering from San Diego State in 2016 and now works in R&D for energy innovation at SPAWAR in San Diego, where he also interned.

"[The program] was life-changing for me," says Rubio, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I found it challenging at times and it allowed me to open up to various possibilities of current and future technologies."