By Janelle Fisher
City Pages Editor
GREEN BAY – The Manufacturing Leaders Project — a veteran transition program aimed at preparing veterans for a career in manufacturing and seeing them through to career success — celebrated the graduation of its first class earlier this month.
The program is headed up by Bill Leahy, who served 10 years as a West Point Cadet and Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army before transitioning to a career in manufacturing in 2014 and establishing his own company, Renaissance Reliability, in 2022.
After starting Renaissance Reliability, Leahy said it was his wife that prompted him to use his position to help other veterans like himself.
“We had the company for a short time… and we were in the kitchen and [my wife] was like, ‘You have all of this made in America, red, white and blue, veteran-owned stuff on your website, but you’re not doing anything about it,” he said. “I was like, ‘holy smokes.’”
Also aiding in the process of getting Manufacturing Leaders started was Leahy’s brother, Sean, who served as a U. S. Marine Corps Platoon Commander in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m a veteran myself, and my brother was a veteran,” Leahy said. “We both ended up in manufacturing… Back in October, he was transitioning out of the Marine Corps. He was a major — highly decorated — and did a lot of really good things, and he was working to find peace in the civilian life. It’s a challenge for all of us. It was extremely difficult for me. Manufacturing is what saw me through, so I was starting to connect those dots and saying, ‘Alright, maybe this is something that could help out my brother.’ I was going to put my brother through the program as the first veteran proof case.”
Sean committed suicide in December of 2022 — succumbing to the struggle faced by thousands of military members transitioning to civilian life every year — but Leahy continued on with the project.
“We didn’t get there, but the idea was that manufacturing can help veterans transition and there’s a big need in manufacturing for talent,” Leahy said. “The challenge is that these roles in manufacturing require a specific skill set that we lack a lot of in this country and we lack the infrastructure to develop it, and so it’s up to companies like us to bridge this gap in the workforce. That’s what this project is all about. It’s about taking the 200,000 veterans that transition out every year and giving them coaching and mentorship and the best shot at life possible.”
To do that, the Manufacturing Leaders Project utilizes a Department of Defense Program called Skillbridge, which provides a path to release individuals from their units while they are still employed by the military to work on education, training and skills in specific industries.
“They get attached to us before they leave service,” Leahy said. “So they stay on active duty. They’re paid by [their branch] and housed by [their branch] and all of that stuff during this time so they can focus on what they’re going to do in the civilian world.”
Leahy noted that he is creating the type of program that he would have found helpful as he navigated his own return to civilian life.
“I’m thinking back to my transition out and how brilliant this would have been,” he said. “If I would have had an opportunity like this, I would have jumped at it. The reception I’ve been getting as I go out and present this to different people is exactly that — this is just an incredible opportunity.”
This first round of Manufacturing Leaders graduates spent ten weeks in Green Bay working with Medalcraft Mint — the manufacturer where Sean had been employed.
“After Sean passed, I got in touch with Jerry at Medalcraft Mint,” Leahy said. “I flew out to Wisconsin and we just began talking and I said, ‘This is what I want to do…’ And he may be the only person in the world that had the guts to say yes to something like that.”
Jerry Moran, owner and CEO of Medalcraft Mint, said the benefits of the Manufacturing Leaders Project addresses many problems at once, for both veterans and the manufacturing industry.
“When we got together, it was looking at how we promote U.S. manufacturing, and how we can prepare soldiers to enter manufacturing to kind of fill the need in manufacturing for educated people that work hard. I think we’re really going to be able to do that with Bill’s program facilitating it,” Moran said. “You go from military life to manufacturing, and it’s different. How do you make that transition? We were open to trying to facilitate or kick it off.”
While completing projects and gaining real-world experience at Medalcraft Mint, graduates of the Manufacturing Leaders Project were also completing curriculum through the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, which has partnered with the project to provide accredited certifications to program graduates.
“What we do is we do coursework and help people get ready and trained around reliability and maintainability so they can do a better job,” Klaus Blache, director and research professor with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Reliability and Maintainability Center. “They already have a lot of the skills, but how you apply it, how you implement it and how you look at industry is a little bit different. This helps give some reliability and maintainability skills, but also how to deal with transition from a disciplined type of background and how to move forward but still keep the discipline and standardize it in a little bit different social structure.”
Among those who graduated this month was Martha Stamp, Petty Officer First Class, U.S. Navy, who said the Manufacturing Leaders Project helped her create a plan for life after she left the military and gain an understanding of what to expect and how to succeed.
“I like to plan,” she said. “I like to be organized. I’ve been planning my transition for the last two years, and I even thought about doing it like five years ago… I feel a little bit more equipped moving forward. As part of the program, we did a leadership week… I’ve worked in leadership before, but to build more of my skills and get some information on how to grow and how to do better in some areas that I thought I was doing well in, it was pretty good insight… It was really good to talk to others in leadership and executive roles to make me a little bit more at ease and equip me in the sense of what to expect when I’m in that role.”
The first Manufacturing Leaders graduating class included four members of the military, three Medalcraft Mint employees and three college students, but Leahy said he hopes the program will grow to include 48 veterans next year and eventually grow to 200.
Leahy has also filmed the entire process for a documentary called Unturning Steel, which is planned to be released this spring.
More information about the Manufacturing Leaders Project can be found at rtwo.info/about-4-1.
Updates on Unturning Steel can be found at unturningsteel.com.