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Hernán Luis y Prado
Workshops for Warriors (WFW) Founder

There is a lot of talk going around about the skills gap — the more than 2 million advanced manufacturing jobs that will go unfilled due to a lack of skilled labor and an aging workforce. In an effort to fill those jobs, some companies are investing in apprenticeship programs or paying headhunters to find skilled workers.

However, one training facility in California may have found a better solution.

Take 2.3 million advanced manufacturing jobs that are expected to go unfilled over the next decade, add the more than 1 million veterans transitioning out of the military over the next five years, and it is a perfect match, according to Workshops for Warriors (WFW) founder and Navy veteran, Hernán Luis y Prado.

A Workshops for Warriors student performs stick welding as part of a 16-week nationally recognized welding program. (WFW photo)

San Diego, CA based Workshops for Warriors is a nonprofit school that provides veterans with industry training, nationally recognized credentials and help with job placement in advanced manufacturing careers — at no cost to the students. The program is open to veterans or transitioning service members, and no prior experience is necessary.

To date, 338 veterans have graduated from WFW since 2011, earning a total of 1,400 nationally recognized credentials. Over 16-week semesters, students take courses in either machining or welding, while some students select to do both tracks. During that time, they earn an average of five to 15 nationally recognized credentials in either the machining or the welding program. Partnering with SolidWorks, Mastercam, the American Welding Society (AWS), the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), Immerse2Learn, AMADA, Snap-on, Starett, Flow International, and the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), the school’s curriculum teaches students computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, machinery repair and maintenance, CNC machining and turning, CNC laser and CNC waterjet, and welding and fabrication.

“The idea is to bring in someone who has zero manufacturing experience and train them in the very best way known to man, on the best equipment possible and let them have lots and lots of hands-on experience,” Luis y Prado says. “Then you have a person who not only served their country while in uniform, but they are able to serve their nation for the rest of their lives.”

Humble Beginnings

Workshops for Warriors got its start in 2003 as a group of veterans — recently discharged from the military either because their term of service had ended or medical release — working in Luis y Prado’s garage while he was stationed in the Washington D.C. area.

“They wanted to weld, machine, tinker in my garage,” Luis y Prado says. “But tinkering doesn’t give you credentials at the end; it doesn’t give you a career.”

As Luis y Prado relocated to stations throughout the U.S. — Rhode Island, Virginia, Mississippi, Michigan and California, to name a few — he bought more and more equipment for veterans to use in his garage. Finally, in 2008 he and his wife, Rachel, made the decision to go all in, and Workshops for Warriors was born.

“We kept thinking ‘we need to do something’,” Luis y Prado says. “The idea was to find something we can teach them in three to six months that leads to a credential that is recognized anywhere in the U.S. or the world… Looking back, it’s so easy. But at the time it was like swimming through the ocean looking for a blue dot.”

A student working on Computer Aided Design at Workshops for Warriors, the only accredited school in the nation that trains, certifies and helps place veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members into advanced manufacturing careers. (WFW photo)

Filling The Skills Gap

A 2015 skills gap report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte estimated 2.7 million advanced manufacturing jobs are likely to be needed as a result of retirements and natural business growth over the next decade.

Workshops for Warriors is positioned to be the training pipeline that manufacturers are looking for in this time of need.

“We have students whose median age is 24. They are committed, competent and want to work,” Luis y Prado says. “We’re giving them the compressed training they need to help fill all of America’s manufacturing and industrial maintenance jobs. All of them.”

Luis y Prado says that for every one of WFW’s graduates, there are 2,500 jobs available, and recent surveys show 94 percent of WFW graduates obtain advanced manufacturing jobs. WFW alums are currently employed at BAE Systems, Barrett, Benchmade, Reliance Steel & Aluminum, Co., among others. Many students have a written job offer before graduation day.

“A lot of companies are investing in their industry through us,” Amanda DiSilvestro, Workshops for Warriors marketing manager adds. “They need skilled workers and this is the training pipeline they need. Workshops for Warriors is the solution”

Luis y Prado estimates WFW graduates get 300 times more hands-on time with the machines than at other training facilities.

“That’s not even apples to oranges,” he says. “That’s apples to astronauts.”

Workshops for Warriors Welding Instructor Derek Beecher is a fellow Veteran with 30 years serving with the United States Navy. He specialized in welding nuclear and non-nuclear piping systems and structural components on board submarines and surface ships. (WFW photo)

Helping Veterans

For many U.S. veterans, the transition from military life to civilian life can be a difficult one. As Luis y Prado likes to say: the military trains you for five months to become an enlisted service member and five days to become a civilian again.

Finding work can be especially difficult. Only 17 percent of veterans are employed in careers that are related to what they did while in the service. So what about the other 83 percent?

“It can be tough. They don’t know what to do. They begin to think they are a burden to their families,” he says. “They do a mental calculation that they are no longer relevant and they are worth more dead than alive and their families will be taken care of.”

Luis y Prado, a U.S. Navy officer with combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw many of his fellow service members feeling lost after transitioning out of the military.

“I was seeing so many of my friends committing suicide,” he says. “I was losing more guys to suicide than to combat. I wanted to change that.”

In 2011, Workshops for Warriors moved to its current location in San Diego. Through partnerships and donations, WFW has continued to grow, with certified instructors teaching 120 students each year in machining and welding. Their main facility houses $6 million worth of equipment for students to work on. This includes 18 welding booths, 18 CAD/CAM workstations, multiple HAAS VF-2 CNC mills and CNC lathes, a Flow waterjet, multiple Amada CNC press breaks and CNC lasers, multiple Betenbender sheers and press breaks, HE&M SAWs, and Scotchman saws.

San Diego was picked as WFW’s home base since it is where more veterans leave the service than anywhere else — about 17,000 leave the service there each year. Luis y Prado says the strict environmental regulations in California are also a welcome challenge.

“If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere,” he says. “We wanted to do something that benefits veterans, is safe, environmentally friendly and sustainable.”

The valuable skills learned through WFW is something students bring with them as they start their advanced manufacturing careers.

“Everyone wants our graduates,” DiSilvestro says. “We teach our students everything from art to part, so when they go into a company instead of calling someone when something breaks, they know how to fix it because we teach them everything we can about that machine. A job that used to require four people now only has to require one.”

Workshops for Warriors graduates earn between five and 15 nationally recognized credentials in one 16-week semester from the American Welding Society, SolidWorks, Mastercam University, Immerse2Learn, the National Coalition of Certification Centers and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. (WFW photo)

Future Expansion

Although overhead is kept to a minimum, it costs about $180,000 per month to operate the WFW San Diego facility. The average cost per student per semester is $20,268, or $30,268 if a needs-based living stipends is provided. GI Bill benefits can’t be utilized yet — the organization is currently in year six of the lengthy eight-year process — so WFW operates off of philanthropic donations and proceeds from its social enterprise, VetPowered.

If everything goes according to plan, WFW will be eligible to receive federal funding in April 2019.

“Once that happens, the school will be self-sustaining,” DiSilvestro says. “It’s going to be a game-changer.”

In 2012, Luis y Prado received the White House Champion of Change Award, and former president Barack Obama also tasked him with creating 103 WFW training facilities throughout the U.S. WFW has embarked on a two-year capitol campaign to raise $21 million to expand the facility. WFW has already reached 1/4th of its goal. The funds will be used to build a bigger building with the capacity to train 450 veterans each year compared to the current 120. Currently, an average of 12 new inquires or applications to the program is received on a weekly basis.

The first part of the expansion is already underway with a temporary facility being constructed in the campus’ courtyard. The rest of the expansion will be dependent on funding, but the goal is to have the new building operational by April 2019.

Luis y Prado says the WFW formula is sound and ready to be scaled and replicated across the U.S. as an advanced manufacturing training pipeline. There is also no shortage of veterans eager to learn the skills. However, the money has to be there for the program to flourish and manufacturers can help.

“We have 550 people on the waiting list for our program,” Luis y Prado says. “There are 2,500 jobs available for every one of our graduates, but we can only fund 50 to 60 every semester. If manufacturers invest in our graduates, they are investing in their industry and their future.”

For information on funding quarter, half, full ($20,000), or full-plus ($30,000) scholarship for a Workshops for Warriors student, contribute to the Capital Campaign. More information on other ways to get involved, visit wfwusa.org.

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