'Workshops for Warriors' Is Intense, Effective Training for Skilled Manufacturing Jobs

(Courtesy of Workshops for Warriors)

The United States is aging in every possible way. The infrastructure that drove the postwar boom is in need of upgrades and repair, and those who helped build and maintain it are starting to retire. But few skilled workers are around to replace them.

One Navy veteran is out to fix that: He wants American military veterans to be the skilled workers of the future.

Hernán Luis y Prado of San Diego believes that his Workshop for Warriors has the answer to what he calls the "Silver Tsunami," made up of American skilled laborers exiting the workforce with no one to replace them. There will also be no one around to train new workers.

"The last Bureau of Labor Statistics study for manufacturing was in 2013," he said. "Based on 2010 Department of Labor data, it found that the median age of America's advanced manufacturing employee was 59 years old."

Ten years later, those workers are at or nearing retirement.

The United States also has a high number of 20- and 30-somethings entering the workforce from the military, workers who have high career expectations, according to Luis y Prado.

"They want to make a lot of money, but don't necessarily have the skill sets or the experience," he said. "On one hand, you have a huge pool of retirees and, on the other, this force of unskilled workers, and there's no inbetween. No nationally viable training pipeline in manufacturing."

Except for Workshops for Warriors.

The organization was founded in 2008 while Luis y Prado was still in the Navy, but he'd been considering the issue of the "Silver Tsunami" and how to solve it since 2005. He spent a total of 15 years in the military, first as an enlisted hospital corpsman and later as a commissioned surface warfare officer.

"Every time we mentioned it to someone, they would say, 'Oh, well, we have trade schools, colleges, universities, city, you know, community colleges. Don't worry about it,'" he recalled. "And then I thought, 'Well, why won't that work?'"

Hernán Luis y Prado is a 3-time combat veteran with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then he met a friend from Iraq at a mall one day and learned that he had stepped on a mine and lost both legs. In that moment, Luis y Prado realized he had found his reason why.

"Our audience is that young Marine or that young sailor that was not a college graduate, that didn't have a very strong high school base or just wanted to work with their hands," he said.

He left active duty in 2013, sure that this was his calling. He and his wife Rachel Luis y Prado (who is today chief operations officer for Workshops for Warriors) were going to develop the program full-time.

It began with veterans coming over to his garage to tinker and build. They weren't doing anything productive at first. He knew he had to come up with a structured means of teaching skills to interested veterans. So he developed what is today the only accredited school in the nation that offers training, certification and placement of veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members into advanced manufacturing careers throughout the country.

Though Workshops for Warriors isn't yet eligible for tuition assistance, the costs for many veterans to attend could be covered by the GI Bill.

The school's key is its training regimen. Since 2008, a full 95% of its graduates have been placed and retained in full-time, certified jobs with an average salary of $60,000 per year. To accomplish that, Luis y Prado borrowed from the military's own training style.

Workshops for Warriors is structured like a military A-School, C-School, AIT or Tech School -- whatever your branch calls it, it's the job training school all troops attend after basic training. It focuses on two main disciplines: machining and welding fabrication.

The Advanced Manufacturing course is 16 weeks long, 9 hours a day, 5 days a week. If a student is tardy three times, it counts as an absence. Five absences mean immediate disenrollment.

It's worth the effort. Workshops for Warriors places graduates with nationally recognized credentials in positions with companies such as SpaceX, Google, Tesla and SnapOn, and even in civilian positions in the Navy and Coast Guard. Many students have job offers in their hands before they graduate.

"There are 2.3 million advanced manufacturing jobs unfilled right now, due to lack of skilled labor, and that number is rising to 3.4 million over the next 10 years," Luis y Prado said. "That's just unfilled jobs. That's not training people for new and more innovative jobs."

Workshops for Warriors currently has a waiting list of up to 550 people for each of the courses it offers every semester. So while the United States is experiencing an erosion of its skilled labor workforce, the school is operating at peak efficiency to stem the tide. Its rigorous work schedule allows for training skilled laborers with stackable credentials in a compressed time frame, placing those new workers in jobs that earn high wages with upward mobility.

Luis y Prado says that an unskilled worker who starts at $13 an hour will have a difficult time ever getting out of that pay rate. But once they touch the bottom rung of a skilled labor market, they will have a much easier time rising in pay and position.

"If you start off at $18 an hour, it's very likely that you'll go from $18 an hour to $25 an hour in three to five years," he said. "It's very likely that you'll go from 25 to $35 an hour in the next 10 years, or get promoted into a leadership or salary position."

The next step for Workshops for Warriors is expansion. Luis y Prado sees his school's graduates not just as the solution to a coming labor problem, but as a force multiplier for any company that hires them. He also sees the school as a means to help veterans transition smoothly into civilian life.

"You're going to see that, 150 years from now, people are going to look back and they're going to see Workshops for Warriors and San Diego [as] the birthplace for America's green manufacturing renaissance," he said.

It costs the school $25,000 to fully train and certify a student going through one of the workshop's programs. While it can be paid in full with GI Bill benefits, it still needs help.

The school has 7 years of GuideStar Platinum financial ratings.

To learn more about Workshops for Warriors or to donate, visit the school's website. If you really want to help, consider attending its annual gala in April to get a real-world view of the school's graduates and successes.


-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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