Special Report: Training & Education

Retraining returning warriors

By Tom Klemens

Making good use of one potential employee pool through mission-oriented training for veterans

February 2013 - These can be challenging days for the armed forces. Budget cuts, troop withdrawals from various locations around the world, and domestic base closings and consolidations mean many who have spent time in the military are reentering, or poised to reenter, civilian life.

At the same time, one of the largest challenges facing the U.S. manufacturing community and industry in general is the shortage of workers with appropriate skills. Even as everyone clamors for the creation of jobs, an estimated 600,000 manufacturing positions remain unfilled for want of qualified applicants. Clearly there’s a need for some quick, focused training.

With a shortage on one hand and a burgeoning supply on the other, perhaps this is opportunity knocking. Some companies already know the value of hiring veterans, and in San Diego, Workshops for Warriors has veterans lined up for training in the skills industry is looking for.

Pre-trained for service

At International Technologies, Schaumburg, Ill., veterans are the first choice for staffing the firm’s service group. The company sells and services several lines of metalforming and welding machines. According to co-owner David Prokop, company representatives frequently attend job fairs for veterans, as well as seek them out through hiring groups.

“When these guys come back, they want to work,” Prokop says. “They believe in this country. They believe in what made this the greatest country in the world, and they believe that it is still the greatest country out there, as do I. All they want is an opportunity to take advantage of the American dream.”

ffj-0213-special-image1Having put their lives on the line for their country, Prokop says, the least we can do is hire veterans when they return. “If I could fill my company with nothing but people coming back from the military, I would. They work hard, they’ll do whatever it takes, and all they want is an opportunity and a chance.”

In a sense, veterans have been screened and to some extent pre-trained for jobs in industry. “Let’s face it,” Prokop says, “just to go into the military in the first place, you’re setting your standards higher than the norm. There just isn’t a bigger commitment than that.”

Patricia Hansen, CEO of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Multiplaz N.A., which sells welding and cutting tools, agrees that hiring veterans is a smart move. “I had a Seabee working for me for awhile and he was just the best,” she says. “I love people coming out of the military. They’re very good workers, they’re disciplined and they have a lot to offer.”

When the company recently wanted to hire a welder, Hansen decided to try a recruitment firm specializing in job listings for veterans. Despite a hefty sign up fee, the company didn’t get even one response to its ad.

“I also had been working with the Navy with our product,” she says. “I asked my contact there to let me know if any people were being let go. He said a whole bunch of Seabees had just been released,” assuring her that someone in outplacement would contact her, but it never happened.

It is no surprise, then, that Workshops for Warriors has caught the attention of many in manufacturing, as it not only prepares veterans for employment in welding, machining and related areas, but also strives to include a large number of Wounded Warriors (see sidebar, page 26).

Little by little

Based in San Diego, Workshops for Warriors is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that trains, certifies and places veterans in manufacturing careers. There is no cost to the veterans, even though the organization operates with no federal, state or municipal funding.

“We have received generous support from many industry leaders,” says Hernán Luis y Prado, who spent 15 years in the U.S. Navy as an enlisted man and as an officer before becoming the president of Workshops for Warriors. He developed the program over a number of years and officially established the nonprofit in February 2011, leaving the Navy in 2012.

ffj-0213-special-image2“Over the years, unfortunately, I saw too many of my friends very quickly unravel as they went from being very competent operators, for example, back into civilian life,” Luis y Prado says. Marines, he says, seem to have the most difficulty transitioning. “You can jump out of helicopters and shoot bad guys—that’s great. But it’s going to be hard getting a job at Northrop Grumman with that skill set.”

An electrical engineer by training, Luis y Prado says, “I put a lot of thought into what we could teach veterans. It had to be something they would like doing, that they could focus on long enough to get a certificate and in areas that employers would recognize the certificates that were issued. After a lot of thinking and research, I came up with manufacturing.”

He saw manufacturing skills as the easiest way for veterans to transition to viable civilian employment. Most are exportable job skills, backed up by third party performance certifications. And unlike other trades, such as carpentry or electrical, using these skills typically requires minimal personal investment in equipment.

“If you’re an AWS-certified welder, you just have to show up at the job site with $300 worth of personal protective equipment, or they’ll lend it to you, and you can have a $25 to $50 an hour job,” Luis y Prado says. “The same for a NIMS-certified machinist. All you have to do is show up at a high-end machine shop. You can just walk up to a machine, ask for blueprints and start making parts.”

How it happens

The training veterans receive at Workshops for Warriors “adds significant value to the individual without anything extraneous,” says Luis y Prado. “We train the students to earn certifications that are recognized  internationally, so that from anywhere in the world, they can contact the American Welding Society or the National Institute for Manufacturing Skills and have their certifications sent to a potential employer.”

He began organizing what might be called prototype training in 2008, which occurred in Newport, R.I., and subsequently in Virginia and Mississippi. “My wife and I kept seeing this huge amount of people that basically kept following us to attend this training,” he says. “We just couldn’t wrap our heads around the fact that just a Navy officer and his very supportive wife were able to create this training center, and we were mystified that nobody else had.”

ffj-0213-special-image3Luis y Prado says it was his wife who finally called the question. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you should focus on getting a proper facility and center it.’” They decided the first large-scale operation should be in a place where there are lots of veterans, and research showed San Diego is the number one exit point for veterans leaving the service.

“More than 18,000 veterans a year leave the military through the San Diego area,” says Luis y Prado. “There are almost 15,000 through the Navy and Marine Corps, and another 3,000 through the Air Force and Coast Guard.”

Workshops set up its first facility on San Diego’s Market Street in February 2011, as Luis y Prado was preparing to leave the Navy. The program quickly outgrew that facility and in October moved to its current 28,000-sq.-ft. facility on Main Street.

“Since then we have placed 73 veterans,” Luis y Prado says. “More than 150 certificates have been earned here and we have served more than 100 veterans.”

Although the program does have paid instructors, it also takes advantage of volunteer offers. “We have instructors that are certified in the state of California and a dean of students that also is state certified,” Luis y Prado says. A fifth-generation machinist who has been teaching for seven years also is a machining instructor at Workshops, as well as several expert welder/fabricators. “The father of nuclear Navy welding also volunteers and teaches at our facility,” he says.

The educational experience includes instructor presentations, computer-based learning, lab training and on-the-job work experience. But it also goes a step beyond to further ease the transition. “Once students have actually gotten their certificate, if they are waiting for a job to begin, we’ll provide medical and dental health coverage and give them a living wage until it’s time for them to start,” says Luis y Prado. It’s like an elastic tier, he explains, where they can get their drivers license in order, and line up things like housing and child care.

ffj-0213-special-image4“You want to show up at your next employer as a full-up round,” he says. “You’re ready. All these little issues you’ve been having are not issues that you want your employer to know about. You just want them to know that you’re that really hard-working guy or gal. You don’t want to be the drama person that doesn’t have health care. You don’t want to be the person that doesn’t have child care provided for. You don’t want be the person that sleeps in his car every night. You want to be just a person that is consistently adding value to the employer’s bottom line. That’s it.”

Front line stories

Army veteran Vivienne Cortes has been a mechanic for 20 years and came to Workshops for Warriors in 2011. “I started out as a heavy wheel mechanic, working basically on anything bigger than a HMMWV,” Cortes says. “I also worked on HMMWVs for about two years. So I did heavy wheel, then got out of the military for about five years. Then I went back in for advanced individual training, or AIT, in track repair, which is exactly what it says. I repaired tracked vehicles.” 

Cortes did tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and also was a trainer/mechanic for mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs). “That was emotional,” she says. “I had soldiers come up to me the day after a bombing, and all they had was a broken arm from being shoved around, and they would thank us for saving their lives. It was very rewarding.”

However, the time overseas took a toll on Cortes, and there’s a limited market for the specialized skills of an MRAP mechanic. “When I came back home in 2010, it was time for me to stay at home. I was unemployed for a little while, kind of hopping around, at families’ houses and whatnot, and didn’t really have a place to call home. I mean, I was always very welcome, but nothing that I was getting on my own.”

One day a friend with whom Cortes had gone overseas was working for Workshops for Warriors and called to tell her about the program. “I went down and talked to Hernán, and here I am almost two years later.” Luis y Prado hired Cortes to take care of the shop vehicles, but also had her prepare for ASE certification, offered by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. “I had never had the courage to go and actually test my skills,” Cortes says. “But he insisted that was what I needed to do. And now I’m certified in two divisions—diesel engine and brakes.”

Cortes says the holistic approach taken by Workshops for Warriors is important. “I wasn’t destitute, but in essence I was homeless,” she says. “I didn’t have anywhere to go. Hernán offered me an opportunity that people don’t just give out. He went as far as to ask me if I needed food, if I needed shelter, if I needed money to take care of myself. Luckily, I have family to take care of me. But there’s a lot of us out there that don’t have that, so what Hernán is offering is very much needed.” To her, the difference between Workshops and other training opportunities is clear. “What Hernán offers is hassle-free education,” she says.

ffj-0213-special-image5For James Moreno Jr., an active duty Marine, the training at Workshops is all brand new material. “I went in there looking to do actual machining, like welding and things of that nature. But they said they were offering a new program that I might be interested in, and it turns out I really liked it.” Moreno is focusing on CNC programming and in December earned MasterCam certification.

“With three months of training there and getting certified to college courses, I’ve learned to love it,” Moreno says. “I definitely have an interest in it and I’m looking forward to starting our second semester of classes.”

Moreno says having veterans training veterans made it easy to fit in. “We have a different lingo than civilians,” he says. “We’ll get off on a tangent about the military, and we can all relate, and we laugh.”

A single-limb amputee below the knee, Moreno has been in the military for four years, including two deployments in Afghanistan. “I got blown up in 2011,” he says, “and now I’m looking to change focus as far as my field of operation.” He says it’s quite a change to be behind a computer drawing 3-D figures, rather than in the field as an infantry rifleman, where he was on the front line and always active. “But this is good. This gets me out of the field and I’m interested—not so much in computers, but I like this. This is catching my interest.”

What makes it special

Moreno says having veterans as instructors also improves the effectiveness of the instruction. “They can give us scenarios of what something is like in the military and then say, ‘That’s exactly the way it is here with the computer,’” he says. “And I say, ‘Hey, OK, I get it.’

ffj-0213-special-image6“The Workshops for Warriors know how to offer that and it’s really pulled me in,” Moreno says. “I’m not losing my mind, I’m not getting frustrated because we’re not on the same page. We are on the same page, and we’re moving forward rapidly and that’s what really caught my interest. It’s something I look forward to doing. When I wake up in the morning I’m like, ‘Cool, we’ve got school today. It’s going to be a fun day, a learning experience,’ and then that’s how I go about my day.”

Although individuals and organizations provided funding and in-kind donations for Workshops for Warriors’ first years—a list of partners appears on the organization’s website—Luis y Prado is busier than ever seeking additional ongoing support. “We have over 500 students on our waiting list to go to our classes, and we have over 1,500 job openings for our graduates,” he says. “But we’re able to put through only 12 to 24 students every three months.”

Part of that limitation comes from the size of the training facility and the available equipment, but funding is also needed. “If we had more money, we would have more full-time instructors here and we could compress our training. Instead of having it two to three times a week, for these classes we would have compressed military-style training—Monday through Friday, eight hours a day.” That, Luis y Prado says, would get students ready in eight weeks, or about half the time. “But that means that you need to provide funding for the guys and gals in the program, and housing and food so they don’t have to go sleep in the car at night after they leave your program.”

Equipment and other in-kind donations have been critical to the organization’s startup, but have brought with them their own set of challenges. “We have equipment here,” Luis y Prado says, “but sometimes it’s like having a fleet of Ferraris and no fuel to drive them.” A donated waterjet couldn’t be used until a $4,500 electrical connection was made; a fleet of five-axis CNC machines sat idle for a time, awaiting $45,000 worth of electrical connections.

“So you wind up getting a little money, and you use it to get something operational that you were given,” Luis y Prado says. “And they’re expecting you to train students on it, which means you have to have a school coordinator, and liability insurance and a $10,000 occupancy permit and an attorney to handle waivers and liability.” The list goes on, as any small business owner knows. And yet, so does the educational process.

ffj-0213-special-image7-1The view from outside

CNC machine tool builder Haas Automation Inc., Oxnard, Calif., was an early supporter of Workshops for Warriors. “Haas Automation put several of its machines at Workshops on an entrustment, which allows the use of the machines for two years at a time,” says Peter Zierhut, Haas’ vice president for European operations. “We have to renew it after two years, so that gives us an ability to review the program and make sure it’s working well.”

Zierhut also volunteers as the head of the Gene Haas Foundation, which was established in 1999 by Gene Haas, the founder and president of Haas Automation. “Haas feels very strongly about career-based 

education for the trades, especially for manufacturing, machining and engineering,” says Zierhut. In addition to the entrusted CNC equipment, the Gene Haas Foundation gave $50,000 to Workshops in 2012. “We give away quite a bit of money every year. It all goes to charitable needs and a significant amount of it for things like this, surrounding education for our industry.” 

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation also contributed $50,000 to Workshops in 2012. “Many people today say we’re lacking skilled workers and those who do enter the workforce lack some of the people skills, or soft skills, necessary to work for the high-tech companies that are manufacturing within our country,” says foundation CEO Bart Aslin. “What Workshops does is take people who are coming out of the military, who already have established themselves as being disciplined, being on time, being able to solve problems in team-related efforts, and it takes them and trains them to enter a high-tech manufacturing world. That begins to address the question of where we can find a skilled workforce, and being able to tap into veterans’ gifts, their talents, their discipline, is of great interest.”

Aslin also notes the importance of Luis y Prado’s leadership. “Coming out of the military, he understands the mentality of the people he is serving,” Aslin says. “He also brings that discipline and leadership to his organization so that, from our standpoint, our foundation knows that our investment is one that is being watched over very closely by Hernán, but also the money is being used very efficiently.”

ffj-0213-special-image9Doug Harris, owner of saw manufacturer HE&M Inc., Pryor, Okla., readily admits being a veteran is one reason he supports Workshops. “For me the military was a way to go to college, and it was a great deal,” he says. “But I wanted to go to school and there were a lot of other people that didn’t.” Harris says although being in the military is an opportunity to acquire skills, much of it is not directly marketable outside the service.

“When you look at how many people are filtering back in—and especially if the government goes through with planned military cuts—we’re going to have this huge string of people coming into the workforce without any relevant skills,” he says.

Harris met Luis y Prado at the Fabtech show in November 2012. He wanted to ensure the program was as effective as he’d been told, so he sent the company’s national sales manager, Steve Sparks, to check it out and the reports were good. 

“When Steve was out there talking with Hernán, he said there was one young man who was learning to weld and was really excited about what he was doing,” Harris says. “Hernán asked him about the experience and it turned out this is the first time in awhile that he’s really been happy. He feels like he’s going to be a contributing member of society once again. Pretty cool.”

Now Harris is working with Workshops  to determine the right piece of equipment to donate. “Maybe there are other things that we can do from a company standpoint where these guys can do something to make a little bit of money,” Harris says. “Maybe they can make some parts for us.” These creative approaches are likely to benefit all involved.

Closing thoughts

Companies today have a lot to gain from hiring veterans.

“They know how to be committed,” says Harris. “They know how to get along. And it doesn’t really matter which branch of the military you are in, there are certain things you learn. You learn how to get up in the morning. You learn how to take care of yourself. You learn how to think on your feet. And those are tremendous qualities.”

“These people served our nation and risked their lives for us,” says Aslin. “At the very least they deserve for us to give them opportunity, not a handout, but opportunity, when they leave the military. What I see them doing at Workshops is extraordinary. It’s done very efficiently, very quickly, and it will provide great service to our nation in terms of providing full, disciplined workers.” FFJ


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