Education of a Devil Dog

On Main Street, just one block from 32nd Street Naval Base San Diego, sits a nondescript industrial building. Stand on the sidewalk out front for a few minutes. If the sun has had a chance to burn away the Pacific fog, you might see historic Halsey Field off to the west, home to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Beyond that is Point Loma with its lighthouses old and new and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery where so many of our fallen service members lie. Step inside the big double doors. From within you’ll hear the crackle of arc welders, the whoosh of a waterjet machine or the rattle of metal shavings striking the door of a CNC lathe. This is Workshops for Warriors, and if you’re a veteran looking for a good career, you’ve come to the right place.

Stamping and fabricating company Dowding Industries sponsored WFW student Ryan Palmer, who graduated in the spring of 2016. Photo credit: Dowding Industries

Serving those who served

It’s a fitting location. Founder Hernán Luis y Prado served 15 years in the U.S. Navy, first as a Hospital Corpsman and then as a Surface Warfare Officer. He has three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt. While there, he earned the Navy Achievement Medal and Combat Action Ribbon. Luis y Prado loves the Navy, but recognized soon after leaving it that the people he led while serving often find civilian life a challenge.

“In the military, you’re part of a rich tapestry,” Luis y Prado says. “You know exactly where you belong, whom you report to, who reports to you, and what’s expected of you every single day. But when you leave the service, you’re suddenly ripped out of that fabric. You’re faced with questions about where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do. Add to this the financial concerns that come with the elimination of a steady paycheck and it presents a difficult situation. Our goal at Workshops for Warriors is to provide our veterans with the skills needed to find a good paying job in manufacturing, and do so quickly.”

Workshops for Warriors (WFW) opened its current facility in 2011. Since then, 338 students have graduated and between them, they’ve earned 1,400 nationally recognized credentials. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider that 40,000 veterans leave the service each year in San Diego alone, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Most of the students come to WFW unemployed. Some are living in unsafe housing conditions. Many were injured during their service and struggle to make ends meet on disability benefits alone. All of them need better options.

God, Country and Corps

One of these students is Angel Alvarez, who served eight years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and three combat tours in Iraq. His primary military occupational specialty (MOS) was Marine Infantryman with a secondary MOS as Marine Corps Security Forces (MCSF).

MCSF Alvarez was the infantry squad leader with Fox Company, Second Battalion, when it pushed into the port city of Umm Qasr. He was later part of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (1st LAR Bn.) Weapons and Alpha Co. 1st LAR Bn. Through it all, he earned the Combat Action ribbon, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Bronze V device for Combat Valor, GWOT (Global War on Terror) Service and Expeditionary medals, and the Iraqi Service Campaign medal. 

Despite his admirable level of service and commitment, Alvarez says he felt a loss of identity and purpose after leaving the Corps. “I often asked myself, if I’m not a Marine fighter and leader serving God, Country and Corps, then who am I?”

After becoming homeless due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, including financial struggles, private battles with combat PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and the grief of losing comrades during war, Alvarez was unable to find work that “paid a decent wage and would help him avoid living paycheck to paycheck.” That was before WFW.

“I heard about Workshops for Warriors through a neighbor who’d graduated from the school,” he says. “I’ve been a student here for the past nine months or so and have graduated from the courses in Shielded Metal Arc Welding, Gas Metal Arc Welding and am currently in my third course, Fluxed Core Arc Welding.

“As a Devil Dog Marine, I’m confident in my ability to conquer any task and accomplish any mission, going above and beyond what’s required of me while doing so. When I got out of military service and embarked into civilian life, I was more than qualified to do a range of work, but couldn’t find employment without a piece of paper to back up my credentials. Because of Workshops for Warriors, I can now get a good paying career I’ll be proud of.”

Service center Reliance Steel & Aluminum is another proud partner of WFW. In 2013, it sponsored the school’s CAD/CAM lab. Photo credit: Workshops for Warriors

When life hands you lemons

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. During Alvarez’s first semester, his car broke down, he had to change apartments and he was struggling with the cost of the equipment needed for class. Worse, he quickly realized that his financial troubles were interfering with his academic performance. He met with the dean of welding, intending to withdraw from class until he could set his affairs in order. Fortunately, WFW was able to secure grant money from a local nonprofit foundation, and Alvarez soon found himself back at the welding bench. 

“I’m very grateful for the scholarship,” he says. “It took care of the most important vehicle repairs, helped with my moving expenses and let me purchase a set of welding gloves, a helmet and all the other gear I needed. Eliminating the heavy financial burden has turned my morale around completely, and I’ve been on an even keel ever since.”

The SEAL team of Mfg.

It’s the fighting spirit of its students that makes WFW a force to be reckoned with. Veterans come into the school with the discipline and personal integrity looked for by all employers, and they leave a short while later with the skills to back it up. And with manufacturers across the United States struggling to replace an aging workforce, WFW offers a solution both timely and appropriate given the debt we owe to our soldiers.

“We aim to command America’s manufacturing might just as we would a nation with whom we’re at war,” Luis y Prado says. “To do so effectively, you must teach your soldiers everything they need to know about their target and its infrastructure. In our case, that’s welding, CNC turning and milling, CAD/CAM, waterjet, laser cutting, 3-D printing and more. This is why the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy called us the SEAL team of manufacturing during a recent visit.”

Companies are listening. WFW graduates enjoy a 94-percent placement rate, often going to work for such big names as SpaceX, United Technologies, Lockheed, General Atomics and others that “snap up” students immediately after graduation. The problem is the shops that don’t recognize employees as the most valuable asset.

“It’s not that piece of equipment they bought last year or the number of square feet in the facility, it’s the people they hire that are going to make or break the business,” Luis y Prado points out. “That’s our goal, to build a veteran force of readiness in the manufacturing sector. It’s the one thing that will ultimately help make these companies, and our country, successful.”

In Need of Support

Unfortunately, WFW is only six years into the eight-year application to become a GI Bill-approved learning institution. Because of that, this 501(c) nonprofit depends on support from partner organizations for ongoing operating expenses, equipment and funding of scholarships for students like Alvarez.

  • Fabrication equipment and automation supplier Amada America Inc. has been a WFW patron since 2012. It donated a press brake and CO2 laser cutter to the school and will soon be replacing that machine with a fiber laser. Amada also purchases parts made by the school’s sister organization, VetPowered LLC, for use in its equipment, the profits of which are rolled back into WFW.

Amada general manager of media and communications Nick Ostrowski serves on the WFW board of directors. As a former Marine, it’s clear that he salutes the school’s mission and has some advice to those wishing to support WFW.

“It’s great if you want to hire a student, but placement has never been our problem” he says. “The problem is throughput. Our pipeline is so narrow that we have a waiting list of 500-plus veterans. That’s the real issue. Until WFW is accepted for the GI Bill, we need continuing donations in equipment and capital and help from companies willing to sponsor students. That’s our battle right now. If you’re at all interested in supporting the manufacturing industry through development of motivated, highly educated and certified workers, then you need to find a way to interact with Workshops for Warriors.”

  • Jeff Metts has found a way. He is president of Dowding Industries Inc., a company specializing in precision stamping, machining and fabrication for the automotive and defense industries. He first met Luis y Prado at a Precision Metalforming Association convention in Arizona where the two discussed the difficulties faced by manufacturers in finding good employees. Luis y Prado then suggested Dowding sponsor a student.

“They were working with a soldier who’d lost his leg during an IED attack in Iraq,” Metts says. “His wife was pregnant, he couldn’t work and he basically ended up on the doorstep at Workshops for Warriors, hoping they could train him to be a machinist. Today he has a good job and has even invented a new type of prosthetic. It’s a great success story. Later, I visited San Diego where Hernán asked me to speak to a class full of students about the opportunities in manufacturing. I was really moved by the sight of all those young people coming back from the war, thankful for the service they’ve offered and the sacrifices they’ve made. Hernán Luis y Prado is a true patriot for what he does here.”

  • Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. is another proud sponsor of WFW. In 2013, the metal service center was looking for a way to expand its Community Partnership Program and heard about WFW through the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. Brenda Miyamoto, vice president of corporate initiatives at RSAC, explains.

“We wanted to engage in the community and support initiatives that would have a positive impact on our industry. Workshops for Warriors was a perfect fit. We’ve since made donations for various projects, including a new ventilation system for their welding area, sponsorship of their CAD/CAM lab and participation in a matching program last year toward their capital campaign. We really want to help them expand because that’s what we think will have the most impact on our industry over the next 10 to 15 years as we begin to replace our aging workforce.”

These are but a few of the companies that support WFW. Along with businesses such as CNC Software Inc. (the developers of Mastercam), The Gene Haas Foundation, Sandvik Coromant, SolidWorks, The Boeing Co. and others, they are all having a positive impact. WFW is currently building a 30,000-sq.-ft. facility while renovating its existing school and hopes to greatly expand its program in the months and years to come. Says Luis y Prado, “This is not only a great way to support our veterans. It’s a great way to fix America.”

Need more convincing? Marine Corps veteran Alvarez offers one final inspiration.

“Workshops for Warriors has affected my life in a very positive way,” he says. “It’s a school created by veterans for veterans, and I feel a kinship toward my fellow students, the staff and instructors, most of whom are also veterans. The teachers here are both patient and knowledgeable in their craft, but most importantly, they’re truly dedicated and caring. I plan to do my absolute best in the industry, not just to represent the quality vocational training I received at Workshops for Warriors but also for my personal reputation. And, I know that I will earn a good living in the process. I’m still figuring out where that journey will begin, but I’m confident now that I’ll be successful wherever I end up.”

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