From Warrior to Working Man (or Woman)

After nearly three decades of war, there are more veterans than ever. Among this group of warriors, members of the best fighting force the world has ever known, are men and women struggling with physical injuries, emotional scars. While these are difficult obstacles to overcome, some veterans and wounded warriors face other, more systemic problems: poverty, unemployment, homelessness.

“What people don’t know is that the Department of Defense spends four years training a soldier to do their military job, but less than one week to get that person trained to be a civilian again,” said Hernàn Luis y Prado, a combat veteran who has founded a non-profit organization to train former and current armed services personnel in metalworking and fabrication.

“After serving in the Navy for 15 years with combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, I saw more of my fellow service members die of suicide and drugs in San Diego than die from bombs and bullets in Baghdad,” he said. “I needed to change that, so we created Workshops for Warriors.”

Since 2011, San Diego-based Workshops for Warriors has trained and graduated 238 veterans and transitioning service members—all at no charge to the student. Of those graduates, 100% of them have received a job offer after graduation. Some have stayed in California. Some work in the business side of the organization: WFW Industries. Some have gone back home, to find employment in careers such as welding, fabrication, CAD/CAM, CNC machining, and machinery repair — jobs that often start at a base salary of more than $50,000.

Tim Palm, a WFW welding instructor, said that students are both veterans who have left the military and those that come in while they’re being paid for active duty. “They show up every day. They muster. They go through the training. They get nationally accredited certs from the training program.”

Students embark upon a 16-month program, with approximately 112 hours per course. After successfully completing a full program, students can be accredited in welding, machining, and fabrication from accrediting bodies such as the American Welding Society, the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Mastercam University, Solidworks, and HAAS Technical Education Centers.

One of the major supporters of WFW is Amada America Inc., a company that got involved at the encouragement of Nick Ostrowski, the company’s general manager of media/communications, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and left the service in 1984 when he began working at Amada.

Veterans and military personnel who are nearing the time when they leave the service get hands on training on new equipment, and can earn certifications that will help them get a job after the military.

“I had been out of the military for 30 years, and the first thing that struck me when I walked into the facility and saw these guys—some of whom were missing limbs and dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues—is the attitude they had to want to succeed, to be a part of something. They were still trying to make a difference, trying to get ahead.”

Ostrowski’s 2011 visit to the San Diego facility of Workshops for Warriors coincided at almost the exact time that Amada was opening a 180,000-sq.-ft. laser manufacturing facility in southern California.

“Here we are about to make lasers, to make automation in the U.S., and we thought, “Well, we are trying to become as much of an American manufacturer as possible, and here we have an organization that is about as American as it can get. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the first laser that came off of our assembly line in Brea went to this organization?”

It didn’t turn out to be the first unit. The CO2 laser was more likely the third or fourth unit off the assembly line, but that cutting machine was the beginning of a continuing commitment to the nonprofit organization. A commitment that has included the donation of additional machinery, including press brakes, urging its contacts with other equipment manufacturers to donate to the facility, purchasing fabricated parts for its laser manufacturing operation from the Workshops for Warriors Industries company, and helping to raise much needed funds for the school.

The training facility features a number of state-of-the-art pieces of fabrication equipment.

Fundraising is always critical, but especially at this time as the group is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to expand the facility and train more vets. The organization is planning a $15 million expansion to build a three-story, 45,000-sq. ft. advanced manufacturing training facility. “I was asked at a fundraising meeting with several banks why Amada was doing this,” said Ostrowski. “The only answer I could come back with was, “How could you not do it?” Once you see what’s going on, you can’t help but help. You see these individuals that have spent three or four years of their life learning how to protect their country, and that training very rarely translates to a civilian career.”

Workshops for Warriors is launching a capital campaign project to raise $15 million to expand its current location.

Randall Uerkvitz is a veteran who can attest to that. Today, he is a Workshops for Warriors teacher’s aid, but he began as one of its students. Uerkvitz served in the U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Division, leaving the service in 1989. Over the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st, he bounced around various jobs from backbreaking, labor-intensive work, to telemarketing, and finally security at a seasonal homeless shelter for veterans. 

He was promoted to co-coordinator, and learned of the WFW program while finding resources for other veterans. When the shelter closed for the season, he was left without a job, and approached the Workshops for Warriors program. “They immediately set about trying to get me a scholarship,” he said. “I was able to complete a full year of training under the scholarship and not have to worry about all those mundane things like how am I going to pay my rent and eat?’”

Over time, Uerkvitz earned multiple certifications such as CNC milling, NIMSI and II, and SOLIDWORKS, and now hopes to continue to grow and work at the facility, helping to train the seemingly never ending list of eager-to-learn veterans and wounded warriors.

Students at the Workshop for Warriors training program.

The need continues to grow. On any given day, the waiting list stands at about 500, with potential students from around the country willing to travel to WFW to learn. Some have already done that, selling their possessions, moving cross country, even sleeping in their cars while they learn the metalworking and fabricating profession.

The problem is that WFW doesn’t have the capacity to fit the needs of everyone interested. “Our problem isn’t getting people placed — we place every graduate — our problem is getting people educated,” said Ostrowski. “The problem is funding their education, funding their certification, so that we can get more people through the pipeline.”

In addition to the fundraising campaign, information for which can be found on this page, the organization is still in the process of accreditation for the GI bill, a process bogged down by bureaucracy.

It seems like it should be a win-win, with metalworking facilities around the country clamoring for trained workers and the number of unemployed veterans eager to learn, but sometimes that is not the case. Ostrowski urges those interested to help these patriots by contributing to the capital campaign.

Luis y Prado, in a video introducing the organization, extolled the importance of this training. “We all love veterans, but loving the veteran doesn’t make them a good welder, or fabricator or machinist. If you are a Boeing or a Lockheed Martin, you need someone that can put that aircraft together and that is what we teach.”

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