“We can’t find skilled workers. What’s going to happen when the baby boomers retire?” It’s a refrain we hear on the news or at gatherings of manufacturing professionals on a daily basis.
While it may seem a nearly impossible task to fill these jobs, there are numerous organizations in place working hard to attract and train men and women to keep the wheels of industry turning. The Valve Manufacturers Association has its own Valve Basics Course and the UA (Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders & Service Techs) has a comprehensive training program. Private manufacturers are also actively involved, with companies like Rockwell Automation and Harley Davidson working hard to attract women to the industrial workplace.
Even with these initiatives, there is still a shortage of skilled workers, and the situation is getting worse as experienced boomers leave the workforce. However, there is hope in an often overlooked sector of quality candidates for these jobs: Veterans.
Workshops for Warriors
While there are publicly funded programs like the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, they are not designed to specifically attract and train veterans for the manufacturing sector. So, when retired Navy surface warfare officer and hospital corpsman Hernán Luis y Prado saw many of his comrades failing in their transition to civilian life, he began Workshops for Warriors. The non-profit organization was started out of Luis y Prado’s own garage in 2008 while he was still on active duty, but since 2011 has occupied a half-acre campus in a prime manufacturing zone of San Diego, CA.
The stated mission of Workshops for Warriors is to train, certify and place veterans and wounded warriors into advanced manufacturing careers. The organization is accredited by the American Welding Society and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills and training is provided at no cost to veterans. Successful completion of the training leads to students earning credentials from NIMS, AWS, Solidworks and Mastercam. The veteran students also receive valuable work experience, and job placement.
To learn more about this program, VALVE Magazine spoke with its executive vice president, Ana Guedes. Passionate about the program, Guedes emphasized how the manufacturing industry benefits from the organization’s work.
“In addition to training top-caliber machinists and welder/fabricators, we also have a machinery repair and maintenance apprenticeship program,” she said. “As American manufacturing declined in the previous decades, many factories shut their doors. But inside those plants is a lot of good quality equipment that has become non-functional. Some of it is donated to Workshops for Warriors, where it is used as part of the training process.”
Guedes described the process of repairing an old band saw that was donated to the organization. A saw that was built in the 1950’s was inoperable, corroded, and by most standards destined to be scrapped. “Our apprentices train under two master millwrights, and the first step when we receive a donation like that old saw is a training process where they decide whether a piece of equipment is salvageable. Sometimes the time and costs involved outweigh the benefits of the repair; other times, the process itself provides a great learning opportunity.”
In the case of the old band saw, the entire saw was disassembled, and corrosion was removed. The organization’s machining students reverse-engineered and produced new parts and updated it with new technologies including engineering some hosing parts so that the internal mechanisms could be lubricated. The saw is now fully operational, and should remain so for some time, as it is now self-lubricating.
“I think of that saw as a metaphor for what we are achieving at Workshops for Warriors,” said Guedes. “It’s sad, but our culture has the attitude that, if it’s broken, just throw it away and replace it. But here, we fix things, and we learn and grow from the process. Veterans often arrive at our school feeling defeated, and without hope. We provide them with training and opportunities that empower them by making them self-sufficient once again.”
Manufacturing’s pipeline of workers has shriveled in the last several decades, in part because so few high schools have trade and technical programs because there has been a push to stream graduates into a four year college education. This has resulted in a shortage of manpower for factories, and it’s not just for the actual manufacturing jobs. Guedes pointed out that manufacturers don’t have the manpower that they need for repair, maintenance and the infrastructure to keep them operating.
“The average age of skilled workers in factories is now 58 years old. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that must somehow be passed on,” said Guedes. “We have to find a way to pass on that knowledge, that old school way of manufacturing, and add some basic training in modern technology to it. We are taking our veterans, giving them access to a top-notch education in an industry with high demand.”
The Workshops for Warriors program is open to veterans and their dependents or survivors. All of the classes are free to veterans, who take classes in welding, machining (including CAD/CAM) or machinery repair. Each semester is four months long, and a complete program of 16 months (four semesters) leads to advanced-level training in either of the two tracks and job placement at annual entry-level salaries of $50,000 and higher, but according to the organization’s website, completion of even just one semester results in job placement earning livable wages.
There is a 100% job placement rate for the graduates, and Guedes said there are hundreds more jobs, but they simply do not have enough funding, materials and covered physical plant to accommodate the needs of the manufacturing community. This is where she says American manufacturers can get involved.
“We have hundreds of veterans on the waiting list to enroll in our classes, and every day, we are contacted by manufacturers across the country, always with the same request,” said Guedes. “They need qualified machinists and welders. Many times they’re looking for 10 or more people. But we just can’t train that many, because we can only train as many as we can afford. There are companies who have approached us with their hiring needs multiple times but, unfortunately, without additional funding, we are not always able to fill those needs.”
Funding the Future
The main issue for the organization is funding. It costs $8,000 out-of-pocket per semester, per veteran. According to Guedes, manufacturers often are not willing to put in the funds to help get that training done. She pointed out that, if companies would invest in the training initially, they would not have the high human resources costs that they now spend to find people to fill their slots. “While companies come to us asking for 10 guys, they can’t imagine spending $8,000 on each of them to train them. That’s $80,000!”
But, Guedes said, those companies pay in the long run anyway. “It’s expensive to constantly place job ads, conduct interviews, hire third-party HR firms, pay placement fees, go to the expense of hiring, and then unfortunately often firing, because the new hire doesn’t have the needed skills. The legwork, time and resources that go into hiring are very high.”
Guedes suggests that a little forethought would go a long way to reducing the long term expenses of hiring the skilled workers that every North American manufacturer is going to need. “We ask manufacturers to think long term. If all manufacturing puts in a little bit, everybody benefits. All these individual companies are wasting time trying to hire, and train, individuals. But a small investment into training of the workforce now will benefit everyone in the aggregate.”
Workshops for Warriors has no trouble finding work for its graduates. “The market has such an insane demand, we can’t keep up with it,” Guedes pointed out. “The bigger problem is making sure that our students aren’t poached by job offers before they graduate. We believe it’s important for them to finish their training.”
Because the veterans pay no tuition and the organization receives no state, local or federal government funding, they depend on donations from supporters. “We’ve been very fortunate to receive so much generosity from individual and corporate donors,” said Guedes. “Many banks, foundations, and manufacturers have been to our facility, seen what we are achieving with their own eyes, and invested in our program. We also receive donations of consumables like gasses, tooling and metals. We couldn’t do this without that help.”
Because of the huge demand for graduates, Workshops for Warriors is currently launching a capital campaign. “Our location, which is in San Diego, is lacking in covered space. We need classroom and covered space, and are building a $10 million, 80,000-square-foot facility,” Guedes said. “The dream is that this facility would at least quintuple our throughput and help us both reach more veterans and become an impactful source of manpower to the manufacturing industry.”
The campus is currently on a half-acre on Main Street in San Diego across from the naval base. It is in a prime manufacturing area and there are shipbuilders, aerospace companies and other manufacturers that have been supporting the enterprise. “Local companies have done so much; they’ve donated CNC machines, welders, steel and a new computer lab. The support has been incredible,” Guedes said. “But we still need more support, and ask everyone who can to contribute to this undertaking.”
Veterans Helping Veterans
With the exception of one instructor, all of the teachers are veterans. This environment offers a camaraderie where veterans feel welcome and at ease. “There is a shared background, and an understanding of the challenges of returning to civilian life, whether or not the vet has been injured. We all get it,” said Guedes.
More photos of veterans in training are available HERE.