A welding student from Workshops for Warriors. Courtesy photo.

Workshops for Warriors started with a handful of wounded service members in a 400-sqaure foot garage. Twelve years later it's poised to become the world's largest training facility for advanced manufacturing.

Despite the meteoric growth, founder and CEO Hernán Luis y Prado said he'd never had an interest in manufacturing. The 15-year Navy veteran had planned a 40-year career. This changed in 2008 when he started visiting National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There, he saw wounded warriors dealing with terrible conditions. He described service members living in tunnels while waiting for hospital rooms in facilities that weren't designed for a sudden influx of survivors.


"These Marines that were used to jumping out of helicopters were just languishing in bed for days after days just waiting for physical therapy that came once a week," Prado said. "And the docs that would come by every week and say 'hey next week you're going home.' And that would go on for 30, 40, 50 weeks. That was just soul crushing."

The final straw came during a trip to the local mall where Prado ran into a friend he'd served with in Iraq. Since they'd last seen each other, Prado's friend had stepped on a landmine and lost both legs.

"Here I was — tough guy, combat vet, and my legs literally melted underneath me," Prado said. "I grabbed my wife as I sank to the deck and I said 'we're going to sell everything. We've got to do something.' My wife, to her eternal credit, said, 'yes we are.' I loved the Navy and I would've stayed there forever. But I had to do something. I was so tired of seeing my friends dying of suicide and just being lost. These are guys that I had served with and they were hyper-capable, hyper-competent. All the sudden they would just be hollowed–out versions of themselves that were drifting aimlessly into the shadows."

Prado speaks with students.

Prado started what would eventually become Workshops for Warriors by inviting service members receiving treatment in Bethesda to his home to hang out. He said they loved to tinker in his garage. This got him thinking about next steps. Most of the service members being treated in Bethesda were only there for four to six months. This ruled out apprenticeships which can take up to 10,000 hours to complete, he said, and college degrees which can take years. Professional credentials, on the other hand, are stackable and portable, he added.

Next, Prado developed partnerships with multiple U.S. manufacturers to get the equipment, supplies and instructors. As a lieutenant in the Navy he didn't make enough to cover the costs.

"Fortunately, we got some incredible companies that donated time, tools, software and connected us with other people," Prado said. "Little-by-little we started moving forward."

Prado's next move was to take his last Navy assignment in San Diego, California. He said he did this because more people leave the service there – 17,000 a year – than anywhere else in the country.

Machining students.

The current Workshops for Warriors facility takes up three city blocks in San Diego and includes housing and dining facilities for students. A $148 million expansion is slated for next year.

Since 2008, 760 veterans and transitioning service members have graduated from Workshops For Warriors. Prado said 95% of the program's graduates receive job placements with an average salary of $60,000 a year.

Courses are open to honorably discharged veterans and transitioning service members who are within six months of separation. Students take four-month courses in advanced manufacturing, welding fabrication or machine repair. The $25,000 tuition can be covered by the G.I. Bill. For those who don't have access to the G.I Bill, scholarships are available, Prado said.

Each course is coupled with opportunities to gain nationally recognized credentials in welding, machining, computer aided design, computer aided manufacturing and more. Programs are accredited through the Bureau of Private and Post-Secondary Education, American Welding Society and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

Prado said most students have between four and eight written job offers prior to graduation. The only shortcoming he sees in his program is its capacity for students. Workshops for Warriors currently has the ability to teach 162 students per year. But the organization receives seven to ten times that many applications, according to Prado.

To deal with this, there are plans in the works for a train the trainer program and eventual expansion into other locations throughout the country.

Prado said Workshops for Warriors is almost as beneficial to manufacturers as it is to veterans and transitioning service members.

"You have no idea how desperate employers are for properly–trained machinery repair technicians," he said.

Prado said there are 2.4 million advanced manufacturing jobs in the United States currently unfilled due to a lack of skilled labor. That number is projected to rise to 4.8 million over the next ten years.

"If you couple that with the fact that the median age of manufacturing workers today is 57 years old, in 10 years, who is going to build our ships, our aircraft, our bridges, our buildings," Prado asked. "We cannot allow our manufacturing capability and our economic resiliency to be outsourced to China."

Service members or honorably discharged veterans can apply for entry at https://wfw.org/.

This article originally appeared on Military Families Magazine. Follow @MilFamiliesMag on Twitter.