Rebuilding America’s Advanced Manufacturing Workforce, One Veteran at a Time

August 24, 2017 / Current News

By Don Esmond, Forbes

On January 3, 2005, Marine Staff Sergeant John Jones was leading his platoon in a convoy on his second combat tour in Iraq when a double-stack anti-tank mine exploded under his vehicle. The thunderous blast blew him 25 feet into the air and when the dust settled, Jones had been severely injured. He had lost both his legs below the knee and his career in the Marine Corps.

He spent the next two years in rehab at Brooke Army Medical Center and the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas. He was medically discharged in 2007 after 12 years in the Marine Corps. At age 30, he faced the challenge of starting a new career in a civilian world he left right after high school.

That was 10 years ago. When I met him four years ago, I learned that he had not only found that new career, but also was using his Marine training and the skills he had acquired since leaving the corps to help other veterans making that same challenging transition.

Today, John is director of development at Workshops for Warriors, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Diego, California. WFW provides veterans with accredited training, certification and job placement in well-paying occupations in advanced manufacturing — Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) Milling and Turning, Machinery Repair, Computer Aided Design (CAD), Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and Welding — that are in heavy demand, especially in the aeronautics and defense industries.

If these veterans had to pay for this training, John said it would cost them over $20,000 apiece per 16-week accelerated semester. However, thanks to donations from private businesses and individuals, WFW not only provides the training at no cost to the veteran, but also provides a stipend for veterans in need to cover living expenses during the training period. The training and stipend add up to more than $30,000 paid by the organization.

I know from my own work with veterans’ programs like Hiring Our Heroes that there is a pressing need for training and job placement for those men and women who have fought to keep our nation safe. Through Hiring Our Heroes, we wanted to help veterans and transitioning service members relate their military skills and training with civilian workforce experience. As a result, Hiring our Heroes in partnership with Toyota developed Resume Engine — a free, online tool that helps veterans and transitioning service members create resumes that capture military experience and translate military skills so it resonates with civilian employers.

Like Resume Engine, WFW is helping to meet the need for training and job placement in the veteran community as well for the need of U.S. manufacturers. He cited a 2015 Ford Foundation study that found 2.3 million advanced manufacturing jobs are presently unfilled, and over the next decade that number will swell by 2.7 million as baby boomers retire. The study noted that manufacturing today is not the dirty, dangerous job of yesteryear. Advanced technology has turned manufacturing into clean, safe, high-tech workplaces.

WFW seeks to help fill that widening gap with veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members. The program’s motto is “Rebuilding America’s Manufacturing Workforce, One Veteran at a Time.”

WFW’s students can sign up for the 16-week training program via the organization’s website.  Additional semesters lead to advanced certifications, which ultimately lead to higher pay According to John, students who take the four-month course earn nationally recognized certification from the American Welding Society (AWS), National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), SolidWorks, Mastercam University, Immerse2Learn and the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3).

With these credentials, graduates are getting jobs paying $15-$25 an hour. Ninety-four percent of all WFW graduates are working in the area in which they trained, which I believe is a testament to the quality of the training being offered by WFW.

 Although John didn’t start WFW, his wounding in Iraq led to its founding. Back in 1996, he served with a Navy corpsman, Hernán Luis y Prado. “We stayed in touch over the years,” said John, “and when Hernán saw me after my amputation in 2005, he decided he had to do something. He and his wife, Rachel, sold what they had and founded Workshops for Warriors. Hernán told me I was the catalyst.”

That was in 2008. Since then, WFW has trained and placed 380 veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members, who have earned a total of 1,648 nationally recognized certifications that enabled the graduates to work in advanced manufacturing. “The training they receive is intense,” John said. “We condense two years of community college or trade school into 16 weeks.”

WFW operates on an annual budget of $2.4 million, and 83 percent of its donations go directly to the training programs. This allows the organization to conduct three 16-week semesters a year with 50 to 60 students per semester. WFW is licensed by the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education and is in year seven of the eight-year process to earn GI Bill eligibility. John said they hope to secure that approval in April 2019 which will allow WFW to serve many more veterans annually.

“There are 550 veterans, wounded warriors and transitioning service members on our waiting list; we get 10 more inquiries each week; and there are over 2,500 job opportunities for each of our graduates,” John said. “The only thing stopping us from rapidly moving forward right now is funding.”

The organization outgrew its first facility and moved to one 10 times larger at 23,000 square feet in 2011. Since then, it has expanded to an adjacent building. Now John is leading a Capital Campaign to raise $21 million. He’s raised $4 million so far.

WFW is currently building three new training buildings in San Diego. Longer term, WFW plans to create 103 additional facilities across the country. Each will be located in an area with high numbers of transitioning service members and advanced manufacturing. “Each of these sites will take on a different aspect of the manufacturing trades,” he said.

All of the instructors are veterans with more than 30 years of experience in the given fields of study.

Although John was the catalyst for WFW’s founding, he only joined the organization last October. By then, he had rebuilt his life through a series of career moves: he began by putting his Marine Corps experience to work as a firearms training instructor at the Center for the Intrepid, the privately funded rehabilitation center for service members and veterans who have lost a limb or suffered major burns. Over the next several years, he attended executive training programs at the Wharton School of Business and the University of Texas; served as executive director of the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation, a nonprofit that prepared veterans for a career in the financial services industry; worked for a company that developed software to help therapists serving military service members in rehab; and served as director of sales and training at a firm that provided tactical and weapons training to local law enforcement agencies.

In 2012, John joined the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation as a business development officer responsible for New York City, Chicago and

Colorado. The MCSF is an organization I’ve been involved with for many years. It provides scholarships to the children of Marines and Navy corpsmen, particularly those who were killed or wounded in combat. I’m pleased to say that since its founding in 1962, it has provided more than 37,000 scholarships valued at over $110 million.

At Workshops for Warriors, John said, “If people want to say they helped rebuild manufacturing in America, this is the way… Companies tell us our graduates — with their training, mission and dedication — are outperforming their civilian counterparts.”

It has been a long journey for John since that terrible day in Iraq. Throughout that odyssey, he has demonstrated the can-do spirit that I love about my fellow Marines. Workshops for Warriors is one of many valuable programs serving our veterans, and they deserve our support rebuilding America one veteran at a time.  Oo-rah.