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By Gretchen Salois

Reversing the stigma: Welders have a solid stake in the future of manufacturing

January 2018 - A class from a private grammar school wandered over one day to the American Welding Society’s welding trailer in Ohio. Surrounded by digital welding simulators, the students quickly split into a battle of boys versus girls. “The girls were just killing,” recalls Duncan Estep, center director for Weld-Ed. “It just so happened that day Governor Kasich showed up. He asked one of the girls what she thought of welding and she told him, ‘Well… I never really considered welding before but … maybe I could be a welder.’”

Welding is not an obsolete occupation. In fact, it is very much alive. However, the average welder is 57 years old. Reliable replacements with a fraction of the knowledge and skills that retirees take with them are not easy to find. Part of the difficulty the industry faces is there isn’t enough effort to actively fill those vacant positions until it is too late.

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Weld-Ed students are taught the latest welding techniques as well as soft skills and materials training to understand the science behind the process.

As technology evolves so, too, do welder job descriptions and required skills. Laying down a strong seam is just one of the skills worth noting as manufacturing floors around the world shift to high-tech production with automation. Welding technicians must possess critical thinking and problem solving skills while using advanced technology.

“Within the next decade, there will be a need to fill nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs, and a current gap in essential manufacturing skills will likely result in some 2 million of those jobs going unfilled,” warns Monica Pfarr, executive director at the American Welding Society Foundation (AWS).

Jobs in the trades retain a negative stigma but that hasn’t stunted industry growth—yet. “The welding industry alone is expected to produce at least 5,000 new job openings each year in the U.S., at the same time that the talent pool is decreasing,” she says.

Access denied

The stigma associated with skilled trades remains as Career Technical Education (CTE), an educational curriculum for future industrial workers, suffers from up to a 25 percent shortage of CTE teachers in manufacturing and sciences, according to AWS. U.S. federal funding for these educational programs are on the decline and shop classes are still unavailable to the majority of public school students. Atop that, in an effort to save cash short term, companies often neglect apprenticeship programs, a sound investment in the long term.

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Tooling U-SME urges manufacturers to be proactive in cultivating tomorrow's workforce instead of waiting until it is too late.

Efforts like the Every Student Succeeds Act “offer hope,” says Pfarr, but that opportunity is relegated to individual states to enforce it. According to AWS, only 37 percent of Americans believe the U.S. manufacturing industry is experiencing resurgence. Yet, says Pfarr, “there are many good-paying manufacturing jobs and opportunities abound in high-tech industries. Welding skills, in particular, are broadly transferable across different manufacturing industries and can be viewed as a highly salable, high-tech occupation.”

AWS offers scholarships and works to help people learn about careers in welding. That trailer in Ohio gives visitors a chance to glimpse what the work is like. AWS partners with several organizations and with educators like Weld-Ed, funded by the National Science Foundation, which focuses on technicians with an associate’s degree in welding technology.

Slowly but surely

Efforts are starting to make an impact. “Whereas years before, parents didn’t want to see their children working a skilled trade, we’re starting to see that sentiment reverse,” says Estep at Weld-Ed.

Weld-Ed trains welding technicians to wield soft skills in addition to laying down a good seam. “Welders need to understand that, in addition to being able to weld and identify a good weld, programming and critical thinking are required as technology advances,” Estep says. “Welding is a high-tech industry: 90 percent of welding technician training requires material training in particular, whether welding metal to metal or to plastics.”

A well-rounded welder must be able to work with a group of people and exhibit professionalism. “One in 10 qualified welders has those qualities that make them a reliable employee,” Estep says.

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Choosing a welding career can change life for the better. “I knew a guy who was delivering pizzas who decided to train to become a welder,” Estep says. “After a year of training, [he] took a job with a pipeline company. [He] went to work on time and did a good job and he’s netting $150,000 a year. His case is not rare because the demand for people who can do the job and come to work on time have a solid future in the industry.”

Welding, says Estep, is ubiquitous. Work can be found on pipelines, offshore rigs, bridges, ships, commercial construction, manufacturing operations and fabrication shops. “The people who know this are already employed.”

Weld-Ed works with instructors to teach welding technology curriculum alongside teaching metallurgy and the science behind joining materials, programming robots and much more. “A welding technician must become a subject matter expert—from holding the torch to analyzing nondestructive testing—and that need will continue,” Estep stressed.

Welders are crucial, he says. They make an engineer’s visions come to fruition. “And that’s the point: As a welding tech, you need to troubleshoot and figure things out and by understanding the material you’re working with and making sure you’re selecting the right rods and the weld is the way it needs to be, that takes foresight.”

Silver tsunami

Jeannine Kunz, vice president at Tooling U-SME, says 88 percent of manufacturers report they have difficulty filling jobs. “But when you ask them if they have a plan to address the issue, more than half reply they don’t. Manufacturers are not always focused on human capital and workforce development,” she notes, adding, “Many are small businesses focused on operations, so we tend to see a high execution gap. These problems end up being addressed once the situation is at the extreme point, and that’s what’s challenging.”

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SME works with schools, companies and educators to help spread the training opportunities available to students and incumbent employees.

“Automation is changing the way manufacturing employees work and it’s creating brand new jobs for the workforce,” Kunz says.

SME and its training and development arm, Tooling U-SME, hold events to work on strategy to recruit and retain skilled trade candidates. The work emphasizes “the value in making larger investments in learning and development programs and ensuring that baby boomers leaving the workforce don’t take their years of tribal knowledge with them without passing their intel down to the next generation,” she says. “More companies are asking us to help them retain this knowledge before they’re faced with the silver tsunami [referring to retirees].”

Manufacturing and fabrication jobs are not cookie cutter positions. “We’re helping manufacturers and educators plan for jobs that don’t exist yet, such as data scientists and technicians that analyze information from sensors, etc.,” Kunz says. “With all the new software technology that accompanies the latest machines, manufacturers need workers who can handle the type of problem solving involved with [new machines and programming].”

Manufacturing professionals are aware of obstacles in hiring. What has caught them off guard is that the current workforce is being outpaced by technology, so “now they’re scrambling, trying to establish learning and development programs to catch up,” Kunz says.

Automation is not the enemy

Speaking plainly, automation does adjust for worker shortages where labor costs are high, says Jukka Rantala, vice president of Pematek Oy Ltd., a welding automation manufacturer. Repetitive, high-quality welds produced by robots automate tasks and can streamline production processes. “The idea, however, is not to replace welders but to move the manual welders to a task that can’t be automated,” says Rantala.

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A specialist in the shipbuilding industry, Pematek receives requests from companies either seeking to automate every process possible, or automating so they can reallocate workers elsewhere. “But it’s not always feasible to automate every task,” he says. “For tasks like a short weld, it makes no sense to have a robot. There needs to be a balance between both.”

Welders must often adapt to working with robotic welding systems, but that may requiring additional training. “We take the typical welder and give him training for a few weeks and after he is able to use the robot, it becomes an extension of his own hand,” Rantala says. “The robot does the dirty work while the technician can go off and handle something else.”

In Australia, K-TIG CEO Neil Le Quesne says the average age of welders in the U.K. and Australia is not far behind the U.S. at 55. “The dramatic decline is compounded by the manufacturing industry in general—and oil and gas industries in particular—has grown exponentially since mid-2009, accelerating job demand for specialist welders,” he says.

The U.S. is expected to have a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024, according to AWS.

“The default position of many parents is to encourage their children to dig themselves into sometimes insurmountable debt by pursuing one of more four-year degree programs,” says Le Quesne. “By contrast, welding is and will increasingly be a pathway to a long and rewarding career in an industry which will experience insatiable demand for decades to come.

“The opportunity this represents to millennials is outstanding—there is absolutely no shortage in work, only a shortage of workers,” he continues.

Flexibility important

Finding qualified welders in rural Utah, for example, is no small feat. “It’s because of that needed flexibility—we’re not having our welders work on one widget day in and day out—it’s hard to find workers who can acclimate to the changes that occur on a daily basis,” says Bob Greer, shop superintendent at Tech-Steel Inc. The shop often trains new hires in house so they will be able to work with the various thicknesses customers expect.

“Sometimes you’re shooting from the hip when deciding to take a chance on someone to train them, but if they show that desire to learn and eagerness to work, odds are they’re going to be a good addition to our team,” Greer says.

Tech-Steel works with a local job corps that runs apprenticeships. “We don’t get a lot of out-of-state interest,” Greer says. “So we do what we can to lure in quality [local candidates] with consistent, well-paying work.”

Retaining talent is an ongoing challenge for many companies, including Tech-Steel. “We cross-train so our employees can be capable of more than one skill on the production line. Sometimes they take that information and go elsewhere, but we get a high retention rate—we’ve been here for 50 years and we’ve retired many people out of the shop. They spent their life here raising their families and making Tech-Steel a major part of their lives. We work to make sure that sentiment continues.”

Tech-Steel’s investment in its local talent pool is something SME’s Kunz touts as essential to avoid labor shortages. “Taking a proactive approach and discussing workforce challenges with key stakeholders will help better address this problem head on,” Kunz advises. “Procrastination costs more in the end, so if manufacturers want to increase productivity and impact their company’s bottom line, they will make personnel development a huge part of their business planning.”

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