What skilled-welder shortage? A Georgia shop trains code-level welders from square one
April 3, 2012
In a 2010 survey from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, respondents cited welding as the most sought-after, difficult-to-find technical skill. But at Mitchell's Specialized Fabrication, managers don't look for that experience. They look for someone with a good attitude, eager to learn.
Scott Mitchell is here to weld. In January the president and owner of Mitchell’s Specialized Fabrication oversaw one of the company’s biggest transitions to date. The firm was moving from a facility east of Douglasville, Ga., to a much larger one west of town. So where was he when a FABRICATOR magazine reporter arrived in early February? Not behind a desk or on the phone, but instead driving a fork truck, maneuvering between a new plate roll and a plasma cutting table, setting up shop.
One of his employees approached him to ask about where to put a welding machine. Mitchell talked about optimal placement, how large pressure vessels, tanks, industrial piping, and related work would flow through the shop. He feels at home near machinery, metal, and a hot welding arc. Give him a batch of E7018 electrodes and a shielded metal arc welding machine, and he’d be ready to climb up a ladder or descend into a hole—go anywhere that’s necessary to get a welding job done. To emphasize a point, his voice lowers about an octave.
“Our guys are here,” Mitchell said, before pausing to add a guttural coda, “to weld.”
For years Mitchell spent time on big pipeline jobs, working for multinationals like KBR. Then in 1998 he decided to launch his own welding company. Why, exactly?
The response belied his gruff welder façade. “I didn’t like working with people I didn’t enjoy working with,” he said. “I had done that for so long, and I just wanted to be around people I love and wanted to be blessed with. That’s my sole reason for going into business.”
If he just stopped there, you might not think that reason too farfetched for an owner of a 20-person fabrication shop that produces pressure vessels, pipe, and tanks to various codes (see Figure 1). Mitchell’s team is certified to perform S Stamp welding (for power boilers), U Stamp welding (for pressure vessels), and R Stamp work (repair and alteration welding) as governed by the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code and the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors.
This isn’t welding for the uninitiated. Make a mistake in this line of work, and lives are at stake. You need good people. So Mitchell launched a business to surround himself with people having years of welding experience—right? Not at all, he said. In fact, most of his new hires come to his company with little if any welding experience.
Mitchell wouldn’t have it any other way.
In a 2010 survey from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, respondents cited welding as the most sought-after, difficult-to-find technical skill. And for many small businesses, in-house training presents a Catch 22. Managers may train an employee, but after all the time and investment, that same employee may leave for a larger company and more pay.
When hearing about the skilled-labor crisis and the difficulty many fabricators have finding and keeping good people, Mitchell shook his head slowly and chuckled. “I don’t understand all that. To me, I think it’s silly. You’ve got to develop your people. You need to have faith in that. You have to make people believe in what you’ve got to do. People want to see growth. They want to see things going on. They want to have horizons, something they can be inspired by.”
He conceded that his company’s code-level welding niche by nature fosters this kind of company culture. Welders aren’t a piece of a production puzzle. They are the whole puzzle. They pass qualification tests, continually proving that their welds will indeed hold. Without code-level welding, Mitchell’s Specialized Fabrication wouldn’t exist.
Not only that, they produce and repair the pressure vessels, power piping, and tanks that are the foundation for industry. The company held its own during the 2009 downturn, when many of its customers put off needed updates to their pressure vessels, tanks, and power piping. That’s why MSF experienced a significant uptick in emergency repair work. Today service and repair field work makes up about 60 percent of shop revenue, while the rest comes from in-house fabrication.
“This is a precision industry, a volatile industry, a hardened industry,” Mitchell said. “But it’s a needed industry for other companies to function, and there’s a lot of opportunity to grow.” He added that new opportunities help the fabricator attract good people. It’s not monotonous work. Welders often face a new challenge every day.
Mitchell prefers someone green simply because that person comes to the job with no preconceptions. He has hired experienced welders who apparently had good track records, but they didn’t pass muster for Mitchell. “We have had so many of those guys come in, and they just can’t produce a thing. In the welding business, there are a lot of prima donnas, a lot of golden arms. Other companies may expect 40 to 50 inches of weld a day. We expect 150 to 200 inches.” Again, his guttural coda: “We’re here to weld.”
When interviewing job candidates, Mitchell first reads people for attitude. He looks for visual cues, like their posture. Do they ask questions? Do they want to be part of a hands-on company like this? A slouched interviewee who keeps quiet, doesn’t ask questions, or doesn’t make eye contact probably won’t get a job offer. In fact, the interview would be over in a hurry.
Those who get the job don’t step near a welding gun on their first day, of course. “We’re old-school here,” Mitchell said. The experienced help the less experienced, and about three team leaders as well as Mitchell himself monitor their progress.
“They start out as grunts. They fetch this and that. Then we teach them how a grinder works, how to put a 37-degree bevel on pipe. It’s about baby steps.”
When the newbies are ready, Mitchell’s team introduces them to shielded metal arc welding and hands them a rod. “They need to be good at stick, or they’ll never touch a wire machine. I don’t want that in my shop. It’s not the way we grow them.”
Wire requires gas and extra setup time, a luxury in the field. True, if a good wire welder and stick welder struck an arc at the same time on identical welds, the wire welder would win every time. Problem is, in the field SMAW shines, thanks to its portability and ease of setup. The wire welder must bring shielding gas. And even if he uses a self-shielded wire process, he still must lug a suitcase containing all the required equipment. By the time that wire welder strikes an arc in the field, a stick welder may already be halfway through a project.
Of course, Mitchell uses wire for field jobs that demand it, and in-house workers weld almost exclusively using gas metal arc and flux-cored arc welding. Since moving into the new plant in January, Mitchell expects to burn through a lot more wire in the years to come.
Mitchell launched his business in 1998 literally out of the back of his truck. Ever since, field welding has generated the majority of company revenue, and for good reason. Repair work is good business. If a plant has a pressure vessel accident, it needs qualified welders immediately, and customers are willing to pay well for that service.
Over the years Mitchell expanded into industrial plant construction, providing on-site fabrication of new power piping, tanks, and vessels. In the beginning he took any work he could get, but over the years he shifted the shop’s focus toward owner-controlled projects, not ones managed by general contractors. “I know what that game is about,” he said. “We’ve been on those general contractor jobs, and we’ve worked with the HVAC guys and the plumbers. It’s so hard for those guys to make a buck, and we don’t want to be in that place. We work directly with the owners, and we want to help them develop their entire plan.”
These plans often involve turnkey projects. The shop welds, assembles, and delivers the vessels and tanks, but it also can subcontract and install the necessary pumps, instrumentation, electrical elements, and concrete pads.
Previously an asphalt plant, the new facility represents a significant turning point for MSF (see Figure 2). The company’s new plate roll will allow it to bring more vessel and tank fabrication in-house. Mitchell may be old-school, but he doesn’t deny that more in-house cutting, forming, and fabrication will make the shop much more productive. Unlike field work, in-shop fabrication occurs in a controlled environment.
And in the shop, wire processes will dominate. But what if a vessel in the shop needs a small valve installed? That’s still a job for stick welding. “I’m not going to mobilize a wire feeder and everything else just to install a 2-inch valve,” Mitchell said.
Changing a welding process doesn’t happen overnight for code-level work. This year Mitchell expects his team will be writing new welding procedure specifications (WPS), qualified with procedure qualification records (PQR), and testing welder performance (welder performance qualifications, or WPQ). Still, the entire process does foster a detail-oriented culture. Welders must continually prove their competency.
The company sends out test coupons to a third party, but the fabricator generates all WPS in-house. In fact, he uses the process to gain a competitive advantage. MSF’s welding procedures are buttressed with testing and documentation, but they’re customized for the job at hand. Those WPS are basically the company’s secret sauce. “We do different welding procedures from what other welding contractors do. We apply the correct welding method for what is needed. If you’ve got something that’s going to be running 5 pounds of pressure, why cap it out with a 7018 rod? Why take all that extra expenditure, all that extra time? You have to know what your product is and what you’re installing.”
Like many small businesses, MSF is striving for diversity while not straying too far from its niche. If the company gets a structural fabrication job—a stairway or a catwalk, for instance—it takes on the work; the company employs several team members dedicated to the sector. But for the most part, service field welding, pressure piping, pressure vessels, and tanks remain MSF’s bread and butter.
Mitchell said he expects major growth for MSF. “During the next three years, I want to double this size and capacity, to have this whole 12 acres filled with tanks, just waiting to be shipped.” He also expects to hire many more welders in the year to come. And his company will train them—or, as Mitchell put it, “bring them up.”
He conceded that, yes, there’s always that risk that they are creating a skilled worker who may leave for another company. But that’s a necessary risk, and a smaller one compared to bringing in an experienced person with a bad attitude. As Mitchell sees it, it’s easier to shape new perceptions and attitudes than it is to erase old ones.
“How can you have a functioning business and not want to develop your people? Business is about investment, about taking time to develop your people,” he said. “If you don’t love and care about your people, and you don’t want to see them grow, then you shouldn’t be in business, period. There’s just no place for that.”