No secret code for successful code welding
Welding skills development and attentiveness to employees help a fabricator stand out in Michigan—and all over the world
Being a code welding shop with an ever-expanding customer base continuously challenges Andy J. Eagan Co. Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich. New customer projects and keeping on top of certification demands require a talented and dedicated workforce. As a result, that’s where the company puts a lot of its focus.
Andy J. Egan Co. Inc., a code shop in Grand Rapids, Mich., has done just that. In fact, it has won the West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For Award for eight years in a row. But what captures the attention of the independent research firm that helps to select the award-winning companies is not likely silly amenities, but rather Andy Egan’s core values of integrity and generosity, according to Amy Jones, the company’s director of human resources. Specifically, the company looks to give generously to its employees in recognition of their contributions, while simultaneously being honest with them about all aspects of the business. The shop has no secret code for its success; it’s about finding and retaining fabricating talent.
The company has a long history of producing quality and complex metal fabrications. The company’s namesake founded the business out of an office in his garage in 1919. Back then people were interested in Egan’s knowledge of coal-fired boilers, stokers, and steam distribution systems.
With Egan’s death in 1932, veteran employee Harold Jasper purchased the company, which still remains in the hands of the Jasper family. Harold’s grandson, Tom Jasper, assumed the role of company president in 1990, after the retirement of his father Earl. Currently three of Harold’s great-grandchildren work in various capacities within the company.
While family ownership has stayed constant over the years, the business has evolved. It no longer just fabricates components for its own projects, but also works with outside customers. Whereas pipe spool once represented a majority of the work done in the company’s 55,000-square-foot pipe fabrication facility, today Andy Egan’s code welders work on plenty of turnkey skid packages—pumps, heat exchangers, and filter assemblies that are complete with electrical components, controls, insulation, and coatings and are tested before being sent out to be installed as part of a larger system (see Figure 1). This focus on customized work—and the company’s experience with the mechanical contracting side of the business, not just fabrication—put it in a unique place when compared to its nearest competitors.
Being a pipe fabrication shop, Andy Egan manufactures products that meet the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Section IX standards, the definitive guide to boiler, pressure vessel, and pipework codes in the U.S. Shops that embrace these standards require a special kind of welder because they are called upon to act as their own inspectors; these welders not only have to know how to butt weld two pieces of 0.5-in. stainless steel plate, as an example, but they have to be able to look at it and recognize if the weld could pass an inspection. These are individuals who make a commitment to becoming better fabricators, according to Pat Heffron, Andy Egan’s director of fabrication.
“Those welders are the best ones,” he said. “They care about making sure they have all of the appropriate procedures and are qualified to them. They care about maintaining them, staying busy, and putting out a good product at the highest rate of speed possible.”
Andy Egan employs about 24 welders at the fabrication shop (see Figure 2) and between 30 and 50 that work in the field. Another 20 or so may do some welding in the field, but they probably would be recognized more as ironworkers than welders, Heffron said.
As noted, the company has the appropriate ASME certifications and corresponding stamps, but it also has certifications in the American Petroleum Institute 1104 pipeline weld procedures, the American Welding Society’s D1.1 structural welding code, and the European Pressure Equipment Directive. Its welders are certified for gas tungsten arc, gas metal arc, flux-cored arc, shielded metal arc, submerged arc, and oxyfuel welding for different types of materials, positions, and joint types. The welders work mostly with carbon and stainless steel, but they also have experience with aluminum, titanium, and exotic alloys.
Maintaining Welding Talent
To find the welding talent it needs to compete, Andy Egan draws from Local 174, the home of unionized plumbers and pipefitters of west Michigan. To keep up with all of the certifications for these welders, the company uses an internally developed Microsoft Access® database that connects certification dates with employee identification numbers. When a welder’s continuity—the prescribed length of time (typically about six months) that the welder has been consistently applying the certified welding skills while on the job—is near expiration, company management sends a reminder in the welder’s paycheck, telling him that the appropriate paperwork needs to be addressed. By staying on top of the continuity paperwork, Andy Egan can help its welders avoid having to be recertified.
“It takes a lot of work,” said Heffron, referring to the organizational effort needed to stay on top of everyone’s certification status.
This certification tracking actually begins right out of the gate during orientation with new employees. Because a welder can come to the job with certifications obtained through the union, Andy Egan’s human resources department finds out just what certified welding skills the individual has. From there the company can do a little digging to ensure that the employee’s recollections are consistent with the actual status of his certifications and that he can actually produce the weld he is certified for.
Heffron describes the mix of code welders as a nice blend of old and new. The best welders, however, aren’t necessarily defined by age. Some happen to be in their 20s, and others are nearing retirement.
“There is a full gamut. That helps with the training,” Heffron said. “The seeds are always planted.”
By “seeds” he is referring to the new crop of apprentices that are working their way up to journeyman status. At that level, a welder can earn about $30 an hour.
Even with the union hall being a good source for welding talent and a worthwhile career path being evident to young people interested in becoming a code welder, Andy Egan is always looking out for more welders. That leads the company to look at nearby universities with good industrial technology curriculums or community colleges with HVAC programs with some concentration in welding as possible sources for future code welders.
“[Those institutions] have a good working relationship with the union hall, so they can find their way into code welding,” Heffron said.
If there were any specific skills that Andy Egan was looking for, Heffron said it would be in the area of gas metal arc welding, also known as MIG welding. The welding process is not traditionally associated with code work, like shielded metal arc (stick) and gas tungsten arc (TIG) welding are, but it is gaining more traction in the industry because of the high speed at which a quality bead can be laid down.
That leads the pipe fabricator to encourage and support welders who may be certified in stick welding to become certified in other areas, such as MIG welding. Having a staff of code welders with experience in a variety of processes makes it easier for Andy Egan to be responsive to customer demands.
“What we value is a utility type of player,” Heffron said. “It’s so much easier to manage the manpower when an individual has multiple certifications and he can weld most of your processes. It’s a lot easier to manage the work load and distribute it among the welders if you are not constantly trying to pick the right piece for the right welder.”
Retaining Skilled Welders
Finding the welding talent, maintaining certifications, and supporting cross-training are very important aspects of Andy Egan’s business model.
Retaining those employees, however, is probably most crucial because it prevents a revolving door of welders on the shop floor and in the field, which can be a real challenge in maintaining safe working environments and quality fabrications.
“It’s all about retention,” Heffron said. “Not only grooming the employees and working with the local union to get employees onboard, but also once they are here, creating a culture that they want to be a part of, take pride in their work, and share in the growth of the company.
“That’s our focus here,” he added. “When we do get the good individuals, we keep them.”
That’s why Andy Egan was recognized as a best place to work. It’s serious about the way it interacts with employees and recognizes them for good work.
Some of the ways that the company is accomplishing this are:
- Regular events honoring the workforce. These might include a large employee event with catered food and drink; games, such as having managers sit in dunk tanks; raffles for TVs, gift cards, and cash; and regular cookouts where the office staff works the serving lines.
- $50 handshakes for employees. Company executives randomly walk around the shop floor and hand out a $50 bill to an employee who might have a nicely organized workspace or has demonstrated a noteworthy effort in dealing with a customer.
- “Egan bucks” to promote positive employee activity. If employees demonstrate safe work practices, keep their training and certifications updated, or make a useful suggestion to improve operations, for example, they are eligible for the “bucks,” which then can be cashed in for company apparel or items such a coolers or sports gear.
“We recognize that the organization is made up of individuals who have chosen to dedicate their time to our business, and we try to give generously to our employees in recognition of their contributions and to be upfront and honest with them,” Jones said. “The feedback that we get from employees is that we are achieving this and that they appreciate our commitment to these values.”
The combination of welding talent and management support for employees has resulted in Andy Egan expanding its customer base. It is not limited to energy; chemical, food, and pharmaceutical processing; industrial; and water and wastewater treatment customers in the Midwest. The company with just over 300 employees and with annual revenues of $11 million from fabricating work is sending its products all over the world, including places like Argentina, Brazil, China, and India.
“It ties back to the type of employee that we want. They take pride in that work and the ownership that they have in it,” Heffron said. “It puts a smile on their face when they see their work go all over the world.”
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.