November 8, 2011
In his inimitable style, Marty Rice shares his thoughts on the welding job market and what today’s employers want from their welders. He also gives examples of some deficiencies employers are seeing.
As I always do, I’m going to begin this article by telling you about something crazy that has happened to me, or something stupid I have done. And boy, howdy, do I have a stupid one this time!
So, I’m at a California beach house with family and have my niece and nephew with me. They’re all at the beach, so I head down there in my bathing suit, bare feet, and farmer’s tan, blinding anyone not wearing sunglasses with my bright-white skin. As I’m sucking in my gut and flexing my arms, I step on the beach, and after a quarter of the way to the ocean, I realize the sand is about 200 dadgummed degrees! I keep walking, and at the halfway point am ready to start screaming like a little kid who touched a hot stove, but I don’t because I have to keep up my macho image.
I’ve been going to the California beaches since I was 3, but never have I stepped on sand that danged hot! I had no choice but to keep on going, and finally ran into the ice-cold ocean to quench my poor little feet! So then my nephew and I head out to buy me some sandals. It’s about half a mile down the beach, and instead of walking in the cool ocean, we walk back across the scorching sand! Again I am suppressing little-kid screams until we finally get to the walkway … the asphalt walkway.
Now my teenage nephew is sharing in my pain as we try to decide whether the sand or asphalt is the least painful. We get to the surf shop, and I realize I left my wallet and cell phone behind. I tell my nephew to call for help, and he says he left his phone behind also. So we do this crazy walk, stepping just long enough on the poor burned pads of our poor feet to then put the other poor burned little foot down—looking like a couple of nitwits.
The first day of my vacation and I have second-degree blisters all over the bottom of my feet.
Luckily, my teenage nephew is tough and it never bothered him a lick. Being an old-school welder, I had my Chippewa boots and Red Wing socks with me, which made everything OK but hindered my beach time.
And like my vacation, which was great with the exception of the foot-burning episode, welding can be the same. There will be times that suck and there will be times that are great—hopefully, mostly great times! Of course, that is true in just about any job out there.
Three years ago I was echoing a Wall Street Journal article announcing a predicted manpower shortage of more than 100,000 welders in the next 10 years. Guys like me are retiring, and very few young people are entering the trade. “It’s gonna be great! You’ll be able to go wherever you want to work and make big bucks,” I told my students. But then came the recession, and all that optimism went right down the drain, along with all those great jobs.
With concerns about the economy and apprehension of health care reform, many employers put jobs on hold or eliminated them altogether. I’d been through that in the ’80s with the savings and loan debacle, and it wasn’t pretty. When I first came to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, back then the union hall sent me to a street where they were building an office tower and told me to look for “the 518.” (A Link-Belt, which was a common crane in the area, usually red, with a couple hundred feet of boom up in the air, on tracks like a tank, that was capable of lifting 100 tons.)
When I finally found that street (after driving all over the place and, of course, not asking for any directions, because real men don’t do that), I saw buildings going up everywhere. I counted at least 20 cranes, more than half of them Link-Belts. There was work everywhere, and if you didn’t like your boss, you could drag up (quit) and be working for a different company the next morning.
A couple of years later, those good times came to a screeching halt when the Savings and Loan crisis hit Texas. Things changed literally overnight when we came into work and looked across the street at a half-completed, 30-floor high-rise. It was deserted, with all the company trailers, work trailers, and almost all of the equipment gone. A couple of crews were taking down the tower cranes, and that was it. All the other workers were standing around looking bewildered with their last check in their hands. (They were actually lucky to get their parting checks; I worked on a couple of jobs that went belly-up without us getting our money!)
With exceptions depending on location, structural welders have had a rough road these last couple of years. Of course, work is always available somewhere, if you are willing to pack a suitcase, but even that has been difficult according to many of my former students and buddies out in the field. Ahhhh, but that is finally beginning to change.
A friend of mine in Indiana has crews working two shifts and is thinking about adding crews around-the-clock. Local companies have been calling for welders. Former students I keep up with are working all over the country at construction sites, pipelines, and shipyards. And I’ve been hearing good news about future welding through the rumor-mill and the union halls.
If our economy improves, and being an optimist, I think it will, I see a big-time shortage of welders on the horizon. Even if the recession hangs over us longer than expected, I still see a shortage because our infrastructure literally is falling apart.
I just read about workers putting nets under bridges to keep worn-out and rotting debris from falling on people, cars, and boats as they travel underneath! My first thought was, “You gotta be kidding me; how the heck has it gotten that bad without someone doing something about it?” But I then remembered it’s all about politics and money. It’s gonna take a lot of money, and where money is involved, politics come into play with red tape and infighting over who gets what and how the money will be raised and used federally, statewide, and locally. It’s complicated, but I have faith that we will rework our infrastructure creating jobs galore.
Welders, whether old hands or new to the trade, are going to be expected to be at the top of their games. With construction costs soaring, companies aren’t going to have time for any half-assed hands. More will be asked of welders in the future, whether they are working in fabrication plants or in the field. At an advisory board meeting at a local community college with other welding educators, company owners, a CEO, a welding engineer, and an inspector, I heard more than once that welders are going to have to become “technical.”
Over the years I’ve asked many employers which characteristics and abilities they are looking for from their welders. Most want them to be:
At the advisory board meeting, a few problems were discussed about the deficiencies seen in welders applying for jobs working on a suspension bridge and in a fabrication plant:
Technical welders will be expected to do all of the above plus:
If you’re willing to embrace these lifelong learning ideas, you are going to be a success in the future and an asset to our great fraternity. Welding, the last of the great industrial trades!