Cure for the welder shortage

October 9, 2007
By: Tina M. Buchanan

What can be done to combat the skilled welder shortage? Longtime welding educator and inspector Tina Buchanan has some ideas that require cooperation among educational facilities at all levels, industry, and parents. Among her recommendations are restructuring educational programs, more industry involvement, and parental support of children's career interests.

Welding Teacher

Photo courtesy of EAA Sportair workshops

Everyone in the welding field is talking about the welder shortage. Every meeting I attend, the talk surrounds the need for welders.

As a certified welding educator working in an institution of higher learning, I am inundated with calls for welders. As a certified welding inspector in industry, I am asked if I have any welders ready to go to work. I reply that all of my good welders are working, or I ask if the business is willing to work around my students' school schedules. The answer I receive is usually that the employer needs someone full-time and available to work any shift.

Now that we all are aware of the welder shortage, we need to institute an action plan. Many avenues to circumvent the shortage exist, but they require people working together to obtain the cure.

Shift in Educational Focus

A shift in thinking regarding how educational programs are administered must occur. Programs need to be geared toward the success of the student instead of the preconceived notion that every student is college-bound. There are two types of students, academic and skill-oriented, and they require different types of training.

Secondary Programs. Programs at a secondary level should be designed to allow students to pursue the skills in which they are interested, without being required to take an ever-increasing number of credits that prepare them for college.

Most skill-oriented students want to learn and be proficient in all aspects of a particular skill. Administration across the board needs to understand that the standard courses for these students should be geared toward the application the student will need in his or her chosen field. This enables the student to succeed in these types of courses.

Welding programs should be linked to the industry that supports them. On-the-job training, shadowing, and mentoring opportunities should be incorporated into these programs so that the students can gain real-world knowledge and experience in the field.

College Programs. At the college level, an open-entry, open-exit format that allows students to enter at any time, complete the objectives for the course, and go on to the next course or exit the program to go to work should be implemented. A degree in a skill program should be based on skill-related courses taught by people qualified in the skill. These qualified, skilled instructors know what is required in industry and are best-suited to prepare the student for the work force.

To eliminate the stigma attached to the skilled worker, everyone needs to realize that these are knowledgeable and skilled professionals. Every weld is important, and without welders to repair and fabricate, we wouldn't have tall buildings, bridges, ships, and other parts of our infrastructure.

Industry's Role

Industry needs to be more involved with the educational process. One way to do so is by becoming collectively active in the educational political arena in which legislation concerning the training of potential employees is enacted.

Industry needs to work with the secondary and postsecondary institutions to provide experiential learning opportunities. These opportunities can come in many forms. Industry experts can become active presenters at professional meetings, such as American Welding Society (AWS) section meetings, and inform students of the different jobs available in the welding field.

Industry can provide mentoring, shadowing, and on-the-job training programs to help students integrate into their careers.

Employers can serve on advisory committees, not only at the educational point nearest them, but collaboratively with others to reach the next level in the educational policy hierarchy.

Industry must recognize that to recruit qualified employees, it must offer wages equal to the skill level and increase those wages as the skill level rises.

Exposing Younger People to Skilled Trades

Addressing the welder shortage requires effort beyond appropriate educational programs and industry involvement. Students must be made aware of the antiquated infrastructure and what it is going to take to fix it.

Elementary and middle schools should host more career days to get kids interested in their futures. The focus should not be mainly on the standard careers like doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, and business people. While these jobs are very important, young students should be introduced to the skilled trades and told why they are important.

We need to challenge students to explore the many career options. We have the best information highway available (Internet), and we are promoting it as entertainment rather than a research tool.

As parents, we need to be more encouraging about our children's career interests. Parents and society need to teach children responsibility beginning when they are very young, because this is the most important part of work ethics. A majority of the students of this generation have lost this important trait. This lack of responsibility is the major complaint from our advisory committees for industry and education. The poor work ethic is a costly part of industry and our society as a whole.

Meeting of the Minds

Keep in mind that I am not telling you that I have all the answers. I am relaying my perspective on what I have encountered over the last 16 years in both industry and at different educational levels. Everyone needs to realize that in order to find a cure for the welder shortage, there needs to be a meeting of the minds. Many issues exist within those addressed in this article. As a collective group, we need to identify each issue and design strategies to overcome them. Doing so may cure more than the welding industry; it may cure society's ills.

Tina M. Buchanan

Contributing Writer
West Virginia University, Parkersburg Campus
She is an AWS certified welding educator; AWS certified welding inspector; certified welder in GMAW, GTAW, SMAW, FCAW; ASNT Level II MT, PT; chair of Mid-Ohio Valley section of the American Welding Society; and past chair of the Faculty Senate. She has an M.S. degree in adult and technical education.