Fabricators in search of skilled workers

September 12, 2006
By: Vicki Bell

A recent survey of metal fabricators shows that the vast majority of fabricating companies desperately need skilled labor. These companies are employing various methods to find qualified workers and to compensate for the shortage. Despite the difficulty finding skilled labor, some fabricators would not encourage young people to pursue careers in manufacturing.


The August 2006 "Fabricating Update" hiring survey revealed that the majority of metal manufacturers have job openings they are struggling to fill. Almost 77 percent of respondents are looking for skilled workers and having difficulty finding them. About 6 percent are hiring and having no difficulty finding workers with the necessary skills. Another 15 percent are not hiring, and 2 percent are reducing their work forces.

Of those companies seeking skilled workers, 69.8 percent have been looking for six months or longer, with 14.9 percent searching for more than two years. How are these employers compensating for the limited work force, and what steps are they taking to find the workers they need?

Search and Compensation Measures

The survey asked those companies having difficulty filling openings to specify from a list all the measures they are taking to find workers and what they are doing to make up for the labor shortage. Respondents reported:

  • Increasing current workers' hours — 64.9%
  • Training current workers for other tasks — 57.5%
  • Training unskilled new hires — 56.6%
  • Using temporary workers — 35.5%
  • Seeking workers from trade schools — 33.3%
  • Advertising openings in print media — 48.7%
  • Advertising openings online — 36.8%
  • Increasing new-hire compensation packages — 15.8%
  • Outsourcing work within the U.S. — 18.0%
  • Moving production near- or offshore — 7.0%

Dealing With the Shortage

Some subscribers elaborated on how they are dealing with the limited labor pool. One who works for a wire and strip supplier said, "We are vigorously pursuing lean manufacturing in order to make our current work force more productive. We are trying not to replace positions as workers leave the company. Finding new workers with the skill set we require is difficult. We normally have hired and trained in-house, but recent applicants have been undereducated and/or undermotivated for our skilled positions."

Another who works for a company that builds compressors said, "For several years we have had problems recruiting and then retaining qualified skilled laborers. We adjusted pay scales, but that did not help. We have found the best scenario is to find motivated, hard-working individuals who are eager to learn and train within. Being a small manufacturer, this is a difficult choice, but one that we were forced into because of the skilled labor shortage. This scenario presents other problems with knowledge depth. [The workers] know only what you teach them and cannot bring new ideas and/or better procedures to the table. So you maintain existing processes and procedures, which makes continuous improvement somewhat difficult.

"We also have invested heavily in automation to help ease the volume of workers required. This itself has added to the worker training problems."

Too Few Truly Skilled

A subscriber from a custom sheet metal fabricating company described the company's hiring experience: "For approximately every five workers hired, only one is skilled and committed to work (i.e., punctual, few absences, produces quality work, seeks to advance). Many employees these days have a 'the world owes me' attitude."

A structural steel fabricator said, "We currently are not hiring." However, when we do accept applications, we have plenty of applicants (high local unemployment rate) but few that are skilled. We feel that local schools are not offering vocational training as a viable alternative to college, but rather are using it only for those students that they feel are not likely to pursue a college degree."

A representative from a CO2 laser company said, "[When it comes to skilled labor] we are already toast. The educational system has been dumbed down by political correctness and lawyers to where there are no useful skills being taught. Furthermore, there is insufficient emphasis on the basics as we are graduating functional illiterates with no basic math skills or science/technology base. [These graduates can], however, put a condom on a cucumber, though few can spell either."

Manufacturing Careers — Yes or No

The "Fabricating Update" survey also asked subscribers whether they would encourage young people to pursue manufacturing careers. Opinions ran the gamut from definitely yes to absolutely not.

Yes—Respondents who would recommend that young people pursue careers in manufacturing outnumbered those who would not almost 3 to 1. One proponent said, "I would definitely encourage training for young people. We are faced with a shortage in all mechanical fields. Industry and manufacturing are going to be adversely affected over the next five to 10 years if we don't [attain] a good mechanical work force that can troubleshoot and correct problems."

Another subscriber already is encouraging young people to train for manufacturing careers by actively recruiting at the high school level. He wrote that this endeavor is "difficult and requires patience, but [this recruiting] can and has been a rewarding resource."

A subscriber from an Oklahoma-based fabricating job shop said, "I just met with a customer who is outsourcing work because [his company does] not have enough in-house skilled labor to accomplish the job. As a subcontract manufacturer, our company could increase our work load by 50 to 75 percent if we could find the skilled fitters and welders. We would encourage all young people to pursue careers in the metal fabrication industry. They are needed all over the country."

Others who recommend pursuing manufacturing careers alluded to the reasons beyond the need for skilled workers, reasons that might resonate with prospective workers.
"Finding qualified people in our niche industry [floating structures, such as docks, buoys, gangways, and work platforms] is difficult. We are training in-house and paying tuition at a local college for those employees who are looking for careers in welding, blueprint reading, and leadership roles."

A crane manufacturer said, "I believe in the future the person that is skilled in the metal trades and is willing to work hard will be more in demand than a four-year graduate out of college with a degree in liberal arts or teaching."

And another subscriber said, "AWS Tulsa, Okla., section conducted a welder shortage survey [that found] 250 to 300 welders are needed in this area. An expert welder can make a six-figure income, if they want to work."

No—One subscriber summed up his negative opinion of the labor shortage and manufacturing careers in two sentences:"The situation will only continue to get worse. I would not encourage my own children to enter manufacturing."

Another who has the same view said, "I wouldn't encourage any young person to pursue a career in manufacturing. There are so many factories downsizing and moving out of the country that the market is not there. Due to foreign competition, our industry has had to cut employment by about 20 percent."

A subscriber from the metal tube and pipe industry also said he would not recommend a career in manufacturing. His reason? A perception shared by many outside manufacturing. "Manufacturing workers are considered the chaff of our work force. Even though they make more than many, the office workers look down on them and their work. Some even say, "If you wanted a good job, you should have gone to college.' The jobs are good, the wages union-scale, and benefits are also good. But the status is very low, and [workers] work lots of overtime."

A subscriber from the aerospace industry had no trouble deciding whether young people should pursue training for careers in manufacturing. "ABSOLUTELY NOT. Our national policy and social attitudes toward manufacturing provide little assurance to young people that they can trust manufacturing to provide them with financial and social gratification. As a manufacturing engineer, it is plain to me that manufacturing has little respect for a highly trained worker, so how could a tradesman trust manufacturing to treat him better and provide job security?"

The previously quoted subscriber, whose company builds compressors, said, "As far as encouraging young people to pursue careers in manufacturing, that is a very difficult sales pitch because of the overall condition of manufacturing in this country. It is hard to convince someone of the long-term benefits of being in manufacturing when more and more manufacturing jobs are going offshore and no light seems to be on the horizon."

Longtime "Fabricating Update" subscriber Randy Juras believes that encouraging young people to pursue manufacturing careers may depend on where you live. "We are an old company in a very mature industry—printing press equipment. We make very little in the U.S. anymore. Most of what we sell comes from overseas. So hiring shop people is not an issue. The people we do need from time to time are skilled machinists and riggers. And for those, we go to companies we once were in competition with! And since we have not made much machinery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for years, that city now has a shortage of skilled people. An unemployed machinist can hold out only for so long. He must either move or work at something else. I know house painters who were crackerjack machinists. To suggest to ANYONE to get into manufacturing today depends more on where that person lives. Some parts of the U.S. are still seeing some manufacturing. So jobs can be found. But in the long run, given how much offshoring is going on, I would have to think twice about suggesting to anyone that they go into manufacturing. And I feel pretty sad about that."

With skilled labor scare, companies must concentrate on retaining those skilled workers they employ. Read Hanging on to your skilled workers.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209