February 12, 2001
This article discusses the effect of the economy, education, varying personnel needs
Close to a half-million people held a job as a welder, cutter, or welding machine operator last year, three-fourths of them in manufacturing and services. Include other trades, such as ironworkers, boilermakers, and pipefitters, and the total surges to about 2 million. That's 10 percent of the work force, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Statistics.
In an industry valued at more than $5.5 billion, the need to replace aging, skilled welders is acute.
"The need for skilled workers will become more of a problem in the next three to five years, as 50 percent of the welders in North America retire," said Dave Manning, president of the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology.
Where the new generation will come from is a grave problem.
High schools continue phasing out welding programs, and high school counselors are discouraging careers in welding despite possible annual earnings of $30,000 to $46,000 on average, according to Freddy Torres, Schools Excelling Through National Skills Education coordinator at the American Welding Society (AWS). Average weekly earnings were $742 in August last year.
Welding also continues to suffer from its reputation not only as dark, dirty, and dangerous, but also as hot, smoky, and even downright oily. This reputation remains despite vastly improved working conditions in shops that boast fume exhausters and air cleaners.
Potential welders are not being told that this career offers attractive opportunities as maintenance engineers, programmers, welding engineers, and instructors. On the contrary, high school counselors are discouraging welding as a career.
An aging work force, combined with a growing economy, means our nation will need 20 million additional workers over the next 25 years, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Welders will be needed in manufacturing for industries such as transportation equipment; industrial machinery; and fabricated metal products; as welding machine operators for fabricated metal products, machinery, and motor vehicles; and in repair shops and personnel supply agencies.
Some welding supply companies expect business to continue widening this year despite a softening economy. "We will maintain or increase personnel," said Harlan "Buzz" Roeske, operations manager at Rockford Industrial Welding Supply, Inc., Rockford, Illinois. "We will grow with new ideas and new technology for our customer base."
Job prospects are excellent for welders with the right skills despite projected slower-than-average employment growth. However, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Statistics, "Employment of welders, cutters, and welding machine operators is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008, reflecting rising automation and productivity in many of the industries that employ these workers."
A strong economy will keep demand for welders high, but managers in the fabricating industry foresee a downturn in auto manufacturing, which could cause some layoffs.
On Nov. 2, 2000, for instance, The New York Times reported that Ford's overall sales were down 6.2 percent, excluding its purchase of Land Rover. Nissan Motor's sales were down 3.6 percent, Honda Motor's were down 5.6 percent, and Toyota Motor's were down 5.7 percent.
Many companies are investing in automation—especially computer-controlled and robotically controlled welding machinery—because of the shortage of welders and because it helps improve productivity and cut costs. While this will hit low-skilled manual welders, it will increase demand for welding machine operators.
Although some manufacturers in the fabricating industry cut their work force in the final quarter last year, reflecting a softer market, no wholesale downsizing is foreseen in the first half of this year. Companies are holding on to the qualified workers they have in anticipation of a turnaround.
Good benefits are a major factor in retaining employees, so many firms waive employee contributions. Because the struggle to find qualified employees is more intense than ever, many companies now train new hires rather than seek only experienced help.
Companies also experiment with more creative techniques to mine new sources. In addition to traditional methods such as word-of-mouth and newspaper and radio ads, fabricators are trekking to organizations and groups to make pitches for help. They are considering a more diverse work force, offering English as a second language (ESL) classes at work.
They may even pirate a customer's employees to make the machines the customer orders.
Companies also are modifying shifts. They might cut two 10-hour shifts from seven to six or five days, maintaining capacity in those shifts, or slice a 50-hour shift to 40 hours to retain those valuable employees.
"If you don't have people trained with the equipment, you will optimize what you do have," said Tim Andrassy, executive director of the Steel Tube Institute (STI) of North America, in Cleveland. "Some mills are running all out at 10-hour days. They can't find qualified individuals to run machines and produce quality products with no defects."
Not everyone is struggling to find workers, however. Business for some West Coast manufacturers was soaring in the last quarter of 2000, even with the lowest unemployment rates in recent memory in some Southern California counties.
Lois Bishop, manager of payroll and benefits at Pacific Tube Co., said her firm had no problem finding good people.
"We don't have to worry about finding qualified people, because we train on-the-job," she pointed out. "And we don't require or expect to demand an excess in education."
Meanwhile, LTV Copperweld, which bought Welded Tube and Copperweld last year, plans to build three new plants.
Not everyone is flush, however. Other firms downsized in the last quarter. Ingersoll Milling in Rockford, Illinois, laid off 60 to 100 employees in the fourth quarter of 2000 out of a work force of 1,200 because of the "softness in the U.S. market in the machine tool industry," according to Pat Winn, vice president of human resources. But "there were no layoffs on the cutting side," he added.
Ingersoll reorganized into four units in August. It also has European units that benefit from the battered euro.
Even with a softened economy, the outlook for those hiring qualified personnel probably will remain bleak. During the World Series playoffs last fall in St. Louis, a roving reporter interviewed several people in business suits during the baseball game.
"Aren't you worried that your boss will see you here on TV?" the reporter asked one of the people playing hooky. "If he is looking," the business type replied, "I'll just quit because I can get another job tomorrow."
Andrassy fears the employment outlook will become a "dire situation" in five to 10 years. He foresees a need for a more educated work force. "We are searching for more workers who are thinkers, not just doers," he said. "Manufacturers will want employees who are strong of back and strong of mind." That means new workers may need more education 10 years from now.
Al Krippner, human resources director at Western Tube and Conduit Corp. in California, agrees.
"Workers will have to be better educated, with high school and some college," he said.
Although this may be a requirement for the tube and pipe industries, others feel that a high school degree is just fine, and many don't even require that.
"Plant general labor doesn't need high school," said Maureen Mason, human resources director at Olympic Steel, a company that generates $600 million in total revenue on an annual basis.
With turnaround expected by the end of the first quarter of 2001, fabricators will be back in the market for qualified employees. "We would hire as business grows," Mason said. "Some additional positions are possible as we see growth in the first half."
But she didn't say where she would find the people to fill those positions.
Kevin M. Kelleghan is a freelance writer based in Rockford, Illinois.
Practical Welding Today® acknowledges the following sources used in preparing this article:
Ingersoll Milling Machine Co., 707 Fulton Ave., Rockford, Illinois 61103, phone 815-987-6000, fax 815-987-6725, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ingersoll.com.
LTV Copperweld, Four Gateway Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222, phone 412-263-3200, www.ltvcopperweld.com.
Olympic Steel, 1 Eastern Steel Road, Milford, Connecticut 06460-2871, phone 203-878-9381, fax 203-877-9819.
Pacific Tube Co., 5710 Smithway St., P.O. Box 91-1222, Los Angeles, California 90091, phone 213-728-2611, fax 323-889-4834.
Western Tube and Conduit Corp., 2001 E. Dominquez St., P.O. Box 2720, Long Beach, California 90801-2720, phone 310-537-6300.
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