Growth opportunities worth trumpeting in manufacturing

Fabricators don’t start out rich, but earnings rise significantly over time

The FABRICATOR November 2012
November 9, 2012
By: Tim Heston

The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association 2012 Salary/Wage & Benefit Survey is out, and it proves a lucrative career awaits those fabricators willing to put in the work to hone their skills.

Growth opportunities worth trumpeting in manufacturing -

We all know wage growth in this country is next to nothing. It’s one reason that the presidential election season has been so contentious. Employees continue to work harder than ever, while employers hesitate to hire more people.

But metal fabricators and other manufacturers have another problem: Some would like to hire more, but they can’t find the skilled talent they need. It’s been this way for years, of course. If skills are in high demand, many assume that higher pay would follow such demand, and to some extent it has, as reported by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association’s 2012 Salary/Wage & Benefit Survey. As just one example, a code welder’s average salary has risen more than 3 percent since 2010—not very impressive, but the pay increase isn’t nonexistent, as so many people have experienced since the recession.

During the election season, as politicians trumpeted the benefits of a manufacturing renaissance, manufacturing salaries at or below average made a few headlines. In early October a Chicago Tribune reporter talked with several workers at an East Peoria, Ill., Caterpillar plant. One worker left a job as an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant to work at Cat, only to find himself making $15.57 an hour installing fenders. At the fast-food restaurant he was making more than $17 an hour. “[Working at the fast-food restaurant] was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had, and it was also the best-paying.”

This doesn’t make manufacturing sound like a promising career at all. Even worse, whenever you hear of union negotiations in manufacturing, you always hear of wage concessions. The message: Workers today aren’t making as much as they once did.

But we don’t hear as much about people like Steve Ross. He started as a general laborer at Arin Inc., a Detroit-based low-volume stamping and laser cutting operation. He worked his way up, becoming a press operator, laser cutting machine operator, and finally plant supervisor. He literally starting sweeping the floors, and now he’s running the shop.

Small businesses dominate manufacturing, though they don’t necessarily dominate the headlines. While workers at large factories fight for better pay, the best workers at small shops are rising through the ranks, either at one company or by moving from one small fabricator to the next. They may start as a non-code welder making less than the $36,695 average salary as reported by FMA’s survey, but eventually they may become certified in a specific code. As their skills grow, they make more and more. They may stay where they are or move to other organizations. And if they get good enough, these code welders have a good chance of pulling in between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, or even more.

For any given job in metal fabrication, the salary ranges are extremely broad. Most people don’t work for wages at or near the average. Instead, standard deviations are high; the pay level is dispersed along a significant range. Yes, the average code-welder pay is $45,238. But when you look at the minimum ($21,900), maximum ($83,000), and standard deviation ($14,137), you can see that the reality is more complicated. The standard deviation is almost a third of the average salary.

What does this variation tell us? For one thing, one shop may define a “code welder” differently from the next, and a welder who becomes certified in one code may be paid more than one certified to another code. Most important, a code welder getting into the business—though it’s certainly not guaranteed—may enjoy steady wage growth over the years. If most salaries were clustered near the average, it would be a different story. But as it is, wages are distributed. If a welder starts at a below-average wage, chances are he eventually will be making well above average—far above that of many who may have mounting student loan debt from a four-year college.

Standard deviations are even larger when you get to front-office jobs as well as supervisory and management positions. An operations manager’s average salary in this business is $83,201, but the range of salaries reveals more about what’s really happening. The minimum reported is $45,000, and the maximum is more than triple that number, at $150,000.

Like Arin’s Steve Ross, a person may start sweeping the floor, then move up to hardware insertion, laser cutting, press brake operation and programming, department supervision, and then land a job as an operations manager starting at more than $50,000 a year. He may move to another fabricator, then another, then another before capping out at a six-figure annual salary. That’s not a bad career.

You might think that if a talented operations manager were to grow his salary significantly, he would move on to a larger organization. But this may not necessarily be the case. Companies with more than 250 employees reported an average operations manager salary at more than $84,000, while the same position at shops with between 100 and 250 employees made an average of $99,000. Some firms with fewer than 50 employees reported similar salary ranges as their larger counterparts. This may be because so many metal fabrication managers wear many hats. A small company’s president or vice president may also be the operations manager.

Technical personnel may not make more money at larger plants either. For instance, the code-welder and press brake operator survey respondents making the most money weren’t at the largest operations. In fact, that’s where on average they made the least money. Instead, the best-paying fabricators for these positions had between 100 and 249 employees.

Regardless, the wide wage ranges for many jobs show a steady career path in metal fabrication. Workers won’t get rich starting out. Like in any business, some companies are better to work for than others. Some fabricators pay well, and others do not, but the survey’s pay ranges do reveal that opportunities for growth abound—not just for top management, but also for various skilled personnel throughout the organization. Few fields these days offer that. During a time of anemic wage growth and a big squeeze on the middle class, such opportunities are worth trumpeting.

To purchase a copy of FMA’s 2012 Salary/Wage & Benefit Survey, call 888-394-4362 or visit

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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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.

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