October 9, 2007
Recent news, such as the Minneapolis bridge collapse, confirms that the nation's aging infrastructure needs an overhaul. New materials will help make bridges and other structures stronger, but finding the work force to build them won't be an easy task. The state of West Virginia is launching an initiative that may speed up worker training.
The sky is falling! There is an industrywide awareness of the dire need for welders and other skilled workers in the U.S. The country's infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate. It often takes a tragedy, such as the Minneapolis bridge failure, to awaken a nation to its problems.
Bridges in many of our states are more than 50 years old. The state of West Virginia suffered a tragedy with a bridge failure in the late '60s that claimed 46 lives. Since that time West Virginia has been performing frequent inspections. However, inspections do not fix the problem.
The materials in old bridges are far inferior to today's materials, but material upgrades alone will not solve the problem. Several bridges already have been designed and are awaiting funding or approval from some governmental agency before they can be built. Building new bridges requires trained personnel who can put the designs to work in the fab shops and field erectors who are trained to put the fabricated parts in place.
Our nation's power plants and pipelines also are deteriorating rapidly. Most of the power plants were constructed in the '60s, and the major cross-country pipelines were laid in the '50s. The "big inch" pipeline that runs from Texas to New York was finished in about 1956. This line has experienced leaks and blowouts. It is not difficult to determine the ages of the workers who constructed these projects. The average age in the engineering department at Kanawha Manufacturing, where I work, is 61. Our fellow area fabricators are experiencing the same situation. This is more than a little scary!
The need for training personnel to perform the skills required for fabricating bridges, power plants, and pipelines must not be ignored any longer. Training must be accelerated to the utmost extent possible. Our craft training facilities, vocational schools, and community colleges will not be able to meet these challenges, unless the strategy changes.
Craft training facilities can train only a limited number in one session. In some large local union halls in large states, this is less of a problem. Vocational schools and community and technical colleges train by semesters or quarters. Semesters typically are 15 to 18 weeks long. In that time period, only about 45 hours of training in each field is accomplished. Although the training usually is comprehensive, the time required for completion is too long to meet the immediate needs of the industrial community.
The West Virginia Community and Technical College (WVCTC) system has devised an innovative strategy to confront the immediate need for skilled workers. The college is collaborating with the West Virginia Workforce group, local industry, and the Advantage Valley organization to develop a comprehensive, nontraditional training entity—the Academy for Advanced Training. Perhaps the most important facet of the plan is what is known as "early entry-early exit," which allows the trainee to complete the training program's objectives and move on, either to the work force or to another area of training, without the constraints of the semester or quarter system. The traditional 40- to 45-hour training program can be completed in however much time it takes the trainee to fulfill the program objectives.
In the case of a welding trainee, several different types of qualifications are required for certification. Although the welder needs to be certified by the organization for which he or she is employed, once qualified by the training facility, the worker should have no problem meeting the employer's certification requirements.
The crafts have what is known as an "umbrella" certification that allows the worker to certify to the craft requirements and work for many companies that recognize the certifications. The American Welding Society (AWS) provides for national (and perhaps international) welding certification, if the training facility is an AWS-certified testing facility. The requirements for becoming a certified AWS testing facility could be met by the WVCTC in a month or so following publication of this article. The group has solicited an AWS-certified welding inspector, which is one of the requirements for the testing facility. If the WVCTC plan is enacted, it will do wonders for the welder shortage in West Virginia, and hopefully will not be limited to one area of the state.
The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing has established a machine technology program for training machinists, but like others, this training program is limited in the number of people that may be trained at a time. The Academy for Advanced Training could help alleviate this problem, if the funding is available for a physical facility and additional state-of-the-art equipment.
To my knowledge, no national certification for machinists exists, but a certificate from a facility such as the academy should be proof enough that the machinist is qualified in the type of training the individual has completed.
I am convinced that competency-based, advanced training is the key to replenishing our diminishing and aging work force and improving our nation's infrastructure. I believe the West Virginia strategy will work.