The future of work in metal fabrication

The line between blue- and white-collar work may continue to blur

The FABRICATOR January 2017
January 9, 2017
By: Tim Heston

The future of work in metal fabrication may be less about a specific task and more about uncovering better ways to satisfy customer demand and get the job done.

At the FABTECH® show in November, I ran into Joseph Jones. The 28-year-old Sacramento, Calif., resident hopes to open Norcal Custom Fabrication, a welding and fabrication shop, sometime this year. He took a welding class at a community college, earned his associate degree, and got started with life.

“I just fell in love with it,” he told me. “I hope to launch a company sometime in early 2017. That’s why I’m here—to gain more knowledge.”

Gaining more knowledge really lies at the heart of a country’s economic success, both on an individual and national level, and Jones’ future may be proof of that success. He’s setting out to discover untapped demand. In one sense, this perspective may help overcome one of the greatest challenges of running a metal fabrication business: finding employees.

For three years Jones worked as a welder at a sign company, and last year he decided to strike out on his own. So whom is he turning to for advice? He’s talked to his friends and teachers, read the trade press (like this magazine), as well as perused YouTube and online forums.

The last isn’t surprising, and for me it’s actually heartening. Think what you will about the Internet, about all the hours people waste there (myself included). But it also has become a virtual incubator for entrepreneurs, and not just for those launching high-tech startups that don’t seem to make any sense or add any real good to the world. It also helps young welders like Jones earn a living that may help many others inside and outside his shop earn a living as well, especially considering manufacturing’s multiplier effect. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, for every dollar spent in manufacturing, $1.81 is added to the economy.

“Manufacturing has the highest multiplier effect of any industry.” So said Ned Monroe, senior vice president of external relations at NAM, during a panel discussion at FABTECH.

When it comes to the multiplier effect, I like to focus on the value instead of the resulting jobs being created. After a far-too-long election cycle, I’m so tired of hearing politicians talking about “creating jobs.”

In my view, businesses don’t set out to “create jobs.” At the very least, they discover untapped demand; and at the very best, they create demand where little to no demand existed before (think of Apple). That demand then creates a need for people.

Still, businesses try to meet that demand with as few resources as possible. The more demand that can be met with just a few resources (people, software, machines), the more successful that business will be.

Of course, all of this isn’t as cut-and-dry as a math equation. For most custom fabricators, demand and the product mix vary, which means a shop needs excess capacity to handle that variation. This often requires investing in more technology and, not least, people.

Also, employees aren’t autonomous machines; they’re human beings who need job security. It’s hard to imagine getting the most out of employees in an environment where people are let go immediately as customer demand falls. (This could apply to truly lower demand levels or changes made to “make” the quarterly numbers.) And people need to get along and work well with each other professionally. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing more wasteful than workplace drama.

Regardless, when determining how something gets done in a business, the question is not how many people need to be hired to perform the work, but how few. It may just take a few good people.

Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International®, explained it best during an economic forecast forum during FABTECH. “Businesses don’t create jobs just to create jobs. There has to be demand.”

At many shops I’ve visited, managers have told me that the best people suggest better ways to get the job done. The best managers give them the freedom to make such suggestions or even give them the authority to make certain changes when it makes sense to do so.

Over the years we’ve written about various fabricators that have taken steps in this direction. Bass Mechanical of Elizabethtown, Pa., as well as Special Products & Mfg. in Rockwall, Texas, come to mind. These and other custom fabricators tend to focus on employee career paths and get front-line people involved in planning and decision-making. In one sense, these companies have blurred the distinction between blue- and white-collar work.

Would this approach overcome the challenges fabricators have finding good people?

Everyone knows about the skilled labor problem, but today more shop managers are talking about the need for reliable semiskilled workers as well. These include people who perform critical but monotonous work that still has to be done accurately and efficiently.

Could those workers think of better ways to get the job done? Could they find better ways to meet customer demand? The hands-on work may be monotonous, but as for the thinking part, maybe not so much?

The world Jones and other aspiring fabricator entrepreneurs are entering is quickly evolving. It employs people who work well with their hands, cross-train on various processes, and excel at analytical thinking.

A person’s job today may be different tomorrow, next month, or next year. In fact, successful employees of the future may not look at their workday as a “job,” but instead as simply time spent finding opportunities to create value. With jobs being automated and processes becoming more streamlined, those opportunities are always going to be a moving target.

But the hunt for value will never stop, and for a young person entering the fabrication field, that hunt could be the recipe for a fulfilling career.

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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