July 13, 2004
Making sense of the skilled labor shortage in the welding industry is like having conversations with five different people simultaneously while trying to walk a tightrope with a vase on your head and juggle at the same time.
Several perspectives play prominent roles in this issue, from the welders who can't find work to the welding instructors whose classes are cut to the employers who have difficulties getting the quality welders they want.
And those perspectives are just the tip of the iceberg.
While newspapers from coast to coast report that a skilled welder is a hot commodity, funding for the vocational-technical welding programs set up to train them is disappearing.
Yet the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics says in its latest Occupational Outlook Handbook that job prospects for welders should be excellent.
So why are welders who are looking for jobs finding that many potential opportunities for them are moving overseas with other manufacturing operations—or that they are stuck in a bidding war just to get their foot in the door? And what part does training play in all of this?
Many employers report trouble in finding skilled welders, either because they're not seeing the skills they need or enough applicants. David Patton's difficulty has been with the former.
"Our manufacturing process was similar to aircraft welding using TIG, which had to be excellent quality. The cosmetics also had to be excellent," said Patton, a welder in Hendersonville, Tenn. "The material was 4130 thin-wall tubing. We needed dependability and good attitudes. I had difficulty in finding the skills we were looking for. They [prospective employees] were not used to thin-wall material with the TIG process."
Other employers relate similar experiences.
Elizabeth Richards, for example, hired a skilled welder recently, but only after sifting through a small number of applications, many of which didn't fit the bill. This hiring was part of a change in how her company—Konstruct Inc., a Capitol Heights, Md.-based theatrical rigging company that fabricates and installs stage equipment from construction drawings—looks for labor.
The advertisement requested a highly skilled, detail-oriented steel fabricator or installer with welding certifications. The position offered little travel; regular hours; minimal overtime; and benefits that included health insurance, paid vacation, personal leave, and nine paid holidays. CAD and supervisory experience both were preferred for this hourly position, which offered an income from $40,000.
The welder the company hired was the only applicant who had recent certifications, Richards said. She thinks one reason for this is that the number of people qualified to install stage equipment has decreased.
"There are just not that many installers who do the kind of work that we do, so our skill pool has shrunk," she said. "We're getting people who say they can weld but have no certifications, and when they come in and weld for the interview, the welds don't look like anything that would pass."
The company used to look for installers who could be trained to weld, but it now looks for welders who can learn to install. Richards looked for people who knew the basics regarding installing, but who also could weld. This made hiring difficult.
Richards reported her company receives between 25 and 50 responses for every labor ad placed in the Washington Post. For this advertisement, however, Richards received only about 10. She thinks this is partly because the ad specified welder certifications as a requirement. Of the responses the company did receive, Richards said some did not have official certifications, and others had old certifications.
Unlike Richards, Barbara Hemme was deluged with 100 applications for a recent job posting for a fit-up worker at Youngberg Industries, Belvidere, Ill.
But once the company dismissed all of the applicants who had no background as a skilled welder, only three applicants were left.
Because Youngberg—a custom fabricating and CNC machining company—works with heavy steel, it was hard to hire even a skilled welder because many are used to working with thin sheet metal rather than heavier material. Currently the company is trying out new hiring methods.
"We're trying to do it [hire welders] by word of mouth, looking for people who have been laid off and might be good [welders]," said Hemme, corporate secretary and controller for the company. "And we're starting to work with the local high schools and Rock Valley College [in Rockford, Ill.] to train students to weld to get them into the company."
Although the company's plan to recruit young people is in its infancy—and is a change from how it's advertised for welders in the past—Hemme thinks that it could be a good way to get new welders into the company.
Although it's hard for some companies to find skilled welders, some welders in the market for a job are finding it just as difficult to get work.
Bill Shirtcliff, a Medford, Mass., welder for a heat exchanger manufacturer, said not enough opportunity exists for welders.
Although he's gainfully employed, Shirtcliff, a welder for more than 30 years, has watched welding operations move overseas to help cut labor costs. He said this shift is to blame for the small number of skilled welders available in the U.S.
"This country lacks experienced welders, but can you blame them? All the companies are looking for cheaper help, so they go out of the country for it," Shirtcliff said. "If we keep on going in this direction, nobody will know how to do anything. There are not too many good welding jobs out there anymore, and kids in school see it."
Bill Curwick agreed too few jobs are available for the number of skilled welders. He was laid off and has not found new work.
"Work is very hard to get," said Curwick, who lives in Elk River, Minn. "I have a certificate in welding, an advanced certificate in welding technologies, and I have two certifications. I am about to get my fabricator's certificate, and I am only a few short classes away from my AAS [Associate in Applied Science] degree. I have worked hard to get as good as I am."
But some welders feel that even if they have certifications, they don't get offered enough pay or get turned down by companies that don't want to pay them what they're worth.
"Years ago when you came fresh out of school looking for a job, they would tell you, 'You have no experience. We can start you at this.' After you get some years under your belt and are looking for a better-paying job, it's 'Our starting rate is ,'" said Frank Szollose, Gilbertsville, Pa., who has been welding for 38 years. "I live near the fifth-largest city in the U.S., Philadelphia, but [if you] look at their employment section in the Sunday paper, you can go for weeks, maybe a month and a half, without seeing any welding jobs at all.
"So now when I do go for an interview, which I do from time to time, it's not for nice locations and big companies; it's for the lowest of the lows, and they ask me, 'What is the lowest that you would be willing to work for?'" Szollose said.
Szollose, who's looking for work because his employer for the past 24 years is closing its doors after more than 100 years and moving to Mexico, feels that he'll need to take a large pay cut to get a welding job.
So instead of looking for a new welding job, Szollose has decided to get out of the industry so he can make a living comparable to what he's been used to.
"Although there are jobs out there, I do not want to go back some 14 to 15 years in the pay scale," he said. "So as a bit of pride for myself and my profession, I am taking entry-level, unskilled work and making more than I would if I would be welding for some small mom-and-pop shop out there. It may sound bad, but I would much rather work for more money than weld for less. Why should I weld for $13 an hour when I can do janitor work and make the same or more?"
Unlike Szollose, Curwick wants to stay in the welding industry, so he's thinking about moving to another state just to get work as a welder.
"I live in a very industrial state. The majority of people here are either farmers or factory workers, so when a welding job becomes available, it goes really fast," Curwick said. "The fact that the jobs are few and far between makes the competition even more fierce. I looked at welding jobs on the Internet and learned that the lack of welding jobs varies tremendously depending on your location. For example, for every one welding job available in Minnesota, there are 10 in California. I will gladly relocate, but so far [I] haven't found anything worth making that venture, financially speaking."
Curwick's quandary isn't related simply to pay, however. While some companies are looking for cheaper labor, others are looking for experience that not every welder has.
"Understandably, employers want people with lots of experience. I have about five years in the field, and that just isn't enough for some employers," Curwick said. "It's a Catch-22: If you can't get the job, you can't get the experience. In my opinion, this is not the best way to screen potential employees. You are forgetting that everyone starts with no experience. Even though we have less time under our belts, [that] doesn't mean we are not hard-working and eager to learn better and quicker ways to help both the company and ourselves."
Patton feels that the types of welding jobs need to change to help the industry in general.
"As I look around in my area of the country, middle Tennessee, the welding trade does not seem to be a majority of high-skilled workers with above-average wages to adequately support a family. A lot of jobs are high-production, blacksmith tactics, and low wages as a majority," he said. "Somehow this image needs to change to draw in the highly motivated young person who has goals of a career. We need to develop our trade to motivate workers to develop high skills and reward them when the skills are acquired. Formal, first-class training would be of great benefit. This will require highly skilled instructors with good wages, which state schools seem to lack."
Although many welders are out of work and looking for a job, not all welders are unemployed.
Paul Sampson, for example, has been steadily employed since 1976 in the welding industry as a welder, a welding inspector, supervisor, and quality control manager. He said that the two reasons he has been able to find welding jobs over the years are networking and continuous education.
"A welder has to be committed to continuous improvement," said the Cambridge, Mass., quality control manager. "You have to keep current and learn more than one welding process. You have to go to school and learn to read plans and use different tools and equipment."
Employers today are pressured constantly to improve productivity and minimize labor costs, regardless of how healthy the economy is. This pressure is leading companies to invest more in automation, and this increase in automation will reduce the demand for some low-skilled welders, solderers, and brazers as these simple, repetitive jobs become more automated.
But more automation also should result in more demand for welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders, the Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts. Construction and equipment repair welders, whose jobs aren't easily automated, will not be as affected by this technology change. On the flip side, technology is helping to improve welding by creating more uses for it, therefore expanding employment opportunities and increasing welding productivity, making welding competitive with other joining technologies.
The Handbook also forecasts growth in welding employment comparable to the average for all occupations between 2002 and 2012, especially as workers retire or leave the industry.
With that opportunity comes an increased demand for skilled welders: For each welder who retires, a new welder needs to take over that position.
And in today's society, some say, too few young people are interested enough in welding to enter the industry. Some of this responsibility falls on the U.S. school system, as well as other influences on young people today.
"Because we have such an emphasis on college education in this country—and I hold a master's degree, so it's not that I'm against college—we're telling people who would be better working with their hands that they have to go to college," Hemme said. She feels that young people need to have many choices, including college as well as the trades, when they consider a profession.
Additionally, a connection is necessary between employers, welders, and job placement and educational institutions to make sure that welders and businesses alike are satisfied.
"I have seen both—companies that have no problems getting skilled welders and companies that are constantly looking for welders because their turnover approaches 50 percent—[and] companies that want to spend the money for training, and companies that simply don't realize the need because they don't seem to understand the difficult job a welder has," said Andre Odermatt, president of the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, Troy, Ohio.
"I think those companies that have problems finding skilled welders may need to look in the mirror and find out what's wrong. For welders who cannot find a job, I would suggest the same," Odermatt said. "A good welder will never go hungry. But it takes both: the right attitude and a developed skill."
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