How the welder shortage affects the infrastructure

November 19, 2013
By: Professor R. Carlisle "Carl" Smith

The qualified-welder shortage presents significant problems for infrastructure and power industries. New welders need to be recruited, and displaced welders may need to be retrained for today’s jobs.

Nuclear Plant

Figure 1

In many of its publications, the American Welding Society (AWS) cites the U.S. Department of Labor’s welder shortage estimate—250,000. This number may include welders, brazers, cutters, fitters, welding operators, and, perhaps, engineers and inspectors. Technicians should be included in the shortage estimate, but the AWS is debating the term “technician.” 

A key figure not included in these estimates is the welding instructor. We are losing many of them to retirement. Probably one of the reasons is that the big push for welding schools was in the late ʼ60s and early ʼ70s. Most of the young teachers who were trained by the government to build military equipment back then now have reached retirement age. We also are losing instructors to industry, which offers more lucrative pay than teaching. These teachers are key to encouraging, training, and retraining young and adult students to enter the field of welding.

I remember one of my instructors at Hobart, Jerry Pfister, who also held the title of welding technician, saying, “I am a welder first and an instructor and technician second and third. We should be proud to be welders!” He emphasized that some parents are of the opinion that welders are down and dirty. He also encouraged us to check the incomes of welding personnel and compare it to some in other professions.

My first welding technology instructor was Howard B. Cary. His most memorable statement was, “If you dedicate yourself to the welding industry, you will never be out of a job.” This has held true for me for 50+ years.

What’s Hot and What’s Not in Welding

A high official in the power plant industry recently said that 50 percent of all the welders in his company would be retiring within the next three years. This dilemma is approaching at a time when many more welders will be needed as coal-fired plants are retrofitted to use natural gas to fire the boilers. Also, many of these plants were built in the ʼ60s and are in need of repairs. The official said they have been putting “Band-Aids” on some of the equipment to keep the plants running until a decision is made about the type of fuel they will be using. Some are even anticipating the renewal of nuclear plants that have been mothballed for several years. Nuclear plant (Figure 1) construction requires much more stringent welding methods and skills than coal-fired or gas-fired plants.

Most of the engineers, inspectors, and welders who were involved in constructing nuclear plants have retired or moved into other industries. Even the companies that designed and built the nuclear plants have shut down their facilities. The larger companies, like Babcock & Wilcox, Foster Wheeler, General Electric, and Westinghouse, have moved into other areas, but I believe they will revive some of their former facilities that haven’t been sold.

For a while it appeared that scrubber (equipment that reduces harmful emissions) fabrication would bring some companies back into the power generation field, but now there seems to be a hold on that endeavor because of uncertainty about EPA regulations. Fabricating and erecting scrubbers employed many welders and other welding-related personnel. It seems that once the people left the field, they went on to other types of employment. Faced with job uncertainty and the travel required for securing welding work, many of them chose to go on to college and engage in other occupations.   

Maintenance welding needs welders and general mechanics. Help-wanted ads in newspapers frequently use the phrase “general maintenance workers with emphasis on welding.” The slow economy has caused many industries to minimize their capital investments in new equipment. A welder who has the ability to rebuild fairly old and worn equipment is a rarity and in great demand. Figure 2 depicts a very old yard crane. The welder is almost finished except for removing the rusted underframe.

A machine shop that rebuilds shafts for various uses must be skilled at building up the worn shaft so that it can be machined to the original dimensions. Also, even though machinists are highly skilled in their profession, they can make mistakes on occasion, and a welder then must make the repair for remachining. Although a welder is not the only shop worker who is capable of flame straightening a part, his expertise with a torch is an advantage, and he is frequently called upon to perform this task.

The oil and gas boom has created a need for several different types of welders, not only for cross-country pipeline welding, but also for welding pipe and mounting structures (skids) in the compressor stations and instrument control centers. One of my inspector friends sent me a picture of a pipe component (Figure 3) that had been welded in another country. It is evident that the welders there do not possess the skills that would pass an American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME) code weld to B31.1 or B31.3.   An example of a properly welded pipe assembly is shown in Figure 4.

Old Yard Crane

Figure 2

Bridges throughout this country are very old, and many of them are in need of repair or replacement (Figure 5). The AWS bridge code. D1.5, is similar to AWS D1.1, but is written specifically for bridge construction and repair. Welders are needed in the bridge fabrication shops and in the field welding for erecting and repairing bridges.

Bridge fabrication shops use mostly automatic equipment, such as submerged arc and tandem arc flux-cored/gas metal arc equipment. Very few of these shops exist in the eastern U.S. The most prominent are Apollo Manufacturing and High Steel in Pennsylvania. Welding personnel who use automatic (AU) equipment are referred to as welding operators and machine welders (ME). Although some welders call them “button pushers,” these operators must be able to set up the equipment for the size and material type to be welded.

Although the shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) process is considered by some as outdated, winds that usually are prevalent in bridge-erection locations prohibit the use of gas-shielded processes. Self-shielding flux-cored equipment is quite cumbersome, which makes SMAW the preferred method. The height and often difficult positions that are inherent in bridge erection cause some welders to avoid the self-shielded flux-cored type of welding.

Some small contractors specialize in small-bridge erection and repair. These contractors must be qualified and certified by the state or jurisdiction in which they perform the work. Rather than be qualified/certified by the contractor, which is normally the case, bridge welders usually are qualified by a state or jurisdictional entity. AWS D1.5 is the referenced code in any case.

Encouraging Young People to Pursue Welding Careers

There once was a young lady who ran the welding program at the West Virginia University-Parkersburg Community and Technical College with an abundance of ideas and ambition. One of her successful missions was to introduce eighth-grade students to welding. She went to the schools and presented audiovisual programs depicting both boys and girls performing welding. She then requested permission for the students to visit her welding shop at the college. Some years later, the students recalled these visits, and some pursued welding.

As a volunteer for building and erecting the figures that held the Christmas lights in a city park, she also introduced the youngsters to artistic welding (Figure 6). Participating students visited the park with their parents and showed off their welding projects. Gaining the parents’ interest in the various welding careers was a critical part of recruiting students.

This instructor always had the highest enrollment of students in the college except for the nursing program. Unfortunately, she moved on to a successful career as an inspector and instructor in industry.  Fortunately for our state, she remains involved in auditing the technical school welding programs, and I am sure she is encouraging students and instructors to champion the welding industry.

Retraining Displaced Workers

Because of industry downsizing and closings, there is a dire need to retrain displaced workers. Welding has become the most popular craft for retraining in my state, West Virginia.

Once big in the state, the glass industry is all but gone, and several of the glass craftspeople have chosen to attend the community college and workforce programs for welder training. The government often provides the tuition and token pay for the trainees.

Technology has taken the place of several hands-on jobs, leaving some displaced workers without income after the unemployment benefits expire. The coal industry is suffering from closed mines that furnished coal to coal-fired power plants that are shutting down or converting to alternate fuels. The fight against “mountaintop” mining has caused the largest such company to shut down several operations. Welders who worked in the mines and on mountaintop jobs are retraining for welding in other industries, such as oil and gas.

The light at the end of the welder-shortage tunnel may be the displaced workers who will be retrained to enter the welding industry. Some of the previously qualified and certified displaced welders have already become instructors in schools and workforce programs. Most of these folks are excellent teachers because of their versatile experience in their former jobs.

Professor R. Carlisle

Professor R. Carlisle "Carl" Smith

Weld Inspection & Consulting
PO Box 841
St. Albans, WV 25177
Phone: 304-549-5606

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