Fabricating next-generation workers

April 11, 2014
By: Dan Davis

Many fabricators are sitting on the sidelines when it comes to training their current stable of employees and creating a new generation of workers. In the end, that's bad for business.

A lot has been made of the fact that manufacturers can’t find the right workers. The issue is explored nicely here. But what can’t be denied is that fewer manufacturing workers exist, from almost 14.3 million in 2004 to just over 12 million today. Two major recessions within a 10-year span and the continued adoption of automation have helped to reduce the opportunities for workers, resulting in fewer people interested in pursuing manufacturer careers, even if they may have once been employed in that sector. The pipeline for creating manufacturing employees doesn’t produce as much talent as it once did.

On the bright side, people are taking action to help change the situation. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills, which was launched in 1995 to develop standards and credentials to foster a new generation of highly skilled metalworkers, awarded 13,888 credentials to individuals in 2013. That record number was nearly 60 percent greater than in 2012. Although statistics on new welders entering the job market or the issuance of new welding credentials are more difficult to find, the anecdotal evidence is mounting. Community colleges across the U.S. are bolstering their welding education efforts, and state grants are helping in other areas. The momentum to create a new generation of properly trained manufacturing workers is building, even if it may not be growing at the pace desired.

Are manufacturers stepping up? That’s difficult to answer, but I do know from talking to several metal fabricators that there is some degree of hesitancy to invest in worker training. “Training and learning the trade is a long process and investment which can backfire if you lose them to ‘greener pastures’ and are forced to start all over,” said one metal fabricator just this week in an e-mail to me.

In a recent survey of readers of The FABRICATOR, 78 percent indicated that young people entering the metal fabricating field “lacked the proper training.” However, of the same 215 survey respondents, only 51 percent said that training should occur on the job. Thirty-four percent said it should occur in a vocational setting, 9 percent at a specialized training institute, and 6 percent at a community college. The majority said anywhere else but on their shop floor.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor support that trend. In 2013 the government office counted just 287,750 active registered apprentices, a dramatic drop from the 488,927 apprentices from a decade before. Now that doesn’t mean apprenticeships aren’t out there or that other types of on-the-job training aren’t taking place, but it is evidence that employers aren’t training like they used to.

Instead it’s easier to complain. It’s also a potential recipe for business disaster.

Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Steel Wire Products, Baltimore, stands pretty solidly behind training his employees. He sets aside 5 percent of his budget for training. In a recent interview with The FABRICATOR, he said the risk of employees trained on his company’s dime and then leaving is a risk h he’s willing to take.

“I have highly trained people that could leave for another company. But the alternative is to have really poorly trained people who stay. Wouldn’t that be worse?” he said.

“I think that’s a definite hang-up for shop owners, but it’s very short-sighted,” Greenblatt continued. “I’d rather have the smartest, safest, most engaged, most fired-up people working for me, and if a couple here and there leave me, that’s OK.”

If metal fabricators want the right employee, they can’t wait around for society to groom one and deliver him or her to the front door. That’s not going to happen.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281