How long has this been going on?

April 26, 2012

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How long have we been talking about a welder shortage? If you type "welder shortage" with the quotation marks in thefabricator.com's search box, you will retrieve a list of 367 articles; without the quotation marks, the list grows to 619. 

The very first article in both searches, "Feeling the effects of a welder shortage: The search is on to find skilled workers," was written 11 years ago. The author described the need to replace aging, skilled welders as "acute," and quoted then president of the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, Dave Manning: "The need for skilled workers will become more of a problem in the next three to five years, as 50 percent of the welders in North America retire."

I can't say if Manning's prediction that 50 percent of the welders in North America have retired has come true, but I rather doubt it. Feedback we've received over the years to e-newsletter questions asking readers about their retirement plans indicates that many welders have put retirement on hold for various reasons. Even so, the welder shortage is acute. Responding to a 2009 e-newsletter, a welding consultant wrote, "To tell you the truth, I may never completely retire. Why? I love what I am doing in the industry that I care a great deal about. I have an uncle who is very wealthy and is 78 and he is still working.

"When I retired from teaching for 38 years, I went from an 80-hour workweek to 60. At least that is what I tell my friends. Being a consultant, I have the opportunity to schedule my customers as I see fit." 

Responding to the same 2009 e-newsletter, a longtime reader said, “I was going to retire in November of 08, but my company enticed me to stay. I will be 63 this year and have been asked to stay until at least 65. I’m glad I decided to stay with the way things are.”

This reader recently weighed in last week on a question about changing jobs as the job market improves. He's still working. He said, "With me being a welder and having an inside job—central heat and air—I’m not looking to change jobs. I’ve been here almost 29 years and am going to retire from here. TIG welding turbine aircraft parts is a gravy job.

"From 1970 until 1983, I changed jobs at the drop of a hat. I started here in 1983 and have been here ever since. Clean working conditions and cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Excellent pay and benefits; four weeks of vacation and four weeks of sick time. I’m staying here until I’m 70—four more years." 

So, not all retirement-eligible welders are hanging up the torch. However, there is a significant shortage of welders. Welding inspector and educator Carl Smith—who also writes articles for thefabricator.com—recently e-mailed me his thoughts about this shortage.

Responding to an e-newsletter question about how business fared in the first quarter of 2012, Smith said, "I can't help but share my thoughts about the future of my business (welding inspection and consulting) and how the technology portion of welding is in need of qualified personnel. I am having problems keeping up with the work here in West Virginia. The Marcellus Shale boom is taking up most of my time and efforts. I have no one who is qualified to help me in writing and qualifying procedures and welders. I am working more hours than I should, and there is no relief in sight. 

"I trained some youngsters who have gone on to work for companies that are actually involved in projects for the American Petroleum Institute (API), but they have left for greener pastures. The pay is great for the companies that are doing the work; my company is small and unable to meet the six-figure offerings that are going around. 

"I am teaching at a community and technology college that is offering courses in the needed area, but the courses are semester-long, and this is not rapid enough to meet the needs. The background training of the students is not sufficient for the requirements at hand.  Secondary programs are just not equipped to teach the fundamentals and technical information needed for the future of our industry. This is a real problem that cannot be addressed quickly enough to satisfy the needs of the industry now, or in the near future." 

It would appear that not much progress has been made in the last 10-plus years regarding the skilled welder shortage. Perhaps delayed retirement has mitigated the problem somewhat, but this trend can't continue indefinitely. Nature will see to that. One has to wonder if we'll still be talking about this shortage in the year 2022.

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Vicki Bell

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