Labor shortage - Point/Counterpoint

January 29, 2009
By: Vicki Bell

If you subscribe to the "Welding Wire" e-newsletter, you may have seen the comments in the January issue from a seasoned metalworker who questions whether the much proclaimed skilled-labor shortage really exists. His comments drew responses from those who wholeheartedly agreed with what he had to say, along with feedback from others who brought up important points that some of the choir might not have considered.

The seasoned metalworker said, "I seriously doubt the skilled labor shortage. There are too many of me out there—underemployed, underutilized, under the age for retirement, with a world of endless experience and profitable contributions, who get looked over because of age—over 50, high pay ( we earned it), high health care costs due to cherry picking by the pirate health care providers, not to mention highly prejudicial 30-something-year-old payroll personnel. I don't want to hear any crap about lack of current skills; that is just plain stupid. Euclid, Newton, haven't changed, they remain steadfast. Recent grads have simply missed a whole generation of experience that leaves all their supposed new skills at the starting gate and unproductive, and they'll spend a life time relearning all the niceties of the Trade (profession) to get to the point I am now. Do you really think a recent grad can compete with my 45 years of continually expanding my skills? I didn't continue learning because I was forced to do it, but because I like what I do and do it not only as labor but as a hobby and an add-on to other hobbies, like riding my motorcycles and making my own devices to enhance my addiction to motorcycles. I mention this because I want to demonstrate that my motive for staying current is selfishly internally driven.

"I don't want to lay the blame entirely on youth—which I forget most of the time I no longer am. I must bring forth the truth of the rape, pillage, and plunder done under the criminal policies of Martin Feldstein and his ilk. This is more the cause than some 30-something payroll clerk. Anyone who thinks taking your and/or your neighbor's job away and [giving it to] someone in a different culture whose economic situation is less demanding then your own is just plain criminal."

Just minutes after "Welding Wire" went out, the responses began to pour in. Most supported the seasoned metalworker's opinion as the choir sang, "Amen" and "Bull's-eye." A reader who works for a company that provides heat exchangers simply wrote, "The seasoned metalworker had it right."

A high school shop teacher from Illinois wrote, "Well said! Charlie Rose should have you sit down with some of these Un-Americans at the round table and let their faded computer-enhanced colors be seen under the light of real workers."

Another seasoned metalworker wrote, "I am 62 years old and still working for the same company for 25 years. I agree with this gentleman. I have been welding since I was 21 years old.
For the last 25 I have been welding aircraft engine parts. There are too many young bean counters trying to prove to their bosses that they can save the company money by doing away with us old heads. Experience cannot have a price put on it. My company asked me this year when I was going to retire."

Others presented slightly different viewpoints. A New York-based fabricator wrote, "I read the article on skilled worker shortage and had some thoughts:

"I understand the frustration of the individual who presented [his] stance in the latest edition of 'Welding Wire.' It is a shame that there are experienced folks who routinely get displaced due to various reasons from age discrimination to a slowdown in business activity. There is a large talent pool in our great nation, but many of them are displaced not because of their age, but expectations compared to what they used to get from their former large company employer. The fact is we are a small company that has seen a reorganization of many of the fat, dumb, and lazy larger business entities in our location in the Northeastern U.S. This reorganization commonly leads to work leaving our non-competitive geographical area, or ceasing to exist altogether. Many experienced people have become accustomed to a pay grade and work intensity that was suitable for larger corporations, not small. The pay grade and work schedules that we small companies must follow to compete against other small companies foster a fundamentally different environment. This commonly translates to people who come from a large company environment as 'less pay and more work demands.'

"The reality is that many very-well experienced and skilled people who have lost their job from a large company simply are not willing to adapt to the differing parameters of a small company. These parameters include, but are not limited to increased contribution to health insurance programs, less suggestion and process changing ability due to more constrained timelines, and less vacation and personal time availability. Bottom line: if you are a longtime skilled employee that has been displaced from a large company due to competitive reasons, and you wish to continue working in your trade, chances are yes, you'll get paid less and feel like you are working more."

A Washington State reader wrote, "As technology moves forward, the percentage of people who can perform the more advanced tasks required to interact with the technologies becomes less. As a manager hiring people since 1976 for a small manufacturing and repair shop, [I have observed that] the number of things required to be remembered to complete the widely varied tasks continues to increase. Much of the low-skilled work is completely gone through new processes. Much of the new work requires many detailed steps with closer tolerances. Because of these changes, there is and will continue to be a shortage of qualified people. Schools do not teach memory skills or problem-solving skills. These can be more important than math, science, or language in the real world of making a living. In the early 1980s, I began hiring high school kids part time to find trainable people. This has worked very successfully for our company and the kids. Most who have moved on become leaders at other companies. We currently have three full-time people, one trade school student working part-time, and one young trainee.

"We have three CNC mills, two CNC lathes, one manual lathe, and two small drill presses to do lot quantities from 1 to 20. Currently the welding is still manual but most of the flame cutting is CNC. This may be the year we add robotic welding to solve a welding bottleneck."

The reality is, based on the growing numbers of displaced workers, there likely is no labor shortage, but there most likely is a skilled-labor shortage. How great it is may vary, depending on your definition of skilled. Know this—experienced workers who change jobs often begin a new job for less compensation than their previous position (been there, done that)—especially now. A Reuters' article published last August bore the headline "Slow Economy Is Causing Flat or Lower Salary Expectations for Job Seekers." The article quoted Jobfox CEO Rob McGovern, who said, "It's an employer's market right now when it comes to salaries. Companies are concerned about budgets and corporate bottom-line challenges have rubbed off on job seekers' salary negotiations."

For those lucky enough to have the opportunity to negotiate, the article includes some salary negotiation tips. Another article that can help you in your job search is the U.S. News & World Report article "What Hiring Managers Look for in Experienced Workers."

If you're searching, good luck.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209