Welding's missing link

February 12, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Several years ago Ken Smith took a long, hard look at the country's welder shortage. The manager of training for Lorain County Community College's welding program in Elyria, Ohio, saw a need to tackle the issue at the source: education.

Smith, together with representatives from the American Welding Society and elsewhere, started the National Center for Welding Education and TrainingWeld Ed for shortfunded by the National Science Foundation. The program focuses on educating someone who's not necessarily a hands-on welder, not a welding engineer, but a little of both. It is the hope that graduates of such programs would go on to become weld technicians and eventually land in supervisory roles.

Some sources I've talked with said this welding middle manager represents someone highly sought after, someone who can not only look at a weld joint and recognize good weld design, but also manage a team of welders. This person has command over welding theory and uses it all to drive efficiencies in a welding operation.

Sure, metal fabricators have a hard time attracting welders for the same reason they have attracting anyone else. Layoffs and empty factories have become stereotypes pegged on the manufacturing trade. And the trade has a reputation for being dangerous and dirty.

But after talking with various instructors, welders, and school administrators, I've come to realize at least one potential reason that the nation lacks so many welders. It's a field that doesn"t require, or attract, one kind of person. Instead, in general terms I view the sector as needing three personalities: the hands-on person, the manager, and the engineer.

More than any other fab shop operation, the manual and semiautomatic processes need people with hands-on dexterity. Does that person also possess highly tuned management skills, or have keen interest in science like a welding engineer does? Perhaps notand that's OK, because it's my guess that most welding engineers or manufacturing managers wouldn't be able to lay down a good gas tungsten arc bead like an experienced shop floor welder.

But it does make it challenging for an industry needing workers. Welding needs hands-on craftsmen, the manager with technical and welding process knowledge, and the engineer who designs for welding. Add robotics into the mix, and the knowledge requirements become even more complex.

That's a lot to ask from a labor force. A person who grows up working on cars may know how to weldlove it, in factbut have no desire to manage a welding department, just as an engineering school student may not show much interest in hands-on craftsmanship.

Here, said Lorain"s Smith, is where the Weld Ed program hopes to make a difference. It doesn't focus as much on hands-on work but, instead, homes in on the theory behind multiple welding processes, the basics of good weld design, and other building blocks to help turn a student into a top notch weld technician and, eventually, a supervisor or manager.

I feel this kind of training may produce industry technicians that provide a link between engineering and the craft of welding. That link won"t be about hands-on craftsmanship or about complex computations. It will be about strategic thinking, about squeezing efficiency, about dreaming up better ways to get things doneall anchored to a thorough (though not necessarily comprehensive) knowledge of welding design, theory, and craftsmanship.

I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds like an interesting career path. Let's hope many others do too.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314