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November 1, 2007

GOT WELDING SKILLS?

Experienced welders are in high demand—and hard to find.

Pierce Aluminum has stopped trying to find skilled welders. “We’re not hiring welders because they aren’t there,” says Peter Langton, vice president of human resources for the Franklin, Massachusetts-based distributor of aluminum and manufacturer of finished aluminum products.

Instead, the company, which typically has three to five welders on staff, has taken a different route—pairing up promising warehouse personnel with the few experienced welders that can be found so the novices can learn from the pros. Not only does that fill Pierce’s needs, it also creates opportunities for employees to advance and earn higher pay.

It’s a similar situation at Westfield Steel Inc. For the Westfield, Indiana-based steel service center, “it’s an issue of finding good help,” says production manager Jack Laudig.

The company, which trains welders in-house and has 10 certified welders on staff, looks for new hires who come to the job on time each day, work hard and try to improve. “When we find someone who exhibits those qualities, we decide how we’re going to train them,” says Laudig, who began his welding career about 25 years ago.

At Florence, South Carolina-based ESAB Cutting and Welding, a manufacturing and sales organization owned by Charter plc in London, the company looks for salespeople who have a welding background. That may mean interviewing a dozen people to fill one job, says Gene Lawson, incoming president of the American Welding Society (AWS) and ESAB senior sales manager.

These companies are far from alone in the search for qualified welders. Metals manufacturers, OEMs and metals service centers that want to expand their fabrication capabilities are looking longer and much harder to find needed welders.

CHANGING TIMES

More than half a million welders are employed in the United States, but the most highly trained welders are in their mid-50s, with many nearing retirement. By 2010, the United States could face a shortage of more than 200,000 skilled welders, reports a May 2002 study commissioned by the AWS and Edison Welding Institute. Of the more than 2,200 companies that responded to the study, nearly half reported problems finding qualified welders.

Jeffrey Weber, AWS associate executive director, says welding is losing the competition for young people, who are far more interested in computers and electronics. “The problem is that with the rise in popularity of computer and associated technology careers, welding professions have fallen off the radar screens of our nation’s key influencers, such as teachers, counselors and parents,” he says.

Those influencers aren’t doing the U.S. economy any favors. Industries in which welding is important, such as manufacturing, construction and mining, had combined revenues of $3.1 trillion in 2000, or about one-quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product.

The need for highly skilled welders is particularly critical. Automation increasingly handles the basic welding tasks previously done by individual assembly line workers, but machines are not able to take on the more detailed welding required for many manufacturing and construction operations. “Highly skilled welders are in greater demand than ever before,” Weber says. “No one—and certainly no machine at this point—can do the kind of exacting work those welders learn through training and experience.”

The shipbuilding and repair industry has been particularly hard hit by the lack of skilled welders. Work has been booming at Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana, but welders and fitters have become more difficult to find since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, says Chuck Fontenot, corporate director of training. Shipyard workers have been lured away by jobs in the oil industry and by those rebuilding New Orleans. “Before Katrina, the lack of skilled labor was serious, now it’s a desperate situation,” he says.

The company has hired contract workers—some from as far away as Europe—to fill the welding gap. If Bollinger were fully staffed, it would have more than 1,000 welders working in new construction and repair, much of it tied to the oil industry. But it currently has more than 100 openings. As a result, Bollinger’s welders and fitters in new construction typically work 60 hours a week; some on the repair side work even longer hours.

Metals service centers are also feeling the pinch. At Denman & Davis in Clifton, New Jersey, fabrication work is farmed out to companies such as Atlantis Equipment in Stephentown, New York, which employs 15 to 20 welders, says Atlantis Vice President Richard Keeler.

“We find in our business we have to do a lot of inhouse training,” Keeler says. Jobs that involve “standing at an assembly line and putting down a bead of weld” are gone. While trade schools teach basic welding, blueprint reading, math and science skills are often lacking.

Compounding the shortage problem is that many entry-level applicants are unqualified for basic manufacturing jobs. “People that go to welding school aren’t necessarily there because they want to be a good welder; they’re there because they want a good job,” says Phillip Baldwin, director at the Illinois Welding School (IWS) in Bartonville, Illinois. “But often they aren’t particularly dedicated to the track they want to follow. They’re just young people who have never worked before.”

SCHOOL WORK

Many schools have cut back on their welding offerings, often because of the expense, Lawson says. Machinery, electricity and scrap metal can be costly. “Scrap just went through the roof because we’re competing with China and India for steel,” he says. At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, where Lawson is on the advisory board, “it’s a constant budget battle to keep growing the classes.”

Westfield Steel strives to support local vocational tech schools and keeps the welding courses going by supplying them with steel that would otherwise be sold for scrap, Laudig says.

Getting the word out about welder training and educational opportunities could help alleviate the welder shortage, says John W. Leen, training director for the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local Union 597, in Mokena, Illinois, where the union recently built a 198,000-square-foot training center equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and 97 welding booths.

The union runs an intensive five-year program to prepare apprentices to be successful in pipe fitting, which entails fabricating, welding, installing and maintaining pipe systems for various industries. The application process is selective and the program is demanding. Apprentices are required to work in the field four days a week and attend school one day a week. “It’s basically a paid education for apprentices,” Leen says. “They get four years of paid school days and receive a day’s wage to come to school.”

Bollinger has introduced a program in which trainees are paid to attend entry-level welding training courses. Once they are certified and put to work in the shipyard, their pay jumps more than 30% an hour. Experienced welders also teach courses at night and on weekends so newer welders can upgrade their skills, Fontenot says.

Industry groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in Washington, D.C., have started programs to provide students and young adults with hands-on interaction and images of modern welding as a safe, stable and attractive career path. NAM’s “Dream It. Do It.” campaign is an alliance between manufacturers and local communities. The National Shipbuilding Research Program in Charleston, South Carolina, an organization dedicated to reducing the cost of building and maintaining naval warships, is developing a workforce-enhancement program that would aid collaboration between the shipbuilding industry and colleges.

Former AWS President Ernest Levert, senior staff manufacturing engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Dallas, visits schools that offer welding courses to discuss the benefits of a welding career. He cites his own professional rise from attending a welding program at a vocational high school to his current job dealing with projects such as the international space station.

“Changing welding’s negative image really depends on the manufacturers to work closely with community youth groups, schools, community colleges and technical schools to develop curricula that helps kids learn about manufacturing and the skills needed to work in the industry. Manufacturers must offer internships and visit classrooms to describe what welding looks like,” says Stacey Wagner, managing director for NAM’s Center for Workforce Success. “If kids can’t visualize what manufacturing’s all about, they’ll end up working at places where they have first-hand knowledge, such as a fast-food joint, where they ‘get it.’”

TOUGH TRADE

Even those who hope to revive interest in welding as a career recognize it’s not an easy skill to master. Welding is math- and science-intensive and requires excellent hand-eye coordination, concentration and, in some applications, high physical stamina. “You can’t just have anybody off the street making sparks,” Lawson says.

Perfecting the trade takes up to eight years of training and experience, says James Greer, welding program coordinator and professor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois. “Welding is like martial arts,” says Greer, a past president of AWS and owner of Techno-Weld Consultants in New Lenox, Illinois. “It’s easy to get started, but there’s a huge learning curve.”