Skilled Labor in the U.S. Shipping Industry

By August 24, 2016 Events, Technology No Comments

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Skilled Labor: An Essential Commodity in Manufacturing

In order to start the production of any kinds of goods or services, you need four essentials – land, labor, capital, and enterprise. Economists refer to these elements as the factors of production. The United States is running out of skilled labor.

Manufacturing built the U.S. economy between 1900 and 1950. In the 1970s however a combination of automation, outsourcing, and cheap imports shrunk the manufacturing sector as companies and colleges cut down heavily on skilled labor training programs.

After the disaster of 2008, the U.S. economy began to gather steam in 2009 even as global trade revived. Reshoring i.e. the return of manufacturing activity that was outsourced earlier suddenly created a demand for skilled trades. As did the long-due upgrading of infrastructure projects.

In August 2013, a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) survey estimated the skilled labor shortage in the U.S. to clock a mammoth 875,000 by 2020. Shipping is an integral part of the manufacturing economy and as such cannot be immune from the issues that plague the manufacturing world.

Welders, fabricators, and pipe fitters are in great demand. Welding is indispensable because it joins metals at the molecular level. Fabricators handle the umpteen cutting-bending-assembling jobs in building and repairing ships. And pipefitting lays down the arteries of any large mechanism.

A Comparative Analysis of Skilled Labor in the U.S. & the World

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2012, the U.S. ranked 14th in the world in wages and compensation paid to manufacturing workers.

Such compensation is a function of the global economic competitiveness, productivity, and overall human development. Wages rise as an economy becomes increasingly post industrial.

In order to maintain global competitiveness, U.S. giants such as Ford and General Electric have adopted a two-tier pay structure paying lower wages to new workers and higher to experienced ones. This may further depress the average wages.

Skilled Trade Requirements of the U.S. Shipping Industry

Welding: it is the welded joints that hold together most of our modern metal infrastructure. In a maritime setting, welders generally build, repair, and maintain ships and boats and their metal parts.

Commercial welder-divers who execute underwater welding are in great demand on offshore oil and gas rigs. Underwater welding saves the colossal cost and effort of pulling large structures out of water.

Underwater Welding is a Tougher, More Lethal Job

Underwater Welding is a Tougher, More Lethal Job
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Marine or underwater welding is tougher to conduct because of higher ambient pressures around the diver-welder. Faster cooling rates of joints and greater hydrogen content in joints weaken joints, destabilize arcs, and intensify joint porosity.

Diver-welders require better skill levels to weld effectively under such testing conditions. They also face the risk of nitrogen narcosis when nitrogen from the inhaled compressed air enters bloodstream and causes drowsiness below 100 feet.

Maritime welders in the U.S. find employment in the coastal regions around the Gulf of Mexico, coastal Alaska, Atlantic and Pacific shores, Great Lakes, region, Houston, and coastal Virginia.

In 2012, there were only 357,400 welders in the U.S. as compared to 570,000 in 1988. The American Welding Society (AWS) estimates the paucity of welders in the entire U.S. to reach 290,000 by 2020 and 400,000 by 2024.

Welders drew an average salary of $36,300 in the year 2012 as per statistics by the BLS. For obvious reasons, commercial diver-welders make much more, even beyond $100,000 per year.

Pipefitting: modern machines and machine systems just cannot operate without pipe networks. These pipes supply the vital fluids such as fuel, oil, lubricant, coolant, water, slurries, vapor, and others that keep the mechanism running.

Piping systems on a ship include:

Piping Network @ Oil Tanker’s Deck

Piping Network @ Oil Tanker’s Deck
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  • Fuel Oil System
  • Power Generation System
  • Fire Fighting System
  • Ballast System
  • Lubrication System
  • Steam System
  • Bilge System
  • Seawater Cooling System
  • Compressed Air System
  • Freshwater Cooling System
  • Domestic Water System

Pipefitters, steamfitters, and plumbers establish maintain, and repair the pipe network in all these systems. Plumbing is the low-pressure version of pipefitting. Pipefitters make about $24.34 per hour according to the BLS. Skilled pipefitters are in great demand and make more.

Fabrication: is the making of metal structures with processes such as cutting, bending, and assembling. Fabricators in the U.S. earned a median annual salary of around $36,570 in 2014. The hourly average wage is around $15.24.


Alarmed by the skilled machinist shortage, policymakers and industrial bodies are teaming up with high schools and other such educational institutions to catch students early through internship and training programs. If all goes well, the shortage will soon be a thing of the past.

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Kemplon Engineering is an ISO 9001:2015 certified marine and industrial engineering company. Contact us for welding, marine pipe fitting, large scale custom metal fabrication, and other marine fabrication services.