^ An Old Image of Welding for Aircraft Construction – Image Courtesy of Everett Historical at ShutterStock.com
Sectoral Issue with Wider Implications
Remarking on A. J. Baime’s book: The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War, witty comedian and television host Jay Leno said that we defeated Hitler because we could build planes faster than the Nazis could shoot them down.
Now, welding is an integral part of making an airplane. Between 1900 and 1950, manufacturing built the economy of the United States. And as is usually the case, its economic impact left a mark on the social fabric.
Things started to take an annoying turn in the late 1970s. A number of factors caused the manufacturing sector to contract. So much so that in the 1980s many Americans believed that the U.S. manufacturing sector was on its death bed.
Young Americans chose career paths miles away from manufacturing and light years away from welding. This was when the perception of welding being a dark and dusty profession with little or no prospects of growth and advancement started to gain traction.
More than a generation later, this grave error in judgment has come back to haunt us. These days, fabricators just cannot find welders with the necessary skills and experience.
Fresh talent is not replenishing the drying stream of seasoned welders at a time when a host of factors are pushing up the demand for clever welders by the day. This is delaying delivery schedules. Some fabricators are even forced to turn down orders from clients.
And while we have a dearth of skilled welders and workers, the unemployment rate continues to be high. Why would the unemployment rate be so high if manufacturers were in need of workers? Neither has the pay for rookie workers increased despite the shortage.
Rising unemployment and income disparities have always produced social unrest. France for example was a highly unequal land before the French Revolution. The possible consequences are lethal enough to merit a piercing examination of the issue.
Causes of the Welder Deficit
Manufacturing is a critical sector for any economy because it:
- provides decent employment and economic stability to those without college degrees
- creates indirect jobs in other sectors
- spurs the demand for goods and services made by other sectors by financially empowering the people employed in manufacturing
In the U.S., the manufacturing sector employed 12million workers or 8.8% of the total workforce in 2013. It generated $2.1trillion that made up 12.5% of the U.S. GDP in 2013.
We must understand that the shortage is one of skilled welders, not mere welders. As a matter of fact, there is an oversupply of entry-level, relatively unskilled welders. This is precisely why the pay for novice welders has not risen.
According to the National Association of Manufacturers, 60% of manufacturers normally reject about half of the welding applicants for they lack the desired skills.
Salaries of fresh welders remain comparable to that of the rookies in the retail sector that offers better work conditions but limited growth prospects vis-à-vis welding. The skills deficit is also why contradictions such as unemployment and skilled welder shortage go together.
Reasons for the shortage are an interrelated combination of demand and supply factors. While certain developments hike demand for skilled welders, the supply lines prove incapable of churning out the required number.
- Contraction of the Manufacturing Sector from the Late 1970s
- Negative Perceptions about Welding from the 1980s
- Shifting Priorities of American High Schools
- Dearth of Training Programs
- Pay Scales
- Long Learning Curve for Welders
- Impending Retirements of Existing, Skilled Workers
- Current Developments
After the contraction in the late1970s, two flawed perceptions took root in the American mind in the 1980s:
- welding is a dark, dirty profession
- manufacturing sector in the U.S. is dying
Rust Belt is a term that originated in the 1980s to describe the industrial decline of the Northeastern U.S., the Great Lakes Region, and the Midwest in the 1970s. Major causes for this decay include:
- Internationalization of American Businesses led to Outsourcing i.e. shifting of manufacturing to cheap-labor economies
- Increased Automation cut down the need of labor and triggered layoffs
- Globalization and the Liberalization of Foreign Trade Policies made it cost-effective to import inexpensive finished goods from cheap-labor economies instead of making them at home
Quite naturally, young people began to shun manufacturing jobs and there started the long march of the U.S. economy towards a service sector. Today, the service sector makes up 80% of the economy while industry makes up only 19% and agriculture a meager 1%.
In tune with this trend, American high schools began to train students for ‘clean’ jobs in the service sector, not for welding or manufacturing. Slowly but surely, training and apprentice programs for welders disappeared from the mainstream.
Welders and machinists do not require a college degree. Vocational training after high school will suffice. This means, welders can start working immediately as opposed to the longer educational duration of college graduates.
Even if the starting pay is not lucrative, the opportunities for growth are great. Top training institutions such as Hobart Institute of Welding Technology produce good entry-level welders who can make around $17 an hour. This transforms into $36,000 a year.
Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics for 2012 indicates that bachelor degree holders in the 25-34 age group make around $46,000 a year.
Certified welders and those who arm themselves with the knowledge of trigonometry and welding automation can expect more than $36,000 a year. And those ready to venture into oil fields and offshore rigs will see six-figure paychecks.
As a skilled and dedicated welder, you will earn enough to support your family within a few years of starting out. The only thing you might miss is the traditional family life.
College graduates have a greater choice of careers and slightly better salaries, but they take longer to reach such a stage. And they require more time for clearing their student debt.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the quest for a college degree that promises a better life, getting a degree is expensive work. Two-thirds of college and university students in the U.S. graduate with an average debt of $28,400 (in 2014).
Such debt is why graduates delay the purchase of a car and a house. The debt is also the reason why they postpone having children. Seems paying off of debt is the task of a lifetime.
With the average age of welders in the U.S. at a grey 55, most of them will retire in the next few years. This will further aggravate the shortfall. And welders cannot postpone their retirement for long because welding is a physically demanding operation.
Ideally, fabrication shops should have hired successor welders and trained them under the experienced guys a few years ago. Well, a few years ago the economy was in total shambles. Not many can plan ahead when even the next day is uncertain.
Neither can you replace them instantly. Welding is more of an art than a science. It takes ages to learn how to get it right. And even longer to get it perfect. No wonder, skilled welders are such a microscopic minority.
While the aforementioned causes have dried up the streams that supply skilled welders, numerous factors have created a tremendous demand for these. Such opposing pressure from both sides makes an endangered species out of the skilled welder.
These current developments include:
- Reshoring of Manufacturing Projects: i.e. the return of outsourced manufacturing projects from abroad creates an immense demand for skilled machinists and welders
Manufacturing in the U.S. has expanded faster than the rest of the economy since June 2009 when the recession ended. For the first time since the 1960s, the manufacturing sector added jobs for four successive years after 2009
- Infrastructure Upgrades: The 1950s and the 1960s was when we built the pipeline and transport infrastructure. U.S. energy pipelines run from Canada to Texas and from Utah to Pennsylvania
The repair, maintenance, and upgrade of this infrastructure needs seasoned welders
- Technological Advances: such as high-tech manufacturing and composite materials require ingenious welding techniques and clever welders
- Necessity to Maintain and Boost the Competitiveness of the U.S. Automotive Industry that is facing the onslaught of competition like never before
Bridging the Deficit
Alarmed at this astounding gap, the AWS has been working with all the stakeholders viz. policy makers, the media, schools, and organizations to spread awareness on this issue and facilitate its resolution.
Towards the same end, the industry is:
- Partnering with Educational and Training Institutions: to groom trainee welders from an early stage by providing college credit and paid / unpaid internships
- Running In-house Training Programs: these come with the risk of a trained welder leaving earlier than expected. Given the circumstances however the risk is worth taking. Not all welders will leave early
Such partnerships and internships help the trainee check his compatibility with the profession. They also enable the company to test fresh talent
- Upgrading the Skills and Productivity of Current Welders
- Developing Fresh Technology to Simplify Training Procedures
- Changing Eligibility Criteria: to have welders with a more matching set of skills
Through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act 2014, the policymakers are supporting such training partnerships. Finally, the efficacy of such initiatives will depend on how well they capture the imagination of the youth, for welding is not a get-rich-quick profession.
If you are willing to learn to weld pipes and travel, welding school is a great career choice. Current fume extraction technologies and helmets make welding a relatively clean profession. And with computer skills set to play a greater role, welding is about to get cleaner.
Welding is important for the U.S. economy. Plus, the welding industry is looking to innovate continuously to hike welding productivity and bolster the overall economic stability of the U.S. Career horizons for the welder are set to expand.
A strategic initiative of this magnitude will take its own time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. rediscovers itself and the sector that launched it.
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