It’s no secret to anyone in the manufacturing industry that there is an alarming shortage of skilled welders in the workplace. If the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct, the problem is only going to get worse in the next few years as the demand for skilled welders will increase another 26 percent by 2020.
There are more than enough jobs – good jobs that go unfilled because the younger generation’s perception of manufacturing has been negatively skewed by social norms, the media and even the structure of our education system.
But there’s a popular saying: Be the change you want to see in the world. So, let’s be the change we want to see in our industry.
How did we get here?
Dan Turner, former chair of FMA’s welding technology council, is very passionate about understanding the cause of the problem plaguing the manufacturing industry and is working diligently to help solve it. As a 24-year welding instructor currently teaching at Yuba College in Marysville, Calif., he’s seen first-hand how young people perceive blue collar industries and how the American education system effectively works against replenishing the retiring workforce.
“This problem didn’t happen overnight,” Turner says. “This shortage exists because over several years of societal choices and educational changes, we have generations of young people who believe blue collar jobs are for uneducated people willing to accept low-paying, dangerous jobs, but that just isn’t reality.
“The American education system is designed for and executed as a college prep experience,” Turner continues. “Kids are under a lot of pressure to make decisions about their career paths as soon as they enter high school, before they’ve been able to experience anything other than our traditional education system, which is focused on testing and being good at classwork. Student aren’t being taught they can go to college to learn how to build things with their hands and develop problem-solving abilities, and we are paying the price for it.”
How do we change the trend?
The lack of skilled welders can be incredibly frustrating. But rather than sitting around complaining that we can’t get people to apply for our open positions, refocus that energy on reaching out to help build our future workforce.
Students and young adults probably won’t read our trade publications. They certainly don’t go to our committee meetings, and they may not be getting information about welding opportunities from educators who have limited experience and understanding of the trade. Which means it’s up to us to inform young people about rewarding careers and creative opportunities that exist in the manufacturing industry.
One way to begin cultivating a network of educators and influencers is to reach out to local colleges and trade schools that already have welding programs. Offer to visit classes to speak to students about careers in welding. Sharing real-world experience with students may strengthen relationships with the educators while introducing businesses to students who are already learning the trade.
Don’t stop with trade schools. Reach out to feeder high schools in the area and speak with shop teachers, guidance counselors, math teachers and art teachers. Speak to classes about the increasing demand in the industry and how college preparatory classes are applicable and valuable in the manufacturing community.
A common misconception to address while building a network is the lack of skill and training required when becoming a welder. Many students, educators and parents have been conditioned to believe one must go to college to be successful, so use that to educate them about various college programs that offer associate degrees and certifications in welding. This is a skilled trade – this isn’t something people do when they aren’t “good enough” for college.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to talk about the negative stigmas often associated with blue collar careers. Make jokes about electricians and plumber stigmas, but then ask who’s really laughing when skilled tradesmen are making $100 per hour to solve problems other people couldn’t manage.
This strategy can be applied in more places than schools – reach out to local unemployment offices, recreation centers, summer programs and libraries. All are constantly looking for valuable programing and events for their patrons and participants. What is more valuable than information that can lead to rewarding careers in a high-demand industry?
Power of social
Knowing the goal is to find future employees where they currently spend time, there are few greater places to find a pool of candidates than on social media.
According to Turner, one of the biggest complaints from educators, parents and employers is that people are constantly attached to smart phones, thumbing through social media.
“Don’t fight it, use it,” Turner suggests. “If you don’t have an Instagram account, get one. Post cool and unique welding pics and do a lot of tagging to local school programs. Once a few students start following you, their friends will, too. Soon, teachers and parents will start following you and your network of influencers will continue to grow.”
Rather than hoping the education system catches up to demand in the next few years, consider developing a workforce. There are countless certifications welders can receive in a training program, and businesses have little control over the priorities imposed by welding schools.
While creating in-house welding programs can be expensive and challenging, you don’t have to go it alone. Organizations, such as the American Welding Society (AWS), are there to help. Once you get their guidance, certifying employees can be so incredibly valuable as it ensures new welders are trained in the specific applications required in the facility.
Internships and mentoring programs are great ways to build company loyalty, as well. Because the demand for skilled welders is so high, often it’s businesses with the deepest pockets that will have the easiest time filling open positions. However, by training employees in-house, offering mentorships, internships and even scholarships, businesses build loyalty while building their workforce.
Times are tight, and it’s not always possible for businesses to spend significant time or resources reaching out to local high schools and welding programs. In those cases, whenever possible, show support to other organizations dedicated to the cause.
For example, Women Who Weld is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit workforce development organization that teaches women how to weld and find employment in the welding industry. According to Samantha Farr, founder and instructor for the organization, Women Who Weld’s training programs are designed to help address the urgent talent shortage in the welding industry and include an annual, six-week intensive welding training program that is entirely subsidized for unemployed and underemployed women; year-round, low-cost, week-long intensive welding training classes; and year-round, low-cost, single-day introductory workshops.
“Businesses and individuals in the manufacturing community can support organizations like Women Who Weld through monetary or in-kind donations,” Farr says. “Women Who Weld does not receive any federal, state or municipal funding, so it depends in part on the support of the welding and manufacturing community to sustain and grow its programming to reach and train more women to become skilled welders.”
Women Who Weld is only one of several non-profit organizations dedicated to bettering the future of welding and manufacturing. Others include Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs and the AWS. By focusing on strategies including skill training, scholarships, fundraisers and special events, they work with businesses every day toward building a brighter future for welding and manufacturing.
According to a study by Deloitte and the Mfg. Institute, if nothing changes, 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled over the next decade. Our businesses, our economy and our growing workforce can do better.