The welding industry has endured no test quite as complex and immense as the one we now face: the shortage of welders.
Welding dates back to the earliest days of metalworking. While technology and innovation in the 1900s propelled society into evolution-overdrive, making obsolete industries in its path, welding continued to thrive, developing into one of the most widely used and critical functions in manufacturing and construction today.
There is no question about the importance of welding. There are currently more than 500,000 welders working in this country, and studies have indicated that the welding industry represents no less than $34 billion in the manufacturing, construction, and mining sectors, where welding is considered a critical enabling technology. Yet, despite the strong need for welding professionals, this country remains in the midst of a crippling shortage of skilled welders.
The average age of American welders is mid-50s. With too many welders nearing retirement and too few students entering the field, the American Welding Society (AWS) estimates a shortfall of more than 200,000 skilled welders by 2010. In consequence, the nation’s manufacturing sector has been suffering from a narrowing pool of available skilled welders: the educated thinkers, who can perform a variety of welding tasks and functions, examine complex problems, and adapt to the demands of the ever-evolving marketplace.
From my seat, I easily see the shortage problems that have manifested in businesses from large to small throughout our membership base of more than 52,000. Production backlogs are getting longer, output is being delayed, and retaining employees is growing even more difficult.
The welder shortage has several contributing factors, one of the most important being the industry’s poor image. It may seem reasonable to think that an industry hungry for workers would have people lined up at its door as competition for jobs across the board grows tougher every year. But the reality reflects a rather different picture.
One of the industry’s biggest challenges today is attracting young talent. This is attributable in large part to a tarnished image that evokes memories of days long ago when welders toiled on the factory floor. At the same time, technological advancements evolved the welding industry, creating an increased demand for better skills, more jobs that offer wages and benefits well above the national average, clean and organized working environments, and expanded career options, many of which require no hands-on welding at all.
Inspection, engineering, and technology are just a few of the welding professions in which work typically excludes actual welding. But, the lack of access to skilled welders puts a constant strain on businesses trying to meet their customers’ demands. The problem has become so acute that employers are struggling to lure candidates and alleviate production bottlenecks. But not even the proposition of salaries that could range from $40,000 to $70,000 at the end of a typical four-year program that includes on-the-job training and schooling has been enough to persuade the nation’s youth.
As the leading non-profit organization dedicated to this critical industry, we are expected to be a sounding board for the frustrations of our members, and we are also expected to respond. And, so we did.
While we can’t claim to have all the answers, we can certainly do our part, along with our industry partners, to help address this pressing personnel issue. Various committees within AWS have been working on improving the image of welding since the early ‘90s. Through its Welding Equipment Manufacturers’ Committee (WEMCO), AWS sponsors an annual Image of Welding Awards Program to recognize individuals and companies that have excelled in promoting the profession.
In terms of our outlook, we are strongly optimistic for 2008. I see some clear signals that the welding industry is building business momentum, even while image issues still exist. Our overall individual membership is fast approaching the 53,000 mark, and our corporate membership has seen double-digit increases each of the past several years and is nearing 1,700. In addition, our fast-growing certification program has experienced robust growth over the last two years. In 2006, certification program revenues grew by 128 percent over 2005, and in 2007 the Society experienced an additional 23 percent growth in revenue over the previous year.
In short, we face tough challenges, but our supporters have never been more vocal and eager to participate in tackling the shortage of welders. AWS appreciates the support of our corporate and individual members in our role as the world’s premier professional society for welding.
Ray Shook is Executive Director of the American Welding Society. For information visit www.aws.org.