The US is running out of welders

Welding was seen as a dead-end job for decades. Now, skilled workers say they can easily earn $100,000 a year in the shortage.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 21, 2014 1:37PM

© Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty Images
Man welding metal in workshopBy Matthew Phillips, Businessweek


On a recent afternoon, 17 students sit in a classroom in Troy, Ohio, doing trigonometry. For several hours, they figure out tangents and cosines, tapping away at their calculators to find the distance of a line, the degree of an angle, or the circumference of a cylinder. 


Most of the students just graduated from high school; all but two are male. Many of them wear camouflage hats and Harley-Davidson T-shirts. Everyone's in jeans. Muffled sounds of clanging and crackling -- molten pieces of metal are being fused together outside -- seep through the cinder block walls.


This is welding school.


The Hobart Institute of Welding Technology has been around since 1930 and is considered one of the top national programs in the trade. To get in, you need a high school diploma or a GED, plus about $25,000 to cover the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses.


For nine months, students learn how to weld structural steel and pipe, spending more than 1,000 hours under a hood practicing the art of fusing different pieces of metal. As they advance, they learn to work with more complicated alloys, such as aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel, always striving for that perfect weld that makes the metal stronger. "A nice weld is a work of art," says Andre Odermatt, Hobart's president.


Each year, about 300 students graduate from the school. Eighty-three percent have a job when they leave. The average pay for a new Hobart grad is about $17 an hour, or $36,000 a year.


Some students can expect to make a lot more, particularly those learning trigonometry in Hobart's advanced pipe-layout class. The math will come in handy when they're welding pipeline along rough terrain or running pipe into a refinery or pump station at unusual angles.


After he graduates in June, Eric Bankson plans to work as a subcontractor for oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He knows a guy who's making $300,000 a year. "I figure I can do about half that," says Bankson, whose sister is getting her master's degree in nursing.

 

"That's going to take her six years, and I'll be coming out of here in nine months making more money." Not bad considering the national jobless rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is 14.4 percent, and the average salary for 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor's degrees is $46,900, according to 2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.


For the better part of the past 30 years, welding was seen as a dead-end job. When the manufacturing sector began contracting in the 1980s, so did the demand for people who worked with metal. In 1988 there were 570,000 welders in the U.S., according to data kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2012, there were fewer than 360,000.


But manufacturing has grown faster than the rest of the U.S. economy since the recession ended in June 2009. For the first time since the early 1960s, manufacturers have added jobs four years in a row. Couple that with the oil and gas boom and the thousands of miles of new pipeline being built, and the demand for skilled welders has risen sharply.


Decades of attrition have left the U.S. with welders who largely lack the advanced skills needed today. The average age of a welder in the country is 55; the wave of coming retirements will leave manufacturers at a disadvantage. The American Welding Society estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of 290,000 professionals, including inspectors, engineers, and teachers.


"We're dealing with a lost generation," says Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. "For 20 years we stopped feeding young people into the trades, and now we're scrambling to catch up."

 

The assembly line jobs that used to employ most welders have largely been outsourced or automated. Today, the focus is quality, not quantity. Welders work on made-to-order pieces of fabricated metal (metal cut into a certain shape) and alloys, producing high-value pieces of equipment for any industry from automobiles to aerospace.

 

While Hobart graduates are in hot demand, there is still a debate about the size of the skills gap. Some companies say the reason they aren't hiring more is that they can't find enough qualified people.


Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists offer a more nuanced view. Paul Osterman and Andrew Weaver have produced the first real evidence that while the skills gap exists, it's not as pervasive as many believe. Of the plant managers at about 900 U.S. manufacturers they interviewed, 75 percent said they had no long-term vacancies. Only 16 percent reported high levels of long-term vacancies equal to or greater than 5 percent of their workforce. That's not as big as a lot of people thought. "But it's not zero either," says Weaver.


Figuring out exactly how much this is costing manufacturers is much harder, says Weaver. Several companies say their inability to find skilled welders hurts their bottom line.


"Very simply, we have welding jobs and can't find people to fill them," says Doug Gregory, marketing manager at BMR Group, an Indiana company that fixes industrial equipment for manufacturers in the Midwest. "We're having to turn down business because we don't have the manpower."


At Stillwater Technologies, which makes large pieces of fabricated metal for such things as satellite dishes, the lack of skilled welders has extended the time it takes the company to deliver an order to a client from five or six weeks to almost four months. "That's costing us about $2 million a year," says its president, Michael van Haaren. The company expects to do about $14 million in revenue in 2014.


Small and midsize manufacturers such as Stillwater are often in direct competition with corporations that can pay better wages. GE Oil & Gas, a division of General Electric (GE) that builds pipelines, hired 55 welders in 2013 and expects to more than double that in 2014.

 

Caterpillar (CAT) is hiring several hundred welders over the next couple of years to work in two plants it's building in North Carolina and Georgia. The company partners with local high schools and community colleges, donating factory equipment and even helping design curriculums to steer young people toward manufacturing and overcome the stigma of working with your hands.


"It's as much about fixing the perception gap as it is the skills gap," says Korey Coon, a human resources manager at Caterpillar.

 

Hobart just finished a $1 million expansion, adding 52 welding booths. That's cut the time students have to wait to enroll after being accepted from 10 months to six. Still, if Hobart had 20 percent more capacity, "we could easily fill it," says Scott Mazzulla, vice president for planning and development. "We're running full tilt, and we still can't meet the demand."

 

More from Businessweek


Tags: CATGE
303Comments
Mar 21, 2014 2:34PM
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It's not just welders, we also need more carpenters, electricians, plumbers, brick and stone masons, mechanics, HVAC techs, etc...  Bring back shop class in middle and high schools.  Teach kids who are interested how to build and fix things with their hands.  This way, people can make a decent living and support a family.  And if they still want to go on to college, they can work their way through, instead of taking on massive debt.
Mar 21, 2014 2:12PM
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You'll never see a guidance counselor in today's schools recommend the "trades" because they have been conditioned to sell the "college" package.   A trade is the key to economic security not that multi-thousand dollar piece of paper they call a degree.   Learn a trade!
Mar 21, 2014 2:43PM
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My father always said first learn to work with yor hands, then consider college, if that fails you can always make a living. How true, try to find a good skilled tradesman today. Dad was right.

 

Mar 21, 2014 2:41PM
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With all the community colleges out there that offer welding classes, why is anybody still unemployed?  Out of work, pick up a new trade people, don't wait for the job to come to you.
Mar 21, 2014 2:40PM
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who ever said welding was a dead end job, didn't know what they were talking about.

I was a welder 47 years and retired very comfortable, welding made me the money to invest in real estate. 

Mar 21, 2014 5:08PM
Mar 21, 2014 3:48PM
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Shortages of skilled trade workers across the board because today's youth are convinced they can be paid well for not really producing anything tangible. 
Welding, plumbing, carpentry, auto mechanics, all require at least a little bit of physical effort. 

Mar 21, 2014 4:52PM
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I started welding for a living 1974 and I have never looked for work it always found me, who says welding is  a dead end job. It is a TRADE and a skill.
Mar 21, 2014 10:03PM
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I am a member of the Sheriff's posse in Salmon, Idaho. Each year we raise money for worthy causes. One year we gave to the nursing home to help with meals. Most years we give away several scholarships. Last year there was a tie between two kids. On wanted to be a lawyer, the other a welder. The vote went to the lawyer. I told them " We have enough folks in this country making trouble for other folks. What we need is industry. We should give it to the welder, at least he is worth something." I was out voted. Lawyers and environmental groups have blocked most of the industry in this country and we are starting to suffer for it. What we need is productive people, one's that are willing to work, to build this country back into the USA the world used to look at in awe. Not more snivelers.
Mar 21, 2014 2:27PM
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If there's a shortage of welders, why are they only starting out at $36,000?

Maybe it's the low starting wage which is causing the shortage.

Mar 21, 2014 3:31PM
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Umm, the guy in the picture isn't welding.

He's running a plasma cutter.

Mar 21, 2014 5:08PM
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We only need welders that can speak English and are here legally.
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But But I might get dirty and I cant sit in front of a computer and manage 20 people. After all, I do have a degree.
Mar 21, 2014 2:56PM
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I agree the trades are super important. They should be offered in high school: wood shop, metal shop, etc. But working in the trades, especially welders, you've got to watch out for on the job toxins that can affect your health, now or later. Welders are contsantly exposed to toxic smoke, gases and fumes even with good ventilation. Wear that respirator, even with fresh air brought in. Be careful. If you don't have your health, you've got nothing.
Mar 21, 2014 3:27PM
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America may need some good welders but even more America needs Honest Politicians that are driven to do what is right for America and it's people..... It should start with an honest POTUS, of which we are now lacking.
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It's a lack of all skilled laborers on top of even engineers, we keep hiring foreigners for these jobs. Heck around here a lot of the doctors are from other countries cause kids are too lazy to go to med school. They all want to try and get rich fast or be rappers. There's still a stigma about vocational schools just like there is for community colleges.
Mar 21, 2014 4:00PM
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I went to welding school a few years back.  The class was full of guys who'd been welders since high school but to keep their jobs they had to be "certified."  That meant they had to learn metallurgy , chemistry, trigonometry,  and practically everything 2 years of college would teach.  If they failed to pass the exams, they would not have a job….period.  Too many people go into welding thinking they'll avoid all those "classes" and then at 40-45 years of age find out they can't be welders without the studies.  
No one wants to hire someone without a certificate to work on airplanes, pipelines, ships, bridges,etc.  Just too much risk.
Mar 21, 2014 3:22PM
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100.000 dang Im in the wrong line of work.
Mar 21, 2014 3:55PM
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"But manufacturing has grown faster than the rest of the U.S. economy since the recession ended in June 2009. For the first time since the early 1960s, manufacturers have added jobs four years in a row."

 

This is pretty much a BS statement.  Four or 5 years ago...  Say we had 10 million manufacturing workers...  Then, after the crash, went to down to 7 million.  After years of "recovery", adding jobs every month over 4 years, we're now at 8.6 million manufacturing workers. 

Mar 21, 2014 3:40PM
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When I was a pipefitter, we used a book that had all the formulas we needed to figure lengths and angles. That, and a calculator would get you there.
If you learn to work on high current power supplies, such as electroplating rectifiers and aircraft ground-power carts, and industrial power supplies, you can put those welders to shame in the earnings department. $74.00 - $125.00/hour is typically charged to the companies.

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