Articles in Category: Public Policy

Industrial job training, and retraining, is now in focus nationwide as companies shed jobs and look to rehire more skilled labor. We’re continuing to look at the welding occupation specifically, especially through the lens of new welder recruitment and experienced welder retraining.

For context, in a 2009 survey of 779 industrial companies, issued jointly by Deloitte, Oracle and the Manufacturing Institute, 32 percent of overall respondents reported “moderate to serious skills shortages. However, that figure was 74 percent for aerospace and defense companies; as we know, that sector is a large employer of welders and welding-related workers.

The National Center for Welding Education and Training, also known as Weld-Ed, began in 2007 as a cooperative venture between the American Welding Society (AWS), private companies, and many colleges and universities to explicitly close the gap between trained welders and industry demand.

Contrary to what we heard, in a recently issued report, Weld-Ed noted that between 2002-2009, there was actually a surplus of welders on the market rather than a shortage 10 percent of welding jobs were lost, mostly due to the economic downfall. But an appointed National Skill Panel projects an increase of “at least 238,692 new and replacement welding professionals between 2009 and 2019, much of it due to baby boomers retiring. How to restock those ranks is problematic.

Arguably the biggest challenge facing the industry is controlling the perception of welding, and figuring out ways to keep welding beginners and seasoned professionals up to speed on the ever changing technological needs in the industry.

“The more types of welding you master the more you can earn, says Richard Seif, senior vice president of global marketing at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, on the Careers in Welding Web site. “If you have math and science skills, going to college to become a welding engineer just about guarantees [sic] good pay: more than $50,000 a year to start and thousands more a year after that, the site quotes him as saying. In our last post on this topic, we found that claim to be a bit too bold.

Weld-Ed’s report found discrepancies in program content and length of training from state to state. They noted that no national education standard exists for welders; therefore, certification varies from state to state, or worse, from job to job. Hopefully, Obama’s “Skills for America’s Future initiative will make steps in the right direction, but for those welders not in a position to go back to school, it might not be the savior the government is hoping for.

AWS and Weld-Ed are already trying to bridge the gap between industry demand and the worker supply pipeline (they work through a consortium of publicly funded universities and Weld-Ed is based on the campus of Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio) and will continue to gather statistics on what ails the perception of the industry.

If it seems a stretch for metal sourcing professionals to pay attention to the trends in something as specific as welding employment, it shouldn’t be. With production likely to continue a sustained increase due to global demand, companies will need increasingly skilled workforces, and it’s in their best interest to have a hand in cultivating them.

–Taras Berezowsky

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

I read an interesting article yesterday that explored a field quite opposite the metal market the legal profession but nonetheless relates nicely to our previous discussion about the state of job training and technical schools in the US.

The Economist makes the case that law schools and law firms sometimes have trouble seeing eye-to-eye in terms of the duties and responsibilities expected of each other. “The lousy job market is, of course, not the law schools’ fault, the article reads. “But law schools could still do more to help their graduates prepare. It goes on to quote Evan Chesler, head of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, a New York firm, lamenting that “they teach few of the practical skills of lawyering, leaving the firms to do much of the training in a recruit’s first years on the job. Richard Revesz, the dean of New York University’s law school, replies that most firms’ needs are so specific that law school should not be expected to provide them.

Based on industry reports, this issue manifests itself in the welding profession as well. We’d heard anecdotally that US manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of welders, and with comparably high starting salaries, there seemed to be a disconnect between able welders hooking up with suitable employers, such as Thermadyne, ESAB and Caterpillar.

Although certain specialized welding positions earn higher salaries than the majority of Americans, such as a welding engineer in the shipbuilding industry (noted below), the range is reflective of most other production-category occupations:

With industrial companies cutting staff and/or wages, they are forced to run with a smaller staff that has newer more specialized skill sets. Those companies may not have the resources to act as de facto training centers to get those workers up to speed, effectively leaving that to technical schools and community colleges. But if workers have taken steep pay cuts or have been laid off, they may not feel they have the financial wherewithal to enroll in retraining programs no matter how hard the Obama administration pushes its Department of Ed initiatives. (Some people don’t see getting into more debt, via federal loans, as the means to get higher-paying jobs.) If there’s lower enrollment, as we’ve reported, training programs’ already-expensive equipment needs become unfeasible to sustain. Ultimately, this bolsters the perception that the manufacturing sector is washed up for good.

That perception may be the biggest obstacle to empowering future welders to optimally match their skills with actively searching employers. Of course, this takes personal drive as much as government assistance. A key aspect of the perception equation: recruiting young welders to replace soon-to-retire baby boomers.

–Taras Berezowsky

This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

How to explain the gap between federal job retraining initiatives and low enrollment at a growing number of industrial training programs? Is there a correlation? What are the factors at work?

We’re hearing reports of factory jobs in the manufacturing sector being added as the economy continues its slow rebound. But at the same time, companies are unable to match up open positions with workers’ existing skill sets. What happens when nursing programs are started and funded in an area where predominantly blue-collar factory workers live? And how much money will those workers have to put in or borrow to switch careers to where the jobs are, or will be?

The Obama administration has recently announced a new job retraining initiative, which looks to specifically pair training schools (and their students’ curricula) with industrial companies in all 50 states, ultimately hoping to make job placement a firmer guarantee.

The initiative may be a response in part to the tide of bad press that “for-profit colleges have been receiving. Schools, such as those owned by Apollo Group and Kaplan, and their executives have been under fire for boosting their bottom lines while increasing numbers of graduates have been defaulting on their federal loans. (Roughly 90 percent of for-profit schools are federally funded, according to reports.)

But “Skills for America’s Future, as the initiative is called, may not work as well in practice as intended in theory. MetalMiner spoke with Steve Kay, principal of the William D. Ford Career-Technical Center outside Detroit. He said that due to abysmal enrollment numbers in their computer-aided machining (CAM) program, the school had to shut down the program entirely and auction off its training equipment. To replace it, they began an Emergency Medical Technician program.

Cultural perception, rather than federal funding or rule-making, may be playing a greater role. “Not only are the jobs that used to pay $28 an hour now paying only $12-$14, put parents are actively encouraging their students to do something else, Kay said.

He went on to explain that parents who grew up working in such historically manufacturing-heavy areas as Detroit are now seeing those industrial models crumbling before their eyes. This influences them to coach their kids to pursue computer programming or design, he said.

William D. Ford Career-Technical Center isn’t the only school to auction its machining equipment. Dennis Hoff, president of Hoff-Hilk Auctions in Minneapolis, has presided over five school auctions over the past three years, including St. Paul College.

Federal policy and the technical training programs may be at odds in another way. In one example, officials, while pushing for alternative energy investment, are decrying the fact that certain training programs (think the DeVrys and University of Phoenixs’ of the world) are not offering sufficient job placement for students to repay their debt. Meanwhile, advocates for alternative vocational tracks may contend that for some of these industries, such as wind energy or biofuel production, many jobs simply haven’t been invented yet. Essentially, students are enrolling in programs to prepare them not for existing fields, but for ones they will eventually pioneer. Determining exactly which skills to teach under this approach has been just as difficult, said Fred Dedrick, executive director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, in a National Journal article. Ultimately, what good is a student’s vocational certificate if there’s no job to match on the other side of the rainbow? Who’s to blame?

This argument has yet to fully play out. As we follow the industrial jobs initiative, we’ll continue talking to those teaching and learning the trades in this current economic climate. Paradoxically, as unemployment levels remain high, industrial companies struggle to fill open positions.

In the next post, we’ll explore the welding sector and why there appears to be a nationwide welder shortage even with $50,000 starting salaries.

–Taras Berezowsky

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