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  • Wall Street Journal article

    Where Have All the Welders Gone,
    As Manufacturing and Repair Boom?

    Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, August 15, 2006
    It's a great time to be a welder.

    Months before he graduated from the four-year welding-engineering program at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich., 21-year-old Will Chemin had two offers for jobs paying $50,000-plus. The one he took, working in Dubuque, Iowa, for Deere & Co., the Moline, Ill., equipment company, pays $55,500 a year, plus a $2,500 signing bonus and full relocation coverage. "It takes off a lot of stress during the school year, that's for sure," Mr. Chemin says.

    Welding, a dirty and dangerous job, has fallen out of favor over the past two decades, as young skilled laborers pursue cleaner, safer and less physically demanding work. Now, thanks to a global boom in industrial manufacturing, skilled welders are in greater demand than ever. Companies can't find enough of them.

    The Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, in Troy, Ohio, has been inundated, on its Web site and in person, with recruiters. A notice from Liebherr Mining Equipment Co., offers full benefits and education subsidies. The Newport News, Va., company also is offering relocation assistance, something it hasn't done before, says Cort Rieser, vice president of manufacturing.

    The company's Newport News plant, which builds 400-ton mining trucks, is running at capacity. "We've gone to all the overtime that everybody can handle," Mr. Rieser says. "I can't build any faster."

    In Casper, Wyo., welders are so vital to J.W. Williams Inc.'s operations making dehydration and compression machinery for the oil and natural-gas industries that the company has begun offering $1-an-hour bonuses to welders who simply show up for work on time. "We need welders like a starving person needs food," says Hal Connor, the company's human-resources manager.

    The welder shortage is part of a broader scarcity of skilled tradespeople affecting industries around the world. Ironworkers, machinists, sheet metalworkers, plumbers, pipe fitters and boilermakers are all in demand as production of industrial machinery continues near all-time levels. Some companies are having difficulties getting parts to build ships, bulldozers, rail cars, mining trucks and other industrial goods.

    During a recent manufacturing conference in Chicago, Caterpillar Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Owens said the paucity of welders and other skilled tradesmen was contributing to a production bottleneck at the Peoria, Ill., company. A spokesman says the problem is occurring in "pockets" and adds, "It has been an ongoing effort to recruit and train welders fairly quickly."

    The ranks of welders, brazers and solderers -- whose jobs all are essentially to join pieces of metal -- dropped to 576,000 in 2005, a 10% decline compared with 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The American Welding Society, an industry group, predicts that by 2010 demand for skilled welders may outstrip supply by about 200,000.

    Welding is a job that isn't easy to automate. Repairs on the nation's aging infrastructure, such as bridges, require judgment calls a robot can't yet make. Some welded products, such as space frames for Formula One race cars, aren't produced in sufficient quantity to justify development of expensive robots.

    The average age of welders, currently 54, keeps climbing. As a wave of retirements loom, welding schools and on-site training programs aren't pumping out replacements fast enough. As a result, many companies are going to great lengths to attract skilled welders, sending recruiters to faraway job fairs and dangling unprecedented perks.

    The median weekly earnings for welders, solderers and brazers rose more than 17% from 2000 to 2004 to hit $600, before dipping slightly in 2005 to $596, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But taking into account premium salaries, bonuses and overtime, experienced and highly-skilled welders and welding engineers can easily collect $60,000 a year, double the average. Welders in far-flung places, like Canada's Alberta oil sands, or under dangerous conditions, such as on an ocean oil rig, can command more than $100,000 a year.

    Some companies have resorted to outsourcing their welding. Last year, Liebherr, the Virginia mining-equipment company, began contracting out some projects to welding shops in Michigan and Texas. Some firms, unwilling or unable to pay the high rates skilled U.S. welders command, are having their welding done in places like China.

    In many cases, Chinese steel mills pour the steel and welding shops there do the work, ranging from simple fabrication of metal supports for concrete pillars to complicated projects, such as making industrial boilers or heat exchangers. In many cases, China remains a cost-effective alternative, even taking into account the cost of transporting finished products via ocean freighter or cargo jet.

    Moody International Group, a global supplier of technical training and inspection services, has certified more than 400 people in China to American Welding Society standards since it started a training program in mid-2003, says Todd Fleckenstein, international group director. Moody, based in Houston, says it is the only outfit in China authorized to certify welders to AWS standards.

    The shortage is particularly tough on small manufacturers that may lack the resources to keep their welders from jumping to greener pastures. Glenn Eyster Jr., owner of Eyster's Machine and Wire Products, of Seven Valleys, Pa., lost two of five welders in his 31-person operation over the past two years.

    This year, Mr. Eyster raised the starting wage for welders by $1.50 to around $17 an hour. The company, which makes wire baskets used in cooking French fries and sterilizing medical equipment, hasn't been able to raise prices enough to recoup the higher labor cost.

    "It has directly affected our bottom line," Mr. Eyster says. "Am I getting more work out of them? Not exactly."

    At Williams, a unit of Canada's Flint Energy Services Ltd., the Rocky Mountain region's thin labor pool has hindered efforts to train more welders through an on-site training and apprenticeship program. Executives say the company could increase production by 20% to 25% if it had more welders.

    Williams has raised its starting wage for welders by 30% over the past two years to $16 an hour. This year, it sent recruiters to job fairs as far away as Saginaw, Mich., to poach welders from the declining auto industry. Rivals, meanwhile, have been stealing Williams's welders for months, says Mr. Connor, the human resources manager. One of his most experienced welders recently jumped to a rival firm located directly across the street. "It's a fast buck," he says.

    Write to Ilan Brat at [email protected]

    Corrections & Amplifications:

    The chassis of modern-day Formula One race cars are made from carbon fiber. This article incorrectly indicated that Formula One race cars continue to be built with welded space frames.
    Barry Milton
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  • #2
    I went to high school in the late 70's. At that time there was six or seven shop classes (metal, welding, wood, electric, etc.) you could take plus each one had various levels. Now the same high school has ZERO shop classes. If you want a trade you need to go to the county vo-tech school. Most kids want to be with their friends unless they are certain of a trade they want to go into so they just take basic courses in high school & come out with a very general education that won't get them a good job. There isn't even a way for them to try a trade in high school to see if they like it. Hopefully our country realizes that it can't survive if everyone works in the service industry or retail. We actually need people to build & repair everything too! Enough ranting. I hope we can all make a ton of money in the future off the people that can't do anything with their hands.---MMW---
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    • #3
      I'de say the companies that cant find skilled labor are getting what they deserve. Most companies look to dump skilled labor as fast as they can. The amount of effort put into elliminating knowlegable skilled trade positions is appalling. There is never a shortage of middle managers though. It's interesting how technical/ trade people are looked down on until there needed!! When every one is outsourcing to the cheapest, you lose a resource that can't be restored in less than a generation.
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      • #4
        good article.

        marty
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        • #5
          Really good article.......too bad in my area you would be lucky to make $10-12 an hour at an job shop.....

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          • #6
            BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

            Thats just what i mean. alot of companies want skilled tradesmen but dont want to pay.
            And everyone has got to eat.Personaly i think its absurd to want to pay a skilled worker laboer wages. How does a company think that they can have big money contract jobs going on and pay the workers minum wages so to speak and dress it up with a lot of over time wich uncle sam takes a HUGE CHUNK OF. And keeps us from our families and lives?. so yes they sell us out to companies across the water. I say stay americian...demand quality... PAY THE WAGE FOR IT.seems simple to me.

            dave

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            • #7
              they had VICA when i went to school (high) vocational industrial clubs of America and you had several trades to chose from. now its just not an option any more.
              most of the middle management could be cut start making the shirts do more than pass memo's, if there were not so many they wouldn't need the memo's they could pay the skilled labor better $$$ and get a better product and more of it. a well payed employee is a productive one that cares about the company bottom line and gives his all. any one that feels under payed works that way. when you don't car about your labor force they don't care about you.
              maybe they should outsource the middle management.
              thanks for the help
              ......or..........
              hope i helped
              sigpic
              feel free to shoot me an e-mail direct i have time to chat. [email protected]
              summer is here, plant a tree. if you don't have space or time to plant one sponsor some one else to plant one for you. a tree is an investment in our planet, help it out.
              JAMES

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              • #8
                I thought it was interesting also. The company where I work employs about twenty welders - I'd be shocked if any of them make $20/hour. Part of that is location, part is demand & supply, etc.

                I work in the machine shop. Not bad work, some sitting, some standing, not much heavy lifting (each machine has a small jib crane). The welders do the really hard work. Try running .062 Dual Shield at 350 amps, making five passes for a fillet. Or AirArc at 600 amps for hours at a time. That is hard, hot work. Not surprising that lots of young people would rather sit in front of a computer screen, even new machinists think that every machine tool is CNC driven
                Barry Milton
                ____________________

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                • #9
                  People just can;t understand why I'm welding vs. being a CSI analyst or officer, or pursuing industrial design, or whatever etc
                  It's a "trade" not a profession (in people's minds, anyway), it's considered a step backwards. Also, the work is harder . . .

                  This thread brings up a good point, however. Anybody who wants to know what is really going on in the world today, whether in business or insurance or even just general life trends and human interest stories, should be reading the WSJ. There is no such thing as completely unbiased reporting, but the WSJ comes closer than any other news source. The reporters take on stories no other media would even think of, and the checking and double-checking before going to print is second to none.

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                  • #10
                    the problem is we have too many siting behind comp. screens. i spent 20 years building houses, loved every minute of it right up until it crippled me for life, and then the guys behind the comp. screens found a way to keep from paying me jack to survive on, even though the best i can do now is hope for a few hrs a week with pain levels low enough to play in the shop. heck our monthly trip to walmart to get supply's for the house puts me down for a day. and now i got 3 nurses saying I'm not disabled enough for the government to offset my school loan, even though 3 Dr's and a supreme Cort judge said I'm broken. so now they are going to garnish my disability check they give me to pay themselves back for a school loan.this is what we have to look forward to for choosing a trade over a computer. and the worst part is like mmw said none of the high schools even give the kids a chance to see if the like it. only good thing to be said for all the biker shows is its getting kids interested in welding and working with tools, but most of them wont have the chance to learn it right as the schools don't offer the classes any more. seems like the government has forgotten the need for skilled labor and can only see fry cook or management, every school has computers and computer classes but most don't even have basic shop class's like wood working or auto mec. much less carpentry of welding or electricians.be for long we will have to send our tires to china to be changed.
                    we are going to crash and burn, sooner than some think. as we continue to pay top $$ to desk jockeys and cut the wage of the doers. we need to start showing the value of doing and not just telling.
                    thanks for the help
                    ......or..........
                    hope i helped
                    sigpic
                    feel free to shoot me an e-mail direct i have time to chat. [email protected]
                    summer is here, plant a tree. if you don't have space or time to plant one sponsor some one else to plant one for you. a tree is an investment in our planet, help it out.
                    JAMES

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                    • #11
                      Excellent article, Barry! I recently read an article in the L.A. Times business section about the impending labor shortage. The article centered on one of Cleveland Cliff's Inc.'s Minnisota maintenance facilities. Most of their guys were in their 50's and looking to early retirements. CCI is having a hard time getting young folks to fill their shoes.
                      Scott

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                      • #12
                        25 years ago in Ct it was possible to get a bench job at pratt and whitney making 60,000 a year........and that was 25 years ago. but long gone are those days. Ct sold out and really made a mess of a good thing. kept raising the taxes and the big compainies packed up and went south or went overseas. Ct manufacuturing was HUGE now its NOTHING.

                        So point being is Ct *tryed* to be smart and not give any taxbreaks yet they ended up loosing out on millions of dollars of taxable income from the employees, property taxes from the employees housing.....and then the money that was spent on unemployment ect ect..........


                        HUMMM ?

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                        • #13
                          Great article Barry, thank you for sharing.

                          I am one of those "engineers" that folks love to bash. I have spent a lot of time behind the computer screen, one difference though, I love working with my hands also. I have been out of work for a little over a year now. I have been looking for work and taking care of my twin sons during this time. I have also learned alot about business in the last year.

                          One thing I find troublesome when I read posts regarding salaries/wages. Everyone wants to return to the good old days. Well thats not going to happen. We are in a global economy and work goes to where it can be performed the cheapest. Please do not misunderstand this post, I am not suggesting that this is the way it should be. But with demand for inexpensive goods being what it is, its not going to change anytime soon.

                          One thing people need to keep in mind is that by chasing greater pay we have enabled much of this process. Here is an example. Man gets job in plant making $15/hr. Man wants new thing, man works overtime. Man wants newer, bigger, better thing. Man sees that with what he is making on the floor he cannot afford newer, bigger, better thing. Man works toward promotion and gets it (now maybe no longer a doer but rather a shirt). Man get newer, bigger, better thing. And the process continues until he is promoted to one level above his compitancy.

                          If folks were to really explore there own personal careers they would see that they have probably participated in the demise of some of the trades type jobs. However, this is not a blame game. This is often reffered to as progress. But, when the skilled labor is no longer available, we lament about the "good times". One thing to keep in mind is that there will alway be demand for skilled labor. It is that demand that will change over time. And as the demand changes the supply will change right along with it.

                          This brings me back to my situation and a comparison to child rearing. I have heard parents say "I loved it when they (the child) was less than a year, or learned to talk or walk". And similiarly I hear "I hated when they...". Some times are easier than others. But as I like to say "it is not that any times are good or bad, they are just different". This is what must be remembered "times are different".
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                          • #14
                            <quote>The shortage is particularly tough on small manufacturers that may lack the resources to keep their welders from jumping to greener pastures. Glenn Eyster Jr., owner of Eyster's Machine and Wire Products, of Seven Valleys, Pa., lost two of five welders in his 31-person operation over the past two years.

                            This year, Mr. Eyster raised the starting wage for welders by $1.50 to around $17 an hour. The company, which makes wire baskets used in cooking French fries and sterilizing medical equipment, hasn't been able to raise prices enough to recoup the higher labor cost.</quote>


                            I'm especially curious about the not being able to raise prices to recoup the higher cost of labor.... I don't know about you guys, but our suppliers are raising prices on us right and left. Not to mention "gas surcharges" that seem to go up daily and are tacked on to anything that is delivered to or for us...

                            How 'bout selling the Best not the cheapest? and I don't know this company referenced in the article, but sometimes its not just about the money when someone moves on. Is the worker treated with respect? pleases and thank yous and flexible schedules, and interesting/challenging work go a long way to keeping good employees along with a myriad of other benefits that don't necessarily cost out of pocket...

                            and $17/hour... well, I'll stop now. That's like minimum wage here in So. Cal. I think I'll get down from my soap box now.

                            GREAT article. Thanks for posting. I may have to rant some more about that on my own blog.
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                            • #15
                              good article .I read the article there talking about in aws journal last week about the 200,000 shortage in 2010 for skilled welders.
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