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Local Education Program Expands as U.S. Welding Labor Dwindles

As a national shortage of workers threatens the industry, training struggles to keep up

Posted: July 23, 2013 2:00 p.m.
Updated: July 23, 2013 3:35 p.m.

Attendees examine samples of laser welded jewelry as a Peter Tkocz of LaserStar demonstrates the abilities of the LaserStar micro welder in the laser welding lab during an open house event of the welding technology department at College of the Canyons.

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Nationally, there is a shortage of welders, but local trade education is working to fill the employment gap for regional manufacturers.

“If we tapped into every training facility for welders in the country, we still wouldn’t even come close to producing enough new welders to meet the current demand,” said Tim Baber, chairman of the welding technology department at College of the Canyons.

Used in construction, manufacturing, engineering and countless other fields, the welding industry generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue, according to industry experts. This shortage of qualified operators, technicians and engineers represents a significant problem for American industry.

Of the nearly half-million welders in the United States, more than half of that workforce is made up of baby boomers that will soon be approaching retirement age, according to an estimate by the American Welding Society.

As they leave, the need for their skill sets is growing.

Adding to the problem, the welding industry is evolving as new technologies emerge. But high schools, colleges and universities are struggling to recruit younger talent to meet the burgeoning need.

“The retiring baby boomers present a problem, but there are not enough young people entering the emerging sectors that are creating a demand,” Baber said. “There is nothing at the high school level, and any previous experience could really take my students to the next level of training.”

AMS members are working with legislators, schools and trade organizations to bring attention to the problem. Industry experts are trying to change the stigma of the welding industry to the highly skilled and potentially lucrative field that it is today.

“Among trade professions, welding has always suffered as a hot, dirty, smoky job,” Baber said. “But, today, welding doesn’t have to be that brick-and-mortar, strenuous, dangerous job that it was decades ago.”

The changing workforce coincides with a shift in how welding is done, now with a much greater emphasis on high-tech manufacturing as the field becomes more and more computerized.

Many firms are turning toward new technologies — computer-controlled machinery, robotics and lasers — to improve quality, lower production costs and remain competitive.

The transition to new technologies is not only creating a new pocket of labor demand, namely highly killed welders and computer programmers, but a higher-paying niche in the industry, as well.

“Laser, robotics and computer controlled machinery are definitely higher-paying jobs,” Baber said.

Compounding the problem, few schools offer welding degrees or programs, and the new welding technologies are difficult for schools to obtain.

“The cost of starting a program, especially if you are providing education in the newer technologies, is huge,” Baber said.

A local solution

As need increases and proper education dwindles, the expansion and modernization of COC’s 30-year program becomes increasingly important.

In an effort to spread the word, Baber hosts interactive open houses for the welding program. Regional businesses and potential employers attend to see the machines on which COC students are learning.

“They can come to see the skills our students are practicing, so they know that a COC student will have learned the in-demand skill sets, as well as the traditional basics,” Baber said.

With an expected 20 percent growth in the labor force, the program at the Valencia campus has seen growth and significant achievement.

The Manufacturing Institute, based in Washington, D.C., named COC to its “M-List,” which recognizes high schools, technical schools, community colleges and universities that teach manufacturing students to professional industry standards.

Being named to the list illustrates the type of professional development work the college emphasizes, said Baber.

“It kind of vindicates what we’re doing and what we’ve been doing,” Baber said.

This past year is the first time COC has been on the M-List, Baber said.

“Welding is fast becoming the preeminent metal joining process of choice, and our students have the advantage of being trained with the latest technology available,” Baber said.

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