Welder shortage looms in central Indiana, nationwide

January 22, 2007

Where have all the welders gone?

With demand outstripping supply, that's a question manufacturers, road and bridge builders, and other construction company owners are asking themselves with increasing frequency.

Despite a willingness to increase hourly wages and even offer signing bonuses, the search for welders is getting more desperate.

"Almost every company I know that has welders on staff is hiring welders," said Wally Brant, president and CEO of locally based Indiana Oxygen, which designs and sells welding equipment.

No one is being hurt more than small and midsize construction and manufacturing operations, Brant said.

Toyoshima Indiana--a maker of forklift truck components--counts seven welders among a staff of 50 at its near-east-side plant.

"Welders are a critical component for us, and they're getting more difficult to find and retain," said Scott Gregory, sales manager for the company. "If you get a guy who does good work one day and not so good work the next, it can lead to a big recall. It can be a big liability."

As challenging as it's been for Toyoshima, a division of Japanese-based Toyoshima Special Steel, Gregory has heard from others who've been harder hit.

"Some companies are sweating bullets right now, especially those close to the planned Honda plant in Greensburg," Gregory said. "Those firms could lose a lot of workers to Honda."

Bytes, not bricks

The culprit is an aging work force and a shift away from industrial training.

"As the baby boomers retire in the next few years, there's going to be a major exodus of welders," said David Posey, business manager for Plumbers, Steamfitters and HVACR Service Technicians Local 440. "We're in a constant state of recruitment, but you don't have the young guys that want to come into the trades."

In a recent nationwide survey, the top five jobs desired by high school seniors were all computer-related, Posey said, while construction jobs ranked No. 248, just two ahead of migrant farm worker.

Competition for welders is coming from beyond state lines.

"We need welders like a starving person needs food," Hal Conner, human resources manager for Wyoming-based J.W. Williams recently told The Wall Street Journal.

Conner added that his firm, an equipment manufacturer for the oil and gas industries, has commenced national searches to fill openings, offering welders $1 more an hour just for showing up on time. Other companies are enticing new hires with four-figure signing bonuses.

While there is some downsizing in Indiana manufacturing, including the closing of Ford's east-side plant and Delphi and Guide Automotive plants to the north, those are being offset by the expansion of Lafayette's Subaru plant and Greensburg's planned Honda plant, set to open in 2008, and a robust construction market, including the Indianapolis International Airport, Lucas Oil Stadium and Indiana Convention Center projects. Major construction projects need up to 300 welders each to keep them humming, industry sources said.

"There are welders on jobs most people wouldn't think about," said William "Ed" Wyatt, welding instructor at Ball State University and the McKenzie Career Center in Lawrence Township. "A welder shortage could grind a lot of industries to a halt in this state."

Until recently, city and state officials have done little to address the issue. Though schools have stopped offering many industrial arts classes that were part of mainstream curriculum through the 1980s, some area school corporations are kicking up efforts to market their trade programs and career centers to students and parents. Mayor Bart Peterson has examined the possibility of a building-trades charter school.

"The time to act is now," Wyatt said. "The shortage will only get worse."

Wages up, numbers down

Average weekly wages for welders nationwide increased almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 2004 hourly wages ranging from $14 for an inexperienced welder to $28 or more an hour for a journeyman. During the same time, the number of certified welders nationally has dropped 10 percent, to about 576,000.

The average age of welders is now 54, and on the rise. The Labor Bureau predicts that, by 2010, demand for skilled welders might outstrip supply by 200,000, with 8,000 of those unfilled positions projected in Indiana.

The welder shortage is part of a broader scarcity of skilled trades workers. Ironworkers, machinists, sheet-metal workers, plumbers, pipefitters and boilermakers are all in great demand worldwide as production of industrial machinery continues at record levels.

While some manufacturing is shipped offshore, many jobs that require welding have stayed domestic. That, coupled with continued North American industrial expansion, has put great pressure on the U.S. market.

Not as easy as it looks

A worker can be taught to weld in a couple of hours, but it takes years to master the craft. With 140 types of welds depending on the material being welded and the angle and temperature of the weld, it is considered one of the most skilled trades.

Certification to national standards takes 300 hours of training and schooling, Posey said, while graduation from an apprenticeship program takes three to five years.

Welding is a job not easily automated, with repairs on infrastructure like bridges and buildings--both new construction and repairs--requiring judgment a robot doesn't possess. Many welded parts for unique products such as airplanes, race cars and custom bicycles aren't produced in sufficient quantities to justify developing expensive automated systems.

"Welding is like an art," Indiana Oxygen's Brant said. "And out in the field, it's something that often has to be done under difficult circumstances."

Local educational institutions are working with building trades organizations and local unions to recruit more people.

"We need to do a better job of letting students know about the career opportunities in the trades," Wyatt said. "It's a forgotten profession."

In addition to working with local schools, and running its own training and certification programs, Local 440 also participates in Helmets to Hard Hats, a program to lure former military personnel into construction careers.

"We've created a vacuum void of skilled labor," Wyatt said. "Now, we have to reverse that situation or pay the price."

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