Why are welders disappearing?
Welding is an ancient profession that dates back to the Bronze Age, when men welded with heat and hammers. It wasn't until the 1900s that welding became a widespread profession that offered many opportunities for those with the right skill set. Welders found their skills in high demand during both world wars, and in peacetime they were instrumental in building cars, ships, tankers, pipelines and high-rise buildings.
But in recent years, welders have begun vanishing in large numbers. Much of that is due to retirement: Many experienced, seasoned welders are of an age where they want to sit back and enjoy their golden years. But there is also a gap in welding education that seems to have hit welders both young and old, leaving many of them underqualified for the welding work companies want to see.
The vanishing welder problem
Though many welders have excellent skills, without having had welder education, many of them don't know the science behind the welding, which can lead to problems at hiring time. Traci Tapani, CEO of sheet metal company Wyoming Machine, explained to The New York Times (nytimes.com, 2012) that when she needed to hire welders to put armor on Humvees, she ran into a surprise.
"I had lots and lots of applicants, but they did not have enough skill to meet the standard for armoring Humvees. Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level," she said. Those who didn't know the science behind the welding weren't suitable for new positions in the U.S. military and aerospace industry -- no matter how much experience they had.
Some welders are seeing their jobs phased out by automation. For many years, U.S. automakers have made good use of welders to do the delicate work of putting together vehicles. As computers and robotics become increasingly popular, the image of a welder bent over a vehicle frame with a torch in his hands has fallen to the wayside. An example of this can be seen with vehicle powerhouse General Motors, which planned to cut a number of skilled-labor jobs in early 2013, despite the boom in productivity and sales.
What's the future of welding?
A survey of welders conducted by the American Welding Society (aws.org) found that 92 percent of respondents felt positive about the future of the welding profession. Many felt that welding would continue to show strong growth and demand as the field opened up to new innovations and that it would be instrumental in the construction, transportation, infrastructure, aerospace, marine and automotive industries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is upbeat about employment for welders, especially for those with specific welder training, citing a projected 15 percent job growth from 2010 to 2020 (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). Much of that growth will be due to a booming defense industry and the country's aging infrastructure. Welders might also be able to change with the times and move across industries with their specialized skill set and welding training. For instance, those who worked in the automotive industry might be able to retrain, building on their existing skills, in order to enter the aerospace or oil and gas industry.
Detroit Free Press,"GM looks to trim number of skilled-trades workers," Nathan Bomey, April 8, 2013, http://www.freep.com/article/20130407/BUSINESS01/304070274/GM-looks-to-trim-number-of-skilled-trades-workers
The New York Times, "If You've Got the Skills, She's Got the Job," Thomas L. Friedman, November 17, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/opinion/sunday/Friedman-You-Got-the-Skills.html?_r=1&
USA Today, "Shortage of welders sparks interest in training," Madeline Novey for The Fort Collins Coloradoan, October 21, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2012/10/21/welders-shortage/1641073/
Go Welding.org, "The History of Welding," http://www.gowelding.org/History_of_Welding.html
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers," U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/welders-cutters-solderers-and-brazers.htm#tab-6
American Welding Society, "Welding Forges Into The Future," Andrew Cullsion and Mary Ruth Johnson, http://www.aws.org/w/a/research/future.html