America needs more welders, fewer philosophers

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Don C. Brunell

“America needs more welders and fewer philosophers,” proclaimed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.

He hit the nail on the head without disrespecting philosophers.

Industry News reported in 1988 there were 570,000 welders compared to the 360,000 in 2012. Considering the manufacturing and construction sectors have boomed in recent years, the growing shortage of welders is troublesome. Even worse, the American Welding Society estimates a 290,000-job deficit by 2020.

This shortage is primarily due to the large number of welders reaching retirement age and fewer young men and women signing up for welding classes.

It is not a matter of pay. A welder with basic skills can start at approximately $40,000 a year with good benefits. Those who complete further training and gather job-site experience can earn in excess of $100,000 annually. Welders with special skills working on pipelines, with exotic metals, and on underwater projects command even greater wages.

There is another financial advantage. Welding students generally don’t face the crushing financial debt from student loans. The average university undergraduate borrower owes $30,100, according to The Institute of College Access and Success. That means they’ll be paying about $300 a month over 10 years.

Welding is just one example of America’s shortage of skilled workers.

Bloomberg reports U.S. companies are grappling with this looming scarcity. Almost 3.5 million manufacturing positions will need to be filled over the next decade as baby boomers retire, and 2million of those jobs could remain vacant because of manufacturing’s fading appeal to millennials.

“Boeing is well aware of the risks: Shortages of skilled workers from a smaller, mid-1990s exodus contributed to a factory meltdown that halted production of its cash cow, the 737. So earlier this year, the manufacturer carefully structured a voluntary layoff aimed at retirement-age workers, staggering the departures of 1,057 machinists to avoid massive disruptions,” Bloomberg added.

Nationally, an estimated 3 million jobs are available in the skilled trades – electricians, plumbers, manufacturing workers, pipefitters, mechanics, appliance repair, computer techs and welders. Traditionally, known as blue-collar jobs, they routinely pay $40,000 to $60,000 a year. According to Salary.com in 2014, the average heavy equipment operator in Seattle earns more than $93,000 a year in wages and benefits.

Still, these jobs go begging – and the situation will only worsen as skilled craft workers retire. “The average age of a skilled craftsman such as a carpenter is 49; welder, 55; plumber, 56; and stonemason, 69,” reported Phil Crone, executive officer of the Dallas Builders Association in 2014.

My father was a World War II vet who used the GI bill to become a journeyman electrician. He rose through the ranks to become a master electrician and made a good living for his family. His skills and experience landed him coveted jobs as the electrical superintendent of multi-million construction projects housing complicated high-voltage machinery.

Just as any craftsman today, he had to master math, science and engineering–the skills we now commonly associate with STEM education. He also had to learn to read, interpret and apply instructions from manuals and blueprints.

Acquiring a craft is hard work requiring long hours and persistence.

The good news is that this shortage leaves millennials with a great opportunity. There isn’t a shortage in work. There’s a shortage in workers, Industry News concluded. “Rather than spending four to six years in school and selling your soul just to be there, you can complete a trade-specific program in just two years with better potential job security to boot.”

The bottom line is skilled workers are vital to bringing manufacturing back to America.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com

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