Six years after the start of a deep recession and a growing call for more middle-class manufacturing jobs, one American industry is tackling workforce development in a unique way. Welding is courting fresh recruits—women in particular.
Mention women welders and "Flashdance" might come to mind. The 1983 movie starred Jennifer Beals as a welder by day and dancer by night. But the industry has advanced beyond the bulky machinery depicted in the film.
Modern welding techniques are highly specialized and can include automation. Shop floors are brighter and cleaner. Welders work on specialized structures for the marine and aerospace sectors, even on custom cars for reality TV shows.
Despite cool projects, available work is outpacing qualified tradespeople—largely due to an aging workforce.
"Any metal shop you talk to, they're desperate for good metal fabricators," said Scott Behr, owner of Total Metal Resource, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Their work includes metal staircases and signage for the Colicchio & Sons restaurant and Chobani yogurt shop, both in Manhattan. "The reality is, the guys who really know what they're doing, with deep knowledge of what happens with metal, are machinists, sheet metal workers and blacksmiths. And they're either dead or retiring soon," said Behr, himself a 20-year welding veteran.
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Of course, whether men or women make better welders is debatable. But both genders being equal, some women, it turns out, have a knack for welding, which requires multiple proficiencies. An affinity for math and science. Artistic and spatial skills to conceptualize ideas. And maybe just as important, a temperament for precise work and hand-eye coordination.
"Women have steady hands and patience. And those are two very important things in welding," said Becky Lorenz, a veteran professional welder and machinist.
Welding isn't the first industry to place extra value on female workers. Most of Hollywood's first film editors, or "cutters" as they were called, were women. The tedious work included sifting through thousands of feet of negatives, cutting the film and then joining the pieces together.
Just as it takes patience to craft scenes into a film, welding requires diligence to produce a weld bead fusion along a metal joint. This process is similar to a sewer adhering a seam. "You can't rush the bead or you won't get a clean fusion," said Lorenz, who runs her own shop, Aerospace Welding Services, in Silver Spring, Md.
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Lorenz is among the select few women in her field: They represent only 3 percent of U.S. professional welders.
Welding is fighting the notion that it's old-fashioned. Few younger people are choosing welding and related fields as careers. When 18- to 24-year-olds recently were asked what industry they preferred, manufacturing ranked fifth among seven industries. Technology came in first, with retail at seventh, according to the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, D.C.
And while technology is ever present in academics, schools have scaled back on shops and vocational training. The value of making something with your hands has taken a backseat to pursuing four-year degrees.
That push away from skilled trades is now haunting manufacturing. Not only are welders older with few younger apprentices, key sectors like oil and gas, which require extensive pipe welding, is booming. Adding to the shortage in welders is reshoring—or the return of lost manufacturing to the U.S. that may require welding.
The average American welder is 54-years-old, and about 45 percent of the workforce is in their 50s or older, said Monica Parr, corporate director of workforce development at the Miami-based American Welding Society. The U.S. economy includes more than 388,000 welding jobs. The welding society projects the need for 111,000 new welders in five years as industry needs grow and some workers retire.
To be clear, welding groups aren't recruiting women at the exclusion of men. Instead, they're reaching out to everyone—including a targeted push at women.
"Since there's a shortage of skilled workers and the pay is good, welding is a marvelous opportunity for young women," said Nancy Cole, last year's welding society president. Only the second female president in the group's 95-year history, Cole traveled to some 26 states and 13 countries in 2013 to stump for manufacturing and welding.
"Welding is not a dead-end job," Cole said. "It's a good paying career." Hourly wages with basic certification can start around $15—double the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Hourly wages can climb to $25 with more experience, said Judith Crocker, who leads talent development at the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network in Cleveland.
Cole and others are reaching out to community colleges to emphasize opportunities as engineers, welders and technicians. Recruiters also are collaborating with high school counselors, who generally get "kudos" for students they send to four-year colleges—not trade schools, Cole said. "So you have to overcome that as well," she said.
When girls weren't allowed in shop class
Of course when Maryland-based welder Lorenz, 59, was attending high school during the late '60s, no one from manufacturing was wooing her. In fact, she petitioned school officials to take the boys-only shop classes.
There was concern about the safety of girls—running around shop class in skirts and dresses, not blue jeans, she recalled. But ever since Lorenz's dad had bought her a brass, Craftsman welding torch at a farm auction, it was love at first bead. Lorenz wrangled her way into the school shop. She pocketed awards at the Montgomery County Fair for small bird sculptures, crafted from horse shoe nails. Lorenz was on her way to a career as a welder and machinist.
Decades ago, welding shops indeed were dangerous, dark and filled with large equipment. But shops are safer, brighter and smoking-free. Women don't need to lift 50 pounds: Robotic equipment can help. "Parents wanted their kids to have an easier life," Cole said. "Now shops look like you could literally eat off the floor."
Modern welding still is demanding. You can be sweating inside a shop or shivering in the cold outside working on-site. But no two jobs are alike. And being a petite female welder has its advantages. At 5-foot-2, Lorenz is able to squeeze into confined spaces. "It's crazy," said Lorenz, whose resume includes work for the University of Maryland physics department and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Wanted: more skilled workers
When Lorenz isn't busy making something, she's recruiting the next generation. She's looking for young upstarts like Charron Wynn, 28, whose studying applied sciences, including welding at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. She was exposed to more traditional fields, including accounting and nursing. But she kept returning to working with her hands—arts and crafts, sewing—before finding welding. "I picked it up and I haven't been able to put it down," she said.
But the industry needs more Wynns. Shortages in skilled production jobs are hurting manufacturers' ability to expand, drive innovation and boost productivity, according to a Manufacturing Institute skills gap report from 2011, the latest year of data available.
Ironically when America's total unemployment level (including the underemployed and discouraged) hovered around 12.7 percent for January, thousands of manufacturing jobs remain unfilled because the industry can't find skilled workers.
"There is a shortage of skilled welders everywhere in the world, and it is only getting worse as each year passes," said John Emmerson, president of Magnatech, an East Granby, Conn.-based business focused on welding applications. His comments were part of a welding society industry report.
As Emmerson put it to the welding group, "Despite the fact that welding is used in virtually every industry, it seems virtually ignored as a manufacturing science."