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More than 50 percent of all man-made products require some type of welding. Thus, despite a steady increase in automated jobs, industries still need the knowledge and hands-on skills of trained and experienced welders. Yet the nation finds itself desperately short of welders.

According to the American Welding Society (AWS), the U.S. welder shortage will reach a deficit of 400,000 workers by 2024, while other industry watchers worry it will climb even higher.

Researchers at AWS point to several different factors behind the shortage of welders.

“The urgent need for more welders and higher skill levels among welding personnel is widely known and accepted in the U.S. manufacturing industry,” said Monica Pfarr, executive director of the AWS Foundation. “However, this need is not so widely recognized among graduating secondary school students, their parents, and others such as career counselors who influence career choices.”

“The shortage is due to attrition, whether it’s retirements, people leaving the industry, or people moving and advancing,” said Pfarr. “It’s also due to a negative public perception of welding,” she added.

Pfarr noted that thousands of older welders are reaching retirement age, and younger welders aren’t replacing them fast enough. In fact, the average age of today’s welders is 55, and fewer than 20 percent are under the age of 35.

“There’s a widespread belief that everybody needs a four-year degree if they’re going to be successful, and that’s just not the case,” said Pfarr, who also suggested that too few high schools are exposing students to the possibility of enrolling in trade schools.

“Unless they have someone in their family as a role model, they have no idea that that’s even a possible career for them,” she said.

Access to a skilled workforce has never been more important. Welders are needed in virtually every type of manufacturing, and especially in the automotive, aviation and aerospace industries. As the nation’s infrastructure continues to age, construction contractors will require skilled welders to rebuild structures, bridges and roadways. They also are needed in the alternative energy, petrochemical, and oil and gas industries.

The National Tooling and Machining Association reports that 40 percent of its member companies are turning away business because they’re experiencing a lack of skilled welders.

RCBI training

The Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University designs and delivers innovative training solutions to educate and prepare workers for manufacturing jobs and entrepreneurial startups.

RCBI’s comprehensive training program began in 2009, following the proven model it established in 1998 with its industry-driven Machinist Technology/CNC Program.

Both programs deliver hands-on courses that prepare individuals to earn state and national certifications and develop the technical skills that lead to immediate employment. Core classes are designed to meet industry’s rigorous demands and expectations.

RCBI’s Welding Technology Program offers students an opportunity to become an entry-level welder and earn industry-recognized certifications as well as a career-enhancing degree at the same time.

The program’s hands-on, laboratory instruction takes place at both the Cabell County Career Technology Center and the Spring Valley Career & Technical Center. Through a partnership with Mountwest Community & Technical College (MCTC), students have the option of earning a one-year certification or two-year associate in applied science degree.

“The best way to learn to weld is by actually welding,” said Carol Howerton, RCBI’s senior advisor for Workforce Development. “Therefore, the focus is put on work done outside the traditional classroom and in a shop setting, providing the student a true feeling for the correct way to weld.”

“Currently there’s a serious shortage of welders, not just in our region but nationwide, thus there’s an abundance of great job opportunities for those who complete our program,” Howerton said. “And welding jobs pay good salaries, depending on what specialties you do and the certifications you earn. We just got a job posting today seeking AWS-certified welders. The starting pay that’s being offered is $23 an hour, plus full benefits.”

Students enrolled in RCBI’s welding program typically attend two evenings a week. The course is four semesters long but students can complete the work sooner if they’re willing to attend four evenings a week.

The program is available to high school seniors and high school graduates, dislocated workers, welfare-to-work participants, employed individuals and employers who want to expand the technical capabilities of their current workforce.

With only 35 slots available in the program, Howerton said there’s generally a waiting list of applicants.

“Not only are we dedicated to providing the quality training to develop the skilled workers industry demands, we’re committed to assisting our graduates in finding jobs. More than 90 percent of our graduates find employment in their chosen fields,” Howerton said. “Often our students are recruited by an employer even before completing their training. That shows how much of a demand there is for the skills we are teaching.”

Howerton noted that local school systems in a number of West Virginia counties offer welding instruction at their trade schools or career centers. “But the training they provide is generally not as advanced as what we offer.”

ARC grant will expand effort

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has awarded RCBI a $336,796 grant to expand advanced welding training in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to better serve key industries such as automotive, aviation, manufacturing, petrochemical and power generation.

The Advanced Welding Workforce Initiative (AWWI) award to RCBI was the largest of five such grants made by the ARC.

AWWI is a partnership between ARC and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to increase education and training for advanced technical workers in Appalachia and to prepare them for in-demand jobs in the region’s growing industrial sectors.

The grant recipients were selected based upon their anticipated impact on the region’s advanced welding and manufacturing workforce, particularly their capacity to meet the growing demand across a number of industries.

The awards also were made on the basis of connecting proposals with pressing regional needs, including expanding offerings into economically distressed areas, targeting designated Opportunity Zones and recruiting workers in long-term recovery from substance abuse disorders.

“ARC and NETL recognize that a key component of economic expansion and job creation is a highly skilled workforce,” said Charlotte Weber, RCBI director and CEO. “This award boosts RCBI’s capacity to meet the workforce needs of leading industries through a rapid-response approach that delivers the specific, customized training that companies require while also empowering individual workers with additional career-enhancing skills.”

Weber said RCBI’s business outreach team will work closely with industry partners to assess their needs, then align delivery of welding training to individual companies.

A distinctive feature of the new RCBI initiative will include deployment of a mobile training laboratory to deliver on-the-job, fast-track certifications and customized training at company locations across the region. The mobile lab’s flexible and responsive approach will enable companies to train new and current workers more quickly and cost-effectively.

RCBI also will expand advanced welding training at its facilities in Cabell and Wayne counties to include gas tungsten arc (TIG), alloys and robotics.

Stable, good-paying jobs

“Advanced welding is a growing field across Appalachia, and this training program will provide hard-working West Virginians with the skills they need to fill the stable, good-paying jobs in the manufacturing industry,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. “This is a great partnership between two of our federal partners in the region, and I am pleased by the ARC and NETL investment in our people and will continue to work with RCBI to bring more training programs to the Mountain State.”

“People across West Virginia are no stranger to hard work,” Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said. “The Advanced Welding Workforce Initiative gives people across West Virginia and Appalachia the chance to develop a trait, forge a life for themselves and their family, and contribute to their communities. Partnerships like this are essential to the future of our state, and I thank ARC and NETL for continuing to invest into the people of West Virginia.”

In addition to offering training for new welders, RCBI also directly meets the growing needs of companies, providing skills training to enhance the abilities of their employees.

Scott Straub, president of Huntington-based Wilson Welding Co., said the RCBI initiative will benefit companies such as his by providing a reliable talent pipeline.

“To meet the needs of our customers across the country, we offer very sophisticated welding of all types that require TIG applications,” Straub explained. “We now can turn to RCBI to help us fill multiple welding positions we anticipate having in the near future, and this initiative also presents an opportunity for our existing employees to advance their careers by gaining additional training through RCBI.”

To learn more about the customized or career skills welding training offered by RCBI, contact Carol Howerton at carol.howerton@rcbi.org or 304-781-1680.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

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