The Myth of the Welders Shortage
Journal Sentinel claims it’s because MATC does a poor job of training workers. Is that true?
I never thought I’d ever start a column talking about robotic arc welding, but here it is: last month the Milwaukee Area Technical College put this city on the map in this rarified field as it hosted the 2013 national conference on robotic arc welding run by the American Welding Society. Conference participants had a chance “to walk through exhibits” at MATC, “getting a chance to see manual and robotic welding demonstrations, welding tools and gears,” the national society noted.
Yet this is the same institution that, according to stories by Milwaukee Journal reporter John Schmid, does a terrible job training students for welding jobs. Schmid quotes Shelley Jurewicz of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, who says the main tech schools in Wisconsin haven’t bothered to align their teaching curriculum with present-day needs, focusing on graduation rates instead of job placement rates. “The tech colleges are crazy that they don’t talk with employers enough,” Jurewicz said. “Do I get frustrated? Of course I do.”
Schmid used this quote to buttress his oft-repeated point that there is a shortage of skilled workers in this state. He calls welding the “best-known example of industrial skill shortages,” and leaves readers with the idea that poor instruction at MATC is a key reason.
“It works well. We have input from many companies,” says welding instructor Bob Dricken.
Dricken, by the way, worked at Bucyrus International from 2004-2007, before coming to MATC. His first assignment was training welders for the company he left. “Some of those we trained are some of their best people. But are they going to say that? I don’t know.”
Apparently not. Tim Sullivan, who served as CEO of Bucyrus, famously charged that MATC couldn’t provide enough welders for his company’s needs. His company was later sold to Caterpillar, which now has a representative on the MATC advisory committee.
Welding for a company like Caterpillar, which makes huge mining equipment, can be very different than welding elsewhere. MATC teaches five different welding processes. “We teach all of the processes,” says Silverstein, “but not every student wants to do flux work because it’s very dirty, and not everybody wants to do gas tungsten arc welding, because it’s very exact. We teach it all, but they are adults and they pick and choose where they want to go.”
Over the years, says Silverstein, changes have been made in the instruction, at the behest of the advisory committee: “We’ve increased the math level, requiring students to start with a higher math level. We’ve created clear-cut competencies at every step and all lead back to the American Welding Society standards, and students are tested at each step.”
According to the 2011 MATC annual report, 64 percent of students with welding degrees were employed, with an average wage $27,750. Could the program be improved? Perhaps, but I have to wonder why a story damning MATC doesn’t make more effort to present their side.
After Schmid’s story ran, he was contacted by Mike Rosen, president of the union representing MATC faculty and staff. “I called Schmid and asked him to meet with welding faculty. He said he doesn’t have time, he’ll have to call me back.” That was a month ago.
The MMAC has now completed a survey of area companies that employ welders. According to MMAC president Tim Sheehy, the responding companies employ about 1,200 welders of varying experience. “The purpose of this survey is to identify the specific welding skills required in these jobs,” he said in an email. “This information will be provided to a joint working group of employers and technical college representatives to better understand if the skills being taught match the skills required by employers for these specific jobs.”
That information may improve the instruction at MATC and other technical colleges. It certainly can’t hurt.
But the other question is whether MATC’s program is big enough. The program offers one-year and two-year degrees in welding, but only about eight or less of its 50 graduates per year have two-year degrees, according to Lawrence Gross, who runs the welding program. Does it need to be expanded to better supply the market?
Gross isn’t convinced. “If there is a shortage of workers, that should be putting upward pressure on wages and we just haven’t seen that,” he says. A recent report by UWM researcher Marc Levine found that since 2000, “employment for welders has dropped by 25 percent in Wisconsin (and by 45 percent in Milwaukee), and the unemployment rate for welders soared to double digits by 2010.”
Has the situation changed since then? Sheehy writes that the MMAC’s plans “include exploring the wages and benefits attributable to these jobs, as well as the prospects for job openings (either through growth or retirements). What we know from our members… is that welding remains a critical competency for a large number of manufacturers in Milwaukee (estimated 6,000 plus direct jobs). IF we have a shortage in the supply chain for these jobs, it will impact our future employment for a broad range of companies and jobs.”
It was Sheehy who capitalized the “IF,” which I find interesting. After Sullivan doing a report claiming there is a shortage of skilled welders and the Journal Sentinel doing several stories amplifying these claims, it’s interesting that the leader of the chamber of commerce doesn’t see this as a certainty. If there is a shortage, everything we know about supply and demand tells us we should begin to see higher wages and lower unemployment for welders. And if that was happening, wouldn’t that be clear in the responses to the MMAC survey? It will be interesting to read what the report concludes.