Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Myth of the Welders Shortage

Journal Sentinel claims it’s because MATC does a poor job of training workers. Is that true?

By - Jul 11th, 2013 12:42 pm
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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.

The story, however, is a very different one if you talk to staff members who teach welding at MATC, which Schmid didn’t do. They note that representatives of local companies like Super Steel, Joy Global Mining, Charter Wire, GenMet and others sit on an advisory committee that advises staff on curriculum. “Some have been committee members for 20 years,” says welding instructor Sue Silverstein.

“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.

Categories: Murphy's Law

15 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Myth of the Welders Shortage”

  1. “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…”

    This quotation has always bugged me…if the local CEOs really believe this…why haven’t the gotten off their posteriors and out of their cozy offices and slummed down to MATC and told them what skills they need? Whining to MJS is what passes for leadership?

  2. DHRichards says:

    Thanks for this information. We sent our son and grandson to welding school, because the supposed demand was so high. Neither got a job in the field, though they did well in class. I think there are experienced welders out there still looking for work.

  3. Patrick says:

    I’m still trying to figure out the issue. One theory is that these companies just don’t want to have to pay what the market requires for these welders meaning they are being cheap. Or they rather leave the jobs empty then pay more. So if they are unwilling to pay more why? I’m going to assume if they could pay more and make more money they would. But they must have found some nitch in the market that serves their needs for income. For instance maybe it’s not worth hiring a few more welders for very little more income. IDK.

  4. Keith Schmitz says:

    $27,000 a year or roughly $14 an hour explains the shortage. If some can drive out to Waukesha county, they could make close to that at Menards.

  5. STACY MOSS says:

    This gets me really mad.

    We don’t live in a little bubble in Milwaukee. What about the MARKET? Shouldn’t it take care of a “problem” like this?

    Here again, another example of the titans of industry who give each other big raises blaming someone else for their failings.

  6. MilwDave says:

    One thing for sure there is no shortage of overpaid CEOs getting bonuses for cutting jobs and wages.

  7. Here’s another thought…supporters of what have become exorbitant salary and bonus packages for CEOs say it’s because we need to attract and retain the best talent…why doesn’t this apply to hourly wage earners?

  8. Tom D says:

    If there were a shortage of welders, would that enable employers to get visas to bring in skilled (lower paid) aliens to do this work?

    If so, that would explain why “job creators” might talk up a non-existent shortage.

    Employers love “guest workers”. Not only are they paid less, but they cannot change jobs because their visa is only valid as long as they work for the employer who “sponsored” them.

  9. Andy says:

    Bruce, the impression that I’m getting from your column is that the MATC welding program has inproved it’s quality and if anything needs to grow in size to provide more potential workers. This I can get on board with. As was admitted in the article, you can’t make the students choose what type of welding to do to increase their chances at a job, they are adults… but having more students complete the program and more students complete the 2 year program could help improve the number of available workers with the proper skills.

    What I don’t understand is the complete denial that a skills gap exists. 50 students per year, 8 of which completed 2 years? Is that supposed to fill all the openings with qualified candidates? As much as many people try to say that the skills gap is the only problem when filling vacant jobs… isn’t it just as ridiculous to say it’s all the companies decisions or macroeconomic conditions that cause the joblessness? Why can’t it be both?

    Finally, all this cause for raising wages… doesn’t being one of the highest paying states for welders already show that this has taken place? You can only go so high before you’re not competitive anymore. The only places that can sustain substantially higher wages are areas that do not compete directly with production in other states. For example, North Dakota can’t send welding jobs to texas when it relates directly to the oil industry boom in their state. Wisconsin on the other hand, has no such anchor for the industries that exist here. Those jobs can easily move to Texas or other states that pay less and are willing to provide “corporate welfare.” (The merits of which are debatable themselves)

  10. bruce murphy says:

    Andy, as of 2010 there was a shortage of welding jobs and high unemployment. How much has picture changed since then? I’ll be curious to see the results of MMAC survey.

  11. Andy says:

    Yes Bruce, I’d love to see updated figures on skilled workers. From anything I’ve ever seen, skilled workers have a much lower unemployment rate then the general workforce.

    Side note, I’ve been unable to locate where in Levine’s study an unemployment rate for welders in Wisconsin is cited. If anyone knows and can point me to it that would be great.

  12. Marc Levine says:

    Andy-

    A few points:

    1)Wisconsin isn’t already one of the highest-paying states for welders — we’re right in the middle.
    2) It’s not quite right to include, only the “50” students from tech schools as potential welders, and then say there’s a ‘skills gap” or labor shortage. What about the 1900 unemployed welders in Wisconsin, most of whom were recently employed? If there were truly a skills gap, employers could hire them. And what about the 17,000 unemployed welders in the Midwest — if we really had a skills gap here, why aren’t unemployed welders from Michigan flocking to Wisconsin, as they are to North Dakota and Wyoming, where welders’ wages now are higher than in Wisconsin?
    3). Page 43 of the “Levine study” has the 2010 unemployment rate for welders in Wisconsin and a reference to the BLS data accessible via the WSJ, which reported a double digit rate at the trough of the recession. (The unemployment rate for black welders in Wisconsin, in 2010, by the way, was 33%).

  13. Joyce says:

    And again there’s the issue that Tim Sullivan was a champion for until Walker was elected, namely that the business environment for employers of welders has been deteriorating, in the form of inadequate public transportation.

  14. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Anyone claiming that the “skills gap” is because Wisconsin welders and other manufacturing job candidates want too much money is flat-out lying. In fact, the most recent Quarterly Census on Employment and Wages showed Wisconsin had the LOWEST average weekly manufacturing wage in the Midwest at the end of 2012, and is up a whopping $5 compared to what it was 2 years ago – well below inflation.

    http://jakehasablog.blogspot.com/2013/07/fed-data-shows-low-wages-cause-wis.html

    If these guys need to hire manufacturing workers, then PAY THEM. Otherwise, stop whining and stop trying to get welfare off of the taxpayers and tech colleges because of your cheap act. When there’s a shortage, prices go up, it’s Econ 101, but apparently the WMC and GWC oligarchs don’t think those rules apply to them.

  15. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Ever since we created the Tech schools, taking them away form local communities we have see the corruption of the boards, domination by the Left and the Unions. The money going into the pockets if the educrats while the kids get overpriced education or lack thereof.

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