Is welding too ugly to attract new workers?

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nonfarm payroll employment had risen by 243,000. More than 30,000 of those new jobs went to workers that manufacture metal products, machinery, and motor vehicles and parts—many of them welders. The Bureau also projects that more than 140,000 jobs in welding and allied processes will become available over the next decade.

Annual wage for Welders
Annual mean wage of Welders, Cutlers, Solderers, and Brazers – Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010 51-4121 U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics

And yet, more than 12 million Americans remain unemployed. So why is a manufacturer of wind turbines like Katana Summit having trouble filling dozens of positions for welders of all skill levels? In an economy where many former executives have found themselves working in box stores and factories, the prospect of earning an average $16.79 an hour welding wind turbines doesn’t sound like a bad proposition. The median income for welders in the United States hovers at $35,000 per year, but factors such as welding process, job location and experience often offer the intrepid welder many opportunities to earn substantially more.

Print and web-based sources often point to a dearth of young welders to replace the aging pool of current welders as the source of Katana Summit’s labor supply problem. But why is there a shortage of young recruits? Could it be that welding is generally thought of as a dirty, dead-end job? Maybe. It certainly doesn’t help that CareerCast.com recently ranked welding seventh on its list of Top Ten Worst

Jobs for 2011. That’s actually two steps up from welding’s fifth place finish last year. The Wall Street Journal, whose parent company News Corp. owns a minority stake in CareerCast.com publisher, Adicio Inc., faithfully publishes the job search website’s full sample of 200 jobs, wherein welding sits in 194th place!

Top Ten Worst Jobs for 2011 according to CareerCast.com

1. roustabout
2. ironworker
3. lumberjack
4. roofer
5. taxi driver
6. emergency medical technician
7. welder
8. painter
9. meter reader
10. construction worker (laborer)

The methodology behind the rankings at CareerCast.com is based on a seemingly precise calculation of points earned for different factors affecting the environment, income, outlook, stress and physical demands inherent to each job. Yet, something—perhaps common sense— tells me that most welders are not yearning to drop their sticks and torches to take up butchery (ranked 182), garbage collecting (178), nuclear plant decontamination (150), or statistics (4). Nuclear plant decontamination! Really?

A closer look at CareerCast.com’s methodology makes you wonder why they took the trouble to rank all these jobs in the first place—besides the fact that America loves lists and their website would get free advertising in the Wall Street Journal. In their discussion about 11 factors that contribute to stress in the workplace, they end with, “These scores, of course, reflect only a typical stress profile for any given occupation. For any individual worker, stress can vary greatly depending on the particular working conditions, his or her boss and co-workers, mental outlook and a multitude of other factors which play a part in stress.” A multitude of factors. You don’t say?

Stress factors considered in job rankings report published by Career Cast.com:

1. Travel
2. Outlook/Growth Potential
3. Deadlines
4. Working in the Public Eye
5. Competitiveness
6. Physical Demands (stoop, climb, etc.)
7. Environmental Conditions
8. Hazards Encountered
9. Own Life at Risk
10. Life of Another at Risk
11. Meeting the Public

What is true of stress is obviously true of environment and physical exertion. Of course jobs vary greatly depending on the particular working conditions, one’s boss and co-workers, mental outlook and a multitude of other factors. Thanks for clearing that up CareerCast.com! Considering welding’s poor ranking we might ask just which aspects of the occupation they examined.

Did they talk to the welders that use an electron beam to weld titanium wing supports for F-22 fighter planes? Maybe they spoke with a few guys stick welding pipe at a power plant, or a crew doing some underwater welding repairs on an oil rig. Perhaps they spoke with a cross section of welders that use the TIG welding process to repair tools, dies and molds, or maybe those that use the SAW process to manufacture bridge girders. Could they possibly have spoken to the scientists currently developing cold welding techniques for the next generation of computing devices? And what about the supervisors, instructors, inspectors, and numerous types of engineers involved in the welding industry?

F-22 Welding Assembly Line
F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter assembly line

Had the people at CareerCast.com done their homework they might have realized that it is impossible to pigeon-hole an occupation that employs over 90 welding processes in an incredible number of industries that manufacture and repair a host of items that are absolutely critical to our modern way of life. Aircraft, automobiles, ships, buildings, farm and food service equipment, missiles and spacecraft, mining and drilling equipment, piping, tanks, boilers…the list goes on and on.

We haven’t yet gotten to the bottom of Katana Summit’s welder shortage, but I think we have identified part of the problem: welding as an occupation has a serious image problem. No surprise to many in the field, but what are we going to do to set the record straight? Let’s start right here. Post a brief description of the environment, income, future outlook, stress and physical demands of your job in welding or any allied process. We can’t guarantee it will make it to the Wall Street Journal, but we will be sure to let the people at CareerCast.com know where to look for a sampling of what it’s really like to be a welder.

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