As we discussed in part 3 of our series, the industry is fending off several regional skills gaps under the larger shadow of a possible national skills gap in the near future. The roots of these problems are numerous and complex, but a significant lack of clear communication between welders, employers and educators about their individual and collective needs and wants makes it difficult for industry stakeholders to identify genuine solutions to their problems. In short, there is a tendency for welders, educators and employers to pass the responsibility of the crisis between each other, rather than take on collective responsibility for the problem.
This may seem harsh, but each groups’ claims about the causes of the current and potential future predicament contain grains of truth and a failure to fully understand the scale of the problem. This is a problem that involves all members of the industry and can only be resolved by every part of the industry taking responsibility for the problems at hand and working together to find a solution.
This week, we’re breaking down the “causes” of the skills gap that have been attributed to welders, educators and employers respectively in order to get a better idea of the scope of the issue and its roots.
Although hardly the sole cause of the current shortages and looming skills gap, job applicants are frequently characterized as being ill prepared to join the workforce. As we saw in part 1 and part 2 of our series, employers complain about the candidate pool’s lack of skills and experience.
Meanwhile, educators struggle to get students to commit to more than just the basic skills they need for entry level work. Employers are reporting that welders are critically lacking in soft skills that a broader education is meant to provide.
“The inability to write a memo or communicate process changes in a meeting is problematic for any organization seeking to improve its operations. One management-level survey participant stated that he needed to be present in meetings to lead and take notes or progress would be stalled,” LMA Consulting Group President Lisa Anderson told the Fabricator after conducting an industry survey. Employers have also noticed a lack of problem-solving skills and creative thinking in new workers.
These complaints are primarily aimed at young people, whom some employers think are only seeking a paycheck and have no real interest in welding.
Motivation is a major complaint about the current pool of job candidates. Most of the criticism leveled at incoming welders centers on a lack of genuine interest in the craft.
Employers feel welders are only joining the industry as a secondary career, last best option, or because they identify with the stereotypical welder image that the industry is trying to dispel. These welders lack the passion and capacity for growth that employers want and educators can work with.
Educators are an easy target for blame because they are essentially the gatekeepers of the knowledge and skills the industry is seeking. Workers bemoan educators for failing to prepare them for the working world, or, as we discussed before, for hindering them with coursework that prevents them from graduating.
PreparedU, a Bentley University study aimed at understanding the way academics prepare millennials (persons reaching young adulthood around the year 2000) entering the business field, found that while employers consider millennials useful, more than half feel these students aren’t well prepared for their first job after graduating. Study participants also considered millennials difficult to manage.
Inc. Magazine reported a similar study by Bellevue University, which found that one-third of Americans with degrees feel their education didn’t prepare them for their job, and two-thirds of people who aren’t pursuing a degree don’t think college prepares people for jobs. “There’s a disconnect between what students expect from a degree, what education offers, and what the workforce demands,” the Inc. article reads.
Employers blame educators for producing candidates who don’t possess both the “hard skills,” the technical knowledge of welding, and the “soft skills,” things like communication and critical thinking, that the industry is lacking. Further, employers see educators focusing too hard on placing students into 4-year degree programs and ignoring the trades, exacerbating the real and looming skills gap as older welders retire.
The predicament of universities is that they were never intended to be assembly lines for corporate employees. Although one of college’s greatest benefits is that it gives people useful hard skills, part of the point of seeking higher education is to expand a student’s thinking. There is an inherent tendency to focus on so-called soft skills more than some students may like because they help produce the kind of outside-the-box thinking employer’s claim to value.
Employers are among the most vocal proponents of the idea that the skills gap is happening right now, and for critiquing welders and educators for their industry contributions. Although employers aren’t wrong to critique those facets of the industry, employers themselves have begun to face more criticism about how their own practices exacerbate the perceived skills shortage and ultimately encourage the development of a skills gap.
According to the Boston Consulting Group “The real problem is that companies have become too passive in recruiting and developing skilled workers at a time when the U.S. education system has moved away from a focus on manufacturing skills in order to put greater emphasis on other capabilities”
Companies aren’t the whole problem, but they’re certainly a larger part of the problem than has been depicted: until recently.
“We have plenty of entry-level welders out there, and companies can hire them,” Dan Turner, welding professor at Yuba College, Marysville, Calif., told The Fabricator. “But they’re just that—entry-level.” He added that, ideally, the fabricator should have thought about hiring a successor [for a skilled position] three to five years ago. But, of course, thanks to the economy, that’s when many fabricators weren’t in a position to hire.”
Apprenticeships, which provide better hands-on experience than many internships , and in-house training programs, which offer relatively simple solution to a skills gap problem, have actually been on the decline in recent years. It’s understandable that smaller companies would resist creating in-house training programs due to limited resources. Yet the Wall Street Journal reports that many companies who can afford such programs, and even have in the past, are lukewarm to the idea.
The cost of maintaining an internship program is an obvious part of that resistance, but the larger reason is that companies are afraid of investing in welders to match a specific skills gap they need filled, only to have that welder poached by another company.
However, many companies still using apprenticeships find the opposite is true: apprenticeships “actually help with retention, as workers who come up through apprenticeships see the investment their employers are making in their career and reciprocate with a greater sense of loyalty,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Even when poaching does occur, the overall decision to invest in developing one’s employees still eventually proves consistently lucrative in the long term. Employers need to remember that, although they must safeguard their own businesses, they are still part of a larger industry, and making decisions that are good for the industry as a whole are still good for individual companies.
In lieu of apprenticeship programs, working with educators has proven successful where utilized, as we’ve seen before. Despite this, Boston Consulting Group reported only 48 percent of the employers they interviewed turn to community colleges when they’re trying to fill high-skill jobs, and only 34 percent develop partnerships with community colleges to generate employees with necessary skills. Further, only 13 percent of the companies surveyed reported that they often or frequently recruit from high schools.
When it comes to wages, areas that aren’t currently facing skills gap are still creating a negative image about the value of pursuing advance skills. This demoralizing image contributes to the industry’s darkening horizon. As we noted before, one of the heralds of a true skills gap is an increase in wages to attract skilled workers to fill the gap. On a national level, these increases are not only not happening, but in some cases the wages being offered to employees are significantly less than experience would warrant.
In many cases, this is a symptom of employers simply being too selective when presented with a large hiring pool and having technology that allows them to sift through that pool of candidates too easily and too specifically.
Peter Cappeli, an economist at the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources, told Inc. Magazine that screening software often filters out candidates who would be qualified for jobs because their résumés lack the right keywords, or because they don’t have the exact number of experience years; things a human might overlook.
Admittedly, with so many candidates of similar backgrounds vying for a position, such screening software is justifiable, but research conducted by the U.S. Federal Reserve has also shown that when employers have a number of candidates to choose from, they tend to raise the standards of their positions in an attempt to find a significantly-above average hire, often at lower than average wages.
The goal of this entry isn’t to cast blame on any one facet of the industry for the looming skills gap, or to suggest that the problems the industry is facing right now are any less real just because they might not technically qualify as a skills gap right now. Rather, our aim has been to break down current practices in order to determine what aspects of the industry have contributed to its current problems. Ultimately, however, this is a collective problem for which industry stakeholders must share responsibility and, hopefully, band together to find collective solutions.
We’ll return to these problems and consider possible remedies when our series concludes, but until then join us next week when Help Wanted changes gears to examine what traits give job candidates a leg up while seeking work in the current job market. We also invite you to explore http://awo.aws.org to find more ways to advance your career through our online courses, lectures, blogs, podcasts and more.