My recent note in the July 2011 edition of the "Fabricating Update" e-newsletter resulted in a nice exchange of e-mails with readers. I wrote about The FABRICATOR's 2011 What Keeps You up at Night? survey and noted that even with the overall concern about the economy, which also was the No. 1 concern among fabricators surveyed in 2009, metal fabricators still fret about the availability of skilled workers, the No. 2 concern.
Most of the e-mail contained comments about the current economy and the inability of elected officials to do the right thing. That can't surprise many people. However, one e-mail author asked a decent question: "You keeping saying there is a lack of skilled workers out there. What skills? Why don't you do your own survey to find out what skills companies are looking for?" That's a great point because "skilled labor" definitely can be defined many different ways.
Luckily, the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association's Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation conducted such a survey recently. The Manufacturing Job Skills Survey, completed at the end of 2010, revealed that every fabricator has a different take on just what skills need improving.
The 185 people surveyed cited "leadership" as the most difficult skill set to hire, with 14 percent selecting that one trait. All you have to do is read this piece about what hourly workers are accomplishing at GE Aircraft to know exactly what those metal fabricators mean.
Just behind that "general business" skill were "machining" and "welding," each with 10 percent of survey respondents claiming that those were most difficult to find among the available labor pool. "Tool and die maker" (8 percent), "engineering" (6 percent), "blueprint reading" (6 percent), "press brake operator" (5 percent), and "ability to read and write" (5 percent) round out the top eight most difficult skill sets to hire.
While this helps to outline some of the skills metal fabricators might be interested in hiring, it surely doesn't fill in the complete picture. Welding, for example, is one process. One manufacturer probably can live with only gas metal arc welders, but another might need gas tungsten arc welders because it fabricates stainless steel parts. As more shops diversify their customer bases, they likely want welders to be skilled in both processes, with further specializations required.
Alma, Mich.-based Merrill Fabricators, a division of Merrill Technologies, launched its own welding program because it wasn't getting people with the necessary skills from local community colleges. For more than two years it worked closely with local institutions to try to find students who would meet their requirement for welding a variety of materials, not just thin-gauge steel, and came away with only one quality hire, according to Jason North, a certified welding inspector and educator at Merrill.
"We're having a hard time finding skilled welders," North said. In fact, the company could probably hire an additional 20 to 40 welders in the next three to six months, adding them to the 60 welders already on staff.
The Merrill Institute of Welding is supposed to teach those employees basic but well-rounded welding skills. When classes start up in September, North said he expects 40 students to be enrolled in the nine-week course.
Merrill Fabricators knew what it wanted and finally decided to go find it on its own. That's going to be the same path many metal fabricators take that can't find the employees they need. If they don't, they'll have to pick from the general labor pool, and that isn't going to improve miraculously anytime soon.