The discussion moderator of Strengthening Manufacturing Education: An Experience Summit in late June posed a question that sums up the battle to replenish the ranks of retiring manufacturing workers: “How do we get young people interested in a career in welding?”
The question was focused on welding, primarily because the two-day event in Burr Ridge, Ill., was sponsored by The Lincoln Electric Co. and several attendees were directly involved with welding and industrial technology education, but it definitely could be expanded to include all facets of metal fabricating. The U.S. Department of Labor says that 23 percent of the people employed in U.S. manufacturing are 55 or older, which means a significant chunk of the manufacturing workforce is seriously thinking about retirement. Getting new blood into the industry is a primary concern for many in the industry.
The discussion that followed the moderator’s question focused on several points, including recruiting students who might be interested in making money without the need of a traditional four-year college degree; stressing that welding can act as the foundation for an exciting manufacturing career, whether it is as a job shop owner or a certified welding educator; and positioning welding as a modern career with advanced tools and monitoring equipment, not the dark and boring career of 50 years ago. While those suggestions are being enacted sporadically in school districts and towns all over the U.S. , others have taken formal—and successful—steps toward changing the way that young people look at welding. They shared their successes during the educational summit.
David Landon, manager of welding engineering, Vermeer, Pella, Iowa, told the crowd that his company has turned to virtual welding training as a means to boost the company’s all-around welding performance.
“This is a tool to improve the training of our welderss, but what that also has really done is allowed our trainers to become better trainers,” Landon said.
Vermeer, a manufacturer of heavy-duty agricultural and industrial equipment, has been using the virtual welding technology since 2008. Today it uses Lincoln Electric’s VRTEX™ 360 to evaluate new welding hires and provide refresher training to current welders.
Landon said that less experienced welders using the tool—which replicates the gas metal arc welding process without the live arc—learn the important aspects of a good weld: placement of wire into the joint, work positioning, gun angle, travel speed, and center-tip-to-work distance. When welding simulations are complete, welding trainers get quantified scores and an idea on areas for improvement, which can be difficult to decipher simply by watching someone lay a bead.
To get an idea of the impact that the tool has made on the company’s more than 300 welders, Landon said you only need to look at welding scores for those who take a pretest and a posttest after training with the virtual welder. He said that welders show a 12-point improvement, which translates into more refreshed skills on the shop floor.
W. Richard Polanin, professor and program chair, Illinois Central College, East Peoria, Ill., stressed the importance of actually working with manufacturers to ensure introductions to the best possible welding technology, access to welding expertise, and availability of job opportunities for welding students. His department’s willingness to work with any manufacturer to develop training programs designed specifically for one type of application or to make it part of a general welding curriculum, he said, has made the school’s welding program much more relevant to the surrounding community. It also helps him when materials used in welding training are donated.
Erica Swinney, program director, Manufacturing Renaissance, Chicago, shared her tale of trying to establish a high school with a focus on technology and engineering in the Chicago Public School System. Over the past six years, her organization has worked with local manufacturers, the school system, elected officials, and nearby residents to set up a curriculum that puts the school’s graduates into a position to become anything from a CNC machine tool operator to a candidate for engineering school. Swinney said that it has been a slow build, but increasingly each graduation class from the 150-student school is showing more interest in manufacturing.
In the end, all participants agreed that any change in manufacturing education will occur only if people get involved.