When folks think of Fabtech, or any trade show for that matter, the first thing that comes to mind is the sea of booths that are there to explore. But beyond the exhibitions, these shows offer a host of educational tracts that allow attendees to dive deeper into specific topics to boost their industry knowledge and competitiveness. Fabtech 2024, of course, offered these in spades – from impressive keynote speakers to immersive workshops, panel discussions and educational seminars eligible for professional development hours.
Considering the persistent labor challenge plaguing the industry, several of these events focused on training and recruitment, including a panel discussion attended by the staff at Techgen Media titled “Exploring Welding Apprenticeships and Talent Development.” The rousing discussion, led by Joe Young, a 2009 WorldSkills silver medalist and the senior manager of workforce development at the American Welding Society (AWS) Foundation, focused on apprenticeships, particularly, the advantages of practical training, the evolving requirements of the welding industry and the pathways to a fulfilling career in welding.
It is no secret that the path to a lucrative career in Europe is often forged through an apprenticeship. Young adults are given the opportunity to be immersed in a specific field while they’re still in their teenage years, giving them a taste of their future long before many American high schoolers have even considered what they might like to do post-graduation. While it is a proven model across the pond, the United States needs more companies to offer these types of programs. To be an effective tool to combat labor shortages, it must be widespread.
Understanding that, Young invited a group of four panelists to talk about their experiences setting up and maintaining successful apprenticeship programs. Fortunately, the process of setting up an apprenticeship program might not be as difficult as one might assume. This is in part thanks to the help provided by the AWS Foundation. To establish a Registered Apprenticeship Program, which is recognized and supported by the U.S. Department of Labor and often eligible for federal and state funds, AWS created weldingapprenticeship.com, an entire website dedicated to the task.
“When getting started, the thing to keep in mind is that you’re almost certainly already doing 90 percent of what’s involved in an apprenticeship program,” said Brent Weil, a subject matter expert at Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit group dedicated to transforming U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve economic advancement for all. “It’s just not something that’s put together on a form. You’re already training your workers in safety and quality. The benefit of an apprenticeship program is making it clear to your workers, trainers and educators what [that type of program] looks like.”
To elaborate, Weil explained that the apprentice model provided by the AWS Foundation lays it all out for interested parties. “You can take it and adjust it to make it what you need,” he explained of the document provided by AWS. “You’re laying it all out – the approximate hours, what people are going to be learning on the job, the key skills from basic to particular welding processes and fabrication, and job planning.”
Sure, some time is required to register an apprenticeship program, but based on verbiage on the AWS website, it is well worth the time: “Starting or joining a Registered Apprenticeship Program offers employers the opportunity to build and train their workforce rather than ‘buying’ skilled labor in a competitive market.”
Part of the attraction to Fabtech’s panel discussions was the candid nature of the panelists. In terms of what to expect from launching an apprenticeship program, Kevin Joustra, an engineering specialist at Caterpillar, and Sam Chance, a welding engineer at Vermeer Corp., offered their first-hand experiences.
“It’s tough to start,” said Joustra. “It’s usually a couple of years to get apprenticeship programs going to where you can get that pipeline developed and get word-of-mouth feedback from what students are telling other classmates.”
Chance echoed that sentiment with a positive spin, stating that after his company started its apprenticeship several years ago, they are finally seeing their efforts come to fruition. “We’ve seen the apprenticeship [program] really bear some fruit now that we’re more mature in the process,” he explained. “We have high demand and high retention rates with our apprentices – almost 100 percent. Once they finish the apprenticeship program, they’ve gone on to be full-time employees.
“We’re continuing to grow that process, expanding beyond basic skill welding and into advanced manufacturing,” he added. “We have apprentices that work with our robotics team that are learning some of those higher technology skills to implement robots and cobots. It’s been really cool.”
Traction with technology
Panelists, of course, stressed the importance of creating awareness for apprenticeship programs, not just for the programs themselves, but for welding careers in general. Young reminded attendees that there are still a lot of misconceptions about welding as a career, which must be addressed at all turns.
Joustra agreed, saying that it’s incredibly important to engage with middle school and high school students to let them know that welding isn’t what it used to be. He added that new training technologies and virtual tools, like Miller Electric’s MobileArc, can be incredibly effective in that regard.
“Miller’s MobileArc, which is an awesome tool, is almost like a video game that lets younger folks get their hands on welding, get an idea of what it is and create some excitement through it,” he said. “We also go to a lot of career fairs, many in high schools, and we try to do outreach programs at the high school and middle school level to drive excitement about manufacturing careers in general. They may never work at Caterpillar or become a welder, but they do get some understanding of what careers are potentially out there for them in the future.”
Like Joustra at Caterpillar, Chance explained how important it is to develop educational partnerships with middle schools, high schools and career academies, which can literally open the door to outreach in the form of facility tours.
“We’re really proud of our factories and how clean they are, so we do a lot of open houses,” he said. “Vermeer is very plugged into the small community that we live in. We invite the community into our facilities regularly to let them see how clean they are and how welding isn’t the dark, dirty career it was in the past. We also have a lot of automation and virtual tools that allow people to see that this isn’t your grandfather’s welding shop; this is an advanced manufacturing facility.”
Based on the rapid adoption of manufacturing technology in the industry, panelists agreed that these new tools must be implemented into the apprenticeship experience. At Caterpillar and Vermeer, cobots and automation are a big part of their programs. “As these folks go through training, they’re learning on the exact same equipment that they’re going to use out in the shop floor,” Joustra said.
The truth of the matter – which was front and center during the panel discussion – is that it isn’t just manufacturers that are having a hard time finding and developing good talent. Healthcare, retail, hospitality and beyond are all in the same boat. Weil, therefore, put it bluntly.
“We are in a bit of a war right now for talent, and I feel like in manufacturing, sometimes our signs are hard to find,” he explained. “The young people and veterans, for example, that are thinking about careers may see bright shining lights that say gaming over here or healthcare and nursing over there. And, oftentimes, their signs might be a little bit flashier, so I think there’s something we can learn from that.
“In manufacturing, we’ve tended to keep our head down and get our work done, but when people drive down the highway, they don’t know what’s in this plant,” he added. “So, the more we can do to open up, have those tours like were mentioned, apprenticeships can make those signs more apparent for people to see.”
In the end, when a person is properly exposed to the industry, they’re given the opportunity to see that welding, for example, isn’t just a job. It can be a fulfilling career – and one that a person doesn’t have to go into debt to achieve.
“There are lots of career choices – more than ever before – and we really need to be proud of what we do,” Weil told attendees. “We need to work closely with educators from community colleges and high schools and technical schools to give people the chance to see what those opportunities are. Apprenticeships are really a great way to be able to do it.”
And for the employers in the audience, he concluded, “The best worker is the one that you create.”