Not to sound like a broken record, but the world needs more welders. The most recent data reported from the American Welding Society (AWS) shows that there will be a need for 300,000 welding professionals by 2024 – and that’s just for the U.S. market.
According to Monica Pfarr, the executive director at the AWS Foundation, the lack of welders has been an ongoing challenge for manufacturers and fabricators. It’s also a
challenge for contractors overseeing construction and oil and gas projects when they can’t find the necessary skilled laborer. A lack of welders can delay projects because the talent just isn’t available, often requiring companies to spend valuable time training existing welders and new hires.
“Because the demand for welders is so high, we can’t solely rely on the traditional student to fulfill the needs of industry,” Pfarr explains. “Traditionally, welding candidates have been white males that are part of a high school program that transition to a community college program. These are the typical welders in the industry today.”
As the lack of welders has persisted over the years, AWS has ramped up its efforts to fulfill welding employment needs. That has included programs targeting females, underrepresented ethnicities and other non-traditional groups like veterans.
“Veterans are perfectly aligned for a career in welding,” Pfarr says. “They come from a disciplined background, are comfortable working with their hands, and, in fact, many of them had exposure to welding during their time in the military. Those are great attributes and because it’s a skill that they’ve learned or are familiar with, it’s not a huge stretch for them to pursue a civilian career in welding.”
Working with enlisted service men and women isn’t new territory for AWS. Over the years, the organization has partnered with the military at the intake point where newly enlisted service members can attend the U.S. Army Ordnance Corp. and School, which can result in AWS certified welder (CW) certification.
Through that program, AWS’s involvement with service men and women has historically been at the front end of their military careers, but now, the organization is also focused on the service members that are nearing the ends of their military careers as they look to transition to their civilian career. That’s where Operation Next comes into play.
Operation Next was launched by Lightweighting Innovation for Tomorrow (LIFT), a Department of Defense-supported national manufacturing innovation institute. The goal of Operation Next, which is a free program, is to prepare separating service men and women for civilian careers in the most in-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing. Participants earn nationally recognized credentials that can serve as the launchpad for lucrative careers. In the case of the welding program, credentials include the AWS CW certification. The Operation Next curriculum can be started and completed within an individual’s final six months of service while they are still on active duty.
Previously, Operation Next focused its efforts on machining and industrial maintenance, but recently the organization reached out to AWS to expand its offerings into welding. The addition of welding is also happening in conjunction with an expansion to additional military bases based on successes at the initial pilot program at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky.
“When we engaged in the partnership, we were ready to hit the ground running,” Pfarr says. “The first step was to make the AWS welding curriculum accessible to participating students. The curriculum, which is hybrid in nature, includes a virtual/theoretical welding component that the student can do on their own and it also includes a practical component, which includes hands-on training at a nearby technical college.”
Recently, Operation Next announced expansion to nine additional military installations while also providing training opportunities to military spouses. Furthermore, the program is being made available to members of the Florida National Guard and Reserve and their spouses as well as members of the Michigan National Guard and Reserve at LIFT’s facility in Detroit. For AWS, next steps involved working with each of the military bases and National Guard units planning to implement the program.
“We’re working with these locations to identify the closest colleges that have the capability from a skills standpoint, but we also need to confirm that they have the capacity to take on additional students for the practical hands-on component,” Pfarr says. “If the school isn’t an accredited testing facility, we have to locate the nearest facility so that the service men or women can test and receive the AWS CW credential without having far to travel.”
Planning also involved coordination with the leaders at each of the military locations to discuss why Operation Next is a program that they would want to get behind. Their buy-in is critical as program success also requires collaboration with businesses in the local industries and communities to make sure they can be supportive in terms of hiring.
“When service men and women exit the military, some return home, but others stay in the area of the base where they’re currently located,” Pfarr says. “They’ve established roots there and some might have children that are enrolled in school there, so they may want to stay in that community. This helps to ensure a seamless transition for these individuals as they head into civilian life.”
When the pilot program at Ft. Campbell was launched, the goal was to provide education and training to 101 departing service members. Not only did it reach that goal, but 90 percent of those program graduates were hired into the industry. The remaining 10 percent chose to continue with their education or take some much-needed time off after exiting the military.
“All expectations are that the welding program will be just as successful as the machining and industrial maintenance programs,” Pfarr says.
Hopkinsville Community College, the partnering school for the Ft. Campbell pilot program, is among those schools ramping up to accommodate the soon-to-be offered welding program. The same is true for Valencia College, the education facility partner for the Florida National Guard.
“The reason that the welding programs aren’t launching until the second quarter is because they didn’t have the capacity,” Pfarr says. “Hopkinsville is completing a facility renovation and expansion and until that’s done, they don’t have the capacity to take on additional students – that shows the popularity of welding programs.”
Further supporting Pfarr’s observation of the growing popularity for welding programs is data from Weld-Ed, a National Science Foundation grant-funded group. Annually, the group conducts a survey where they reach out to 500 secondary and post-secondary schools, asking for student enrollment and program completion numbers.
“When we look at those data points – for almost 10 years now – we’ve been seeing a steady increase in the number of students enrolled and completing welding programs at both the secondary and post-secondary levels,” Pfarr explains. “And I think that shows that the industry’s collective efforts are making a difference. There are a lot of people putting forth a lot of effort, and it’s paying off.
“We’re increasing the pipeline, but we still have work to do because the shortage is so great,” she adds. “We can’t just sit back and say we’ve done our job. We need to keep the momentum going. The Operation Next program will be such a wonderful opportunity for that.”