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 Feature Industry Articles 
Thursday, September 18 2014
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

By Edward Youdell, President, Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl.®

Metal fabricators reach out locally to attack worker shortage head-on

Manufacturing has seen its share of highs and lows over the last several years.  The industry has gone from virtual economic-crisis mode during the recession, in the later part of the last decade, to a relatively strong rebound period and sustained growth.

To gain proper perspective in this shift in priorities, look at, for example, the results of the “What Keeps You up at Night” survey released by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA). In 2009 almost 50 percent of people polled said the economy topped their list of things that kept them up at night, followed by roughly 15 percent who responded with “availability of credit.”

However, four years later amidst an economic recovery period, membership responded much differently to the same survey. More than 40 percent of respondents in 2013 said the availability of skilled labor was their main concern.

It’s no secret that skilled labor is top-of-mind in the metal fabricating industry, but the same is true for other manufacturing and service-related sectors like construction, plumbing, HVAC, and pipefitting, just to name a few. Essentially, this is a broad issue that encompasses all of the trades and touches wherever skilled craftsmanship comes into play.

Need more proof? The American Welding Society (AWS) estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of approximately 290,000 welders in the U.S. According to “Boiling point: The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing,” a study for Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, long-term workforce planning is the No. 1 workforce-related factor that CEOs claim they use when setting corporate strategy.

The looming skilled-labor shortage is a multifaceted issue that requires a multifaceted plan of attack. With nearly 8,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, manufacturers need to be preparing on an ongoing basis for the eventual loss of manufacturing professionals. The biggest impact will be felt not in the volume of manufacturing professionals lost, but in the accumulated knowledge those individuals possess.  This makes finding their replacements of critical importance.

These numbers have prompted several industry associations, including FMA, to create initiatives to drive young people toward metal fabricating careers, and those efforts have picked up significantly in the last 10 years or so.

Offering scholarships, creating marketing campaigns, and reaching out to middle school and high school students through camps does a lot in terms of getting a "foot-in-the-door." While industry associations are crucial in generating interest and starting the conversation, real results happen when fabricators and job shops take an initiative, get involved in their communities, and create proactive strategies of their own.

Invest in Your Employees
One of the most important ways manufacturers can combat the skilled-worker shortage is to invest in their current workforce. The benefits of doing this are twofold. First, it elevates the skill level and capabilities of every single person in your business. Second, it gives workers a sense that they are valued. If you don’t think that is an important factor in getting the next generation’s attention, think again. Workers, especially those belonging to Generation Y, also known as the millennials, want to know that their contribution matters. The best way to do that is to invest in their education.

Consider Shickel Corp. of Bridgewater, Va., for example. The company readily admits it faces intensely fierce competition and must deal with margins that are smaller than they have ever been in the company’s 75-year history. As a result, the company cannot afford to create fabrication drawings in-house; instead, it must rely on the customer to supply them and on Shickel employees to interpret prints and identify missing information from what has been provided. Sometimes it is necessary to consult outside engineers to help fill in the details, which is incredibly time-consuming.

Instead of continuing to spin its wheels with this process, the company chose to expand the knowledge base of its employees by reaching out to nearby Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Va., to set up an intensive training program covering six core competencies: basic math, ratios, geometry, trigonometry, print reading, and welding symbols. Results of a pre-assessment test revealed that most employees grasped basic math concepts but needed fine-tuning on advanced mathematics.  The results also showed that employees needed to develop their knowledge of welding symbols.

The pre-assessment results determined who needed to take what classes. Schedules were created for employees and classes were held on Mondays and Fridays for 90 minutes. When employees finished their sessions, they were given post-session evaluations. Those who earned 85 percent or better were deemed proficient in the subject matter. Those that didn’t were offered remedial courses and then reassessed.

Another great example of metal fabricators investing in their current workforce is JD Machine, a machine shop in Ogden, Utah. The company established a formal apprenticeship program with Ogden-Weber Applied Technology College (OWATC), which provides competency-based learning at seven locations throughout the state. OWATC students advance when they show they can competently complete the task assigned to them, not when they muster a passing grade on a written exam.

For example, as part of the OWATC CNC Operations 1 curriculum, the student must complete projects that reflect accuracy in terms of correctly reading blueprints, properly deburring and measuring, and conducting a complete final inspection.

The OWATC curriculum helps to produce skilled workers at three machinist levels: 1, 2, and 3. Many students don’t advance to the second and third levels as they have job opportunities with nearby manufacturing companies after they complete the first level of training.

JD Machine’s management has indicated that this apprenticeship program played a big role in helping it to expand to 140 employees over the last five years.

While it is true that the more you invest in someone, the more valuable they are to the company, it makes them much more difficult to replace should that person ever leave. But which is a bigger risk? Investing in employees and having them leave or not investing in them only to see them stay?

Reach out to Your Community
Not only must companies invest in their present workforce, they must also reach out to the community to educate those who will take the reins in the future. Sometimes all that is necessary is reaching out to area educators to offer a few days of hands-on training like Transfer Flow did. The fabricator of aftermarket and OEM fuel tanks and fuel system components opened its Chico, Calif., manufacturing facility to area high school welding instructors and metal fabrication teachers for a five-day training seminar conducted by company engineers and advanced equipment operators.

Instructors were given hands-on training for operating production equipment, including a two-station welding robot, a laser cutting machine, press brake, and vertical machining center.

With Transfer Flow’s simple act of opening its doors to area instructors, it has armed them with hands-on experience and knowledge to take back to their classrooms and share with students, better
equipping these students for what they’ll see in present-day manufacturing environments. That generates excitement, new ideas, and elevates everyone’s energy levels. It’s a win-win.

Generate Excitement for Your Industry
While generating energy and excitement about the metal fabricating industry, it is an absolute necessary component in attacking the skilled-labor shortage head-on; it’s a difficult task to achieve due to the negative stigma associated with manufacturing. A majority of people who are unaffiliated with the industry still hold on to the perceptions that the facilities are dark, dirty, and dangerous; the pay scale is low; and the workforce is uneducated.

These perceptions are both inaccurate and outdated, which is why events like Manufacturing Day are so important to help replace current stereotypes by allowing people the opportunity to form their own opinions based on experience, not hearsay.

Unless the next generation of workers are welcomed and offered the opportunity to go behind the scenes, they might never realize how technologically advanced these environments are, and how modern-day manufacturers make ample use of automation, 3-D printing, robots, and screen technology, just to name a few. They might never learn that the annual average salary of manufacturing workers is more than $77,000 and that manufacturers have the highest job tenure in the private sector. They might never find out that 90 percent of manufacturing workers have medical benefits.

For Manufacturing Day 2013 more than 825 manufacturers in 48 states hosted events and invited students, parents, community leaders, educators, job seekers, and media professionals—almost 35,000 people—to take plant tours, sit in on educational seminars, and even gain some hands-on experience with equipment.

Visitors to these events, such as the one hosted by Superior Joining Technologies in Machesney Park, Ill., were able to see firsthand the company’s impressive laser welding capabilities, including microlaser welding, laser marking, and laser cutting.

With all of the great success in the first two years of the event, we anticipate more success stories in 2014. In time we hope that every day can be Manufacturing Day.

To capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of manufacturing professionals, we need to adopt an “all of the above” strategy.  This includes getting students of all ages and adults to participate in plant tours, summer manufacturing camps, Manufacturing Day open houses, strategic partnerships between manufacturers and their community colleges and high schools, apprenticeship programs, and work study programs.  Anything we can do to link our next generation with the opportunity and value of manufacturing careers is a welcome idea. 

About the Author:
Edward Youdell is president and chief executive officer of Rockford, Ill.-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA), a professional organization. Founded in 1970, FMA ( brings metal forming and fabricating equipment manufacturers and users together through technology councils, educational programs, networking events, trade publications including The FABRICATOR® ( and the FABTECH® tradeshow (  FMA is one of the founding co-producers of the national event known as Manufacturing Day, scheduled for the first Friday in October, which helps to bring focus on a local level to the manufacturing sector and the careers it offers (

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