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Warriors, Welding and Wooing the Workforce

For the last several years, one of the biggest concerns voiced by manufacturers, construction firms, refiners, petrochemical and petroleum producers is the shortage of skilled manpower. In fact, it could be said that employers in these sectors are weathering the perfect storm of circumstances: Experienced baby boomers are reaching the age of 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day and a good percentage of them are retiring shortly thereafter, manufacturing has a reputation in recent years as being a dumb, dirty and dangerous career option, and changes brought about by digital and technological changes in all facets of industry are taxing those who are in the field. Recruiting, training and retaining quality skilled people is proving difficult even for the most forward-thinking companies.

Add to the skilled labor shortage the extra challenge of competing in a global marketplace, and it becomes obvious that North American manufacturers have a lot of work to do to alleviate this problem. But it is not only the responsibility of manufacturers and producers.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that, over the last 25 years, secondary school graduates have been pushed toward the university track, even though many of them get degrees and never actually work in their field, or end up in service industry jobs because there is no need in the business world for someone with degrees like art history or medieval French. There has been virtually no encouragement for students to explore alternatives for advanced vocational/technical colleges or employer-sponsored apprenticeship training.

Additionally, even if students do choose to go into manufacturing, many of the potential employers continue to report that high school graduates lack technical skills like math, problem-solving, and basic hands-on technical know-how, because these are not taught to effect in most schools.

In a recent survey, senior manufacturing executives responded as to what strategies they believe should be used to resolve the skilled trades’ shortfall while maintaining production and profit margins. In their estimation, the five most important strategies to move skills forward include:

  • Internal employee training and development (94%)
  • Involvement with local schools and community colleges (72%)
  • External training and certification programs (64%)
  • Use of overtime (58%)
  • Creation of new veteran hiring programs (49%)

Unfortunately, recent research also indicates that only about 12% of employers are providing hard skill-set training and development to current employees, implementing alternative work models, and exploring new talent sources. And 20% of those surveyed are not pursuing any strategies at the moment.

In short, it could be said that the education system and industry are jointly to blame for this dearth of skilled workers.

There are, however, programs in place throughout North America which are graduating people who would otherwise not have the skills to contribute to the manufacturing sector. Welders and machinists are among the most desired skilled tradespeople required in the valve industry, and one program in San Diego, California is providing that training.

Warriors in Training

Workshops for Warriors (WFW) has been mentioned before in Valve Magazine, but the recent graduation of the Class of 2016 highlighted the possibilities for programs like this.

Students study machining and welding in hands-on 16 week basic courses, then can take advanced courses, also for 16 weeks. There are 62 different credentials students can earn in this program, each of which are portable and stackable and nationally recognized. Students earn credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, the American Welding Society (AWS), Mastercam University, SolidWorks, Immerse2Learn and the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3).

machiningTraining flows from computers to simulators to the lathe and mills, and must of the equipment upon which they are trained has adaptations for veterans who have lost limbs. They call it “from art to part” because students learn everything from how to draft and design a part and then take it over to the machine and machine it. Once parts are machined, those actual parts go off to the National Institute of Metalworking Skills to be graded. If they are welded, the American Welding Study looks at those parts.

There is no state or federal funding for Workshops for Warriors – the program is funded entirely by donations and from income derived from “VetPowered”, a social enterprise company created by the founder of the school to help fund the school. It is a completely separate organization that offers rapid prototyping, 5-axis CNC milling and 5-axis CNC turning, CNC Laser and CNC waterjet, machinery repair and maintenance services and welding and fabrication to local businesses. Workshops for Warriors is going through the 8-year process to get students covered under the GI Bill, but there is still at least 2 years before that will be a source of funding.

In the meantime, the American Welding Society has awarded Workshops for Warriors the AWS Award of Excellence, making the school the top welding school in the nation, and their instructor won in the Veteran category.

The veterans who have graduated from this program have obtained jobs all over the U.S.; there are 2500 jobs per graduate available because of the severe shortage of workers.

Chris StineOne of the graduates of the program is Chris Stine, an 11-year veteran of the Marine Corps who, with a wife and 2 kids, was worried about what he was going to do when he got out of the service. Now he is not only a student with 11 certifications following his initial training, he is also a teacher and is taking advanced courses himself. While Stine is a military veteran, he is also a “millennial”, and like most millennials, he wants to feel that he is a part of something bigger. “I know it’s difficult in a bigger company, but I don’t want to feel like just a cog in a wheel,” he pointed out. “While it wasn’t what I saw for myself, I realize that it is good and that just because it’s not what you planned or envisioned, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t mean to be.”

Once the GI Bill funding comes into place, WFW plans to expand and build more schools. It will continue to seek donations of materials and machinery for similar facilities around the country.

Recruiting, Training, Mentoring and Retaining

Beyond donating or getting involved in programs like Workshops for Warriors, manufacturers can also do a better job of training in house, and of taking steps to retain the skilled tradespeople they do manage to hire.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average worker stays at a particular manufacturing job for only 4.2 years. While manufacturers say this is one reason they are reluctant to invest in training and workforce development, the reason many employees say they leave manufacturing jobs is because they feel they add little value to the organization, their jobs are not secure, their future is unstable, and there is little job skill training or career path development. It’s a “Catch-22” situation.

In a presentation at VMA’s 2016 Market Outlook Workshop, Ben Dollar of Deloitte offered several steps to attract, develop and retain skilled people.

  • FIND: Employ advanced analytics to enhance candidate screening practices.
  • DEVELOP: Invest in internal training programs and external partnerships that build critical skills.
  • TARGET: Develop integrated recruiting and communications approach with the target (either skilled tradespeople or those who can be effectively trained) in mind.
  • GROW: Change the public’s perception in order to grow the overall pool of interest. He recommended getting involved in programs that would invite kids into high tech factories to get them interested.

One way human resources experts in the valve industry can plan for and implement these and other strategies to hire and keep skilled tradespeople is by attending VMA’s upcoming Human Resources Workshop in Houston.

At this two-day event, which is open to anyone in the industry, attendees will learn about standards on how to approach recruiting and hiring, as well as training and retention in our modern, digital society. Equal Employment Opportunity issues will be addressed and VMA member representatives will share success stories and setbacks from which to learn. A variety of panels consisting of members, YVPs (Young Valve Professionals) and special guests will provide the opportunity for free-flowing discussion on the increasingly important issue of retaining the workforce. Attendees will also have several opportunities for networking and knowledge-sharing with fellow members and speakers over the course of the program.

You can get more information and register at VMA.org.


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is senior editor of VALVE Magazine.  

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