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To manufacturing companies, the impending shortage of skilled workers is a problem that can no longer be ignored. On May 9, Chris Mapes, president and CEO of Lincoln Electric, gave a keynote address at IndustryWeek’s Manufacturing and Technology Conference where he acknowledged the skills gap as a “strategic challenge” that manufacturers are “going to have to face for years and years to come.”
However, his speech wasn’t exactly pessimistic. In it, he offered potential solutions.
Because Lincoln Electric manufactures welding, cutting, and joining products, Mapes specifically spoke of solving a shortage of welders, but the proposed changes to his company can easily be applied to most manufacturers throughout the country facing the same problem.
To understand how to remedy a problem, it’s important to first understand the root. There are a number of reasons that explain the current dearth of welders. Perhaps the biggest contributor to the skills gap is a generational gap.
On average, American welders are nearing 60 years old and, therefore, nearing retirement as well. An estimated 30,000 welders.
It may seem obvious to fill those 30,000 vacated jobs each year with younger welders, but it’s not that simple. Welding is a skill that people can’t pick up casually. It takes training and experience to become a valuable welder.
The U.S. economy’s good health could also be a cause. After all, industries grow in order to compete with overseas manufacturing. The only problem is that those industries are growing faster than the pool of qualified talent that can fill the jobs.
Lastly, manufacturing jobs are often perceived as low-paying, dangerous, and stressful.
Chris Mapes addresses those misconceptions. He believes that like other industries, manufacturing – and welding in particular – has advanced. “When people think about welding, they typically don't think high-tech. Instead they picture workers with their heads enveloped in welding helmets.”
So, what is Lincoln Electric doing to tackle the shortage?
Mapes favors a three-pronged approach that he believes will excite young people and encourage them to make a career in manufacturing.
Because the welding learning curve is steep, education plays a large part in Mapes’ vision of the future. In fact, education has played a large part in Lincoln Electric’s past as well.
Lincoln Electric recently completed a 130,000-square-foot facility called the Welding Technology & Training Center, which will continue the tradition of training new welders and upgrading the skills of those with experience.
Part of preparing students for an industry that is ever-advancing is supplying high-tech training tools. One example is the VRTEX Virtual Welding Trainer, which simulates welding at different scales and aids in determining a beginner’s aptitude for the trade.
Under Mapes, Lincoln Electric is readily adopting new, technologically advanced training methods. In fact, he stresses the importance of embracing automation. Instead of seeing automation as a danger to skilled labor, he describes it as a “global catalyst.” Part of his thinking is recognizing that some tasks are much more safely carried out by robots and, by defining jobs differently, entry-level positions become more appealing.
To further set the record straight and address the fears surrounding increased automation, Mapes asserts that modern welding itself can take the form of robotics, metallurgy, and software engineering.
The third part of the plan Mapes mapped out includes increasing exposure of welding as a viable career. He wants to introduce welding to more people, especially at a younger age.
To accomplish this, the company’s Cleveland facility hosts 25 high school students for a work-study program each week.
Having proper ambassadors for welding is a great way to not only fill the skills gap, but also to reach demographics that are less commonly represented. For example, female Millennials are less constrained by societal career expectations and are more likely to settle into trades that reward them for their skills.
In a 2017 interview with Cleveland Business, Mapes says, “I don't believe that employees that aren't engaged … can effectively come in and do their best every day for the organization. So why would we not want to educate, support and inform them, so that they can assist us in driving this strategy that we have for Lincoln Electric on a global basis?”
In saying this, he neatly summarizes the idea behind his three-point plan. By engaging the people who are the present and future of skilled trade, you vastly improve its chances of steadily growing in the modern world.
Universal Technical Institute's Welding Technology program provides hands-on training that helps students prepare for a career in a range of industries that include automotive fabrication and aerospace.
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