Companies are having difficulty finding skilled laborers to fulfill manufacturing jobs, including welding. Highly experienced workers are retiring and shortcomings in training over past several decades has resulted in a situation where younger employees do not necessarily have the skill set to replace their more seasoned colleagues or do not perceive a job in manufacturing as a positive career trajectory. As a result, manufacturers, particularly small to medium sized enterprises (SME) are ever inching toward a precipice where the available workforce will not able to address the needs of the organization. While the workforce will certainly have talented individuals, there may not be a sufficiently large pool of talent to enable business growth.
Factors like high demand, skills gaps, and critical needs have been used to describe the current outlook of the US welding workforce. According to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, nearly 45% of business executives have had to turn down opportunities due to the lack of available workers.
For the USA, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute predict that by 2030, an estimate of 4 million manufacturing jobs will be needed, of which 2.6 million will go unfulfilled. Problems in worker shortage span a range of disciplines: from assemblers and fabricators to machinist and machinery mechanics. Skilled welders fall squarely in the discussion and in the UK, the Herald Scotland reports that over 40% of welders fall into the 55-66 age bracket. Furthermore, Brexit has constrained free movement of labor force between the UK and Europe, further compounding the problem. The situation is likely similar in other regions of the world, putting fabricators in a bind.
Traditional welding, such as MIG and TIG, require high levels of fine motor skills and take years of experience to master. Younger workers aren’t entering trade schools or taking up apprenticeships for a career in welding which puts fabricators in a bind.
These unfulfilled job openings will bring several consequences, including:
To stay competitive and meet customer expectations, organizations will need to uncover new solutions to enable employees to be more productive and to create a work environment that attracts and retains talent. With Millennials now ranging between 27 and 42 years, employers need to look increasingly toward Generation Z for new talent. A recent study by Barna Group found that a key characteristic of Gen Z, arguably the first “always connected” generation, are expectations largely focused around academic and career success. With a negative perception on the vocational trades, welding is not an attractive job and the perceived career path is of lower status than a college degree. Many students don’t see a vocational or apprenticeship program as a setting stage to a college degree later.
As experienced MIG and TIG welders move towards retirement, solutions are needed sooner rather than later to fill the workforce gap created by this growing lack of expert welders.
Addressing the labor shortage in welding requires a multifaceted approach. Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) need flexible fabrication solutions suitable for low volume, high product mix environments. Profitability and commercial sustainability are also crucial for business continuity, necessitating cost-effective solutions. Additionally, attracting younger workers to welding careers hinges on promoting a vision of welding that incorporates cutting-edge equipment and elevates the profession's social status.
Handheld Laser Welding
For welding, technology such as IPG Photonics LightWELD, a handheld laser welding system, offers many benefits to address business needs. As an easy to use solution, it can enable unskilled workers to become successful welders capable of producing superior welds. The fine motor skills required of traditional techniques are not required for this system. This saves very significant time and money in training and allows an organization to build redundancy in the staff.
Handheld laser welding in many cases is much faster than traditional techniques; the improved processing speeds can allow higher productivity for a given worker. To a certain degree, techniques such as weaving wire are replaced by technology such as wobble welding, which is automated, repeatable and controlled by the system. Therefore, by combining the lowered dependency in motor skills with parameters controlled by the system, welding becomes an almost “digital” process, allowing employees to consistently produce top quality welds.
Furthermore, working with state of the art technology can break down the negative perception of welding as a career. At the end of the day, most new entrants to the labor pool are going to be more strongly attracted to those organizations that are investing in the latest tools and technologies. Handheld laser welding certainly ticks the box for “coolness” factor. It can also lead to better employee retention, as lesser skilled workers can now punch the clock with the feeling that they have contributed more to the organization while learning new valuable skills.
For certain applications, industrial robotics may be a good solution, which can be justified in production volumes. When integrated into industrial systems, robots can load/unload parts at high speeds. Welding workstations will generally feature more process monitoring capabilities and sophisticated motion control technology. They will be highly optimized to process a single part type or family of similar parts. However, this comes with high initial investment and require workers skilled in operation and maintenance of industrial robotic equipment – moving the labor problem to a specialized skill set. Welding projects that are low volume / high product mix are generally not appropriate for industrial robotic welding.
Mixing Collaborative Robots with Human Labor
SMEs involved in low volume / high product mix environments may well benefit from integration of collaborative robots (cobot) to handheld laser welding. Cobots are engineered to work alongside humans and incorporate features (such as limited speeds and force sensing) to maintain a safe working environment. Intuitive software makes them easier to program, even supporting a high product mix. Working with cobots can elevate the “social status” up many steps on ladder of life, making this role a “cool” job for younger workers who see laser welding as a starting point in a career path toward industrial laser welding.
Failure to fill job openings in the welding sector puts companies at a competitive disadvantage and this can be particularly true for positions that require specialized skills that can takes years to master. With fewer students pursuing a career in welding, the average age of the workforce continues to increase. As these highly skilled workers move toward retirement a skills gap will develop, which will force employers to adopt strategies to make lesser skilled workers more productive. This can be accomplished by adopting easier to learn and use technology, such as handheld welding systems. They also need provide job satisfaction in the digital world, which may attract younger generations: this may encompass adopting cobot integration while being wary of adopting technology that simply moves the problem to a different skill set to the suite of tools used in daily production.
1 - Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute: Big Gains in Perceptions of US Manufacturing as Innovative, Critical and High Tech
2 – Herald Scotland: Paul Sheerin: Time to change the tune on welding fabrication career
Offering many advantages over traditional welding methods, hand-held laser welding and cleaning can help improve the quality and consistency of welds while reducing production time and costs. Contact IPG Photonics today to learn more about how fast and easy it is to implement laser welding and cleaning into your production process and take your products to the next level.