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Training Skilled Welders with a Shortage of Skilled Labor

Executive Summary

Two large companies, OEM Fabricators and Delta Air Lines, have examined welding training issues and implemented progressive strategies for serving their long-term welding and training needs. Some points:

Teaming Up For Skilled Welders

The solution to the chronic shortage of skilled welders isn't as simple as training a person to weld. Particularly in a large manufacturing or industry-specific environment, a person with general welding training may not meet the welding needs of specific markets or target customers who require building to prints and specifications. Further, once hired, welders are often in an employee/employer relationship. This hierarchy emphasizes mistakes and weaknesses, versus knowledge transfer and strengths. Two large companies, OEM Fabricators and Delta Air Lines, have examined welding training issues and implemented progressive strategies for serving their long-term welding and training needs.

Taking Initiative

At OEM Fabricators of Woodville, Wis., "target customer" takes on new meaning. OEM Fabricators serves the needs of original equipment manufacturers, offering fabrication, welding, machining, shot blasting, painting and assembly. The company serves more than 80 customers in many industries, with a focus on those in construction and agricultural equipment manufacturing. Finding qualified welders is especially difficult, and finding welders with adequate experience is even harder.

Rather than just getting interested welders in its door, OEM took a larger initiative and currently partners with three area technical colleges. OEM works with these colleges to tailor student's education toward OEM's markets and customers, which brings welders in the door at a more advanced level and shortens the initial training time.

"Area colleges are very receptive to this," says Scott Exner, manufacturing engineer, OEM Fabricators. "Just like you or I have target customers, we are their target customer. And thus, the tech colleges that are servicing us, and many others like us in this area, are receptive to outside input. They benefit by having an understanding of our products, processes and standards. Having this information and outside input allows them to better train their students to enter the industry." While OEM's customer list is confidential, it does include construction and agricultural equipment manufacturers that are household names.

Beyond the incentive for possible employment, students may be offered scholarships and equipment reimbursements that not only promote enrollment, but also encourage students to take full advantage of the programs. Further, and even more importantly, Exner believes that partnerships like this promote manufacturing as a whole. "In order to sustain our work force we elect to promote manufacturing and manufacturing jobs," says Exner. "We promote manufacturing as not only an opportunity for employment, but also as a possible avenue for growth in an individual's employment opportunities."

"OEM wants students to get the education they need without incurring a heavy financial burden and, in a lot of cases, with an equal or better opportunity for wages similar to those of entry-level professional positions," says Exner. "From a training standpoint, these partnerships are one of our most effective tools."

At the Delta Air Lines' Technical Operations Center (TOC) in Atlanta, Ga., relationships with technical schools are more difficult to foster. While Robert Trudelle, CWI/CWE, TOC welding training instructor, teaches at a local technical college, programs often do not fast-track students. "They can't readily apply classroom work to very specific aircraft welding applications," he says. As a result, the TOC conducts classes and one-on-one training for certifying and recertifying welders.

In addition, finding a qualified welder who is authorized to work on airplane parts is like finding a needle in a haystack, which is why hiring from within is promoted at the TOC.

"Having the center in-house is favorable, especially because people don't lose their seniority if they want to move into welding from a different job," says Jody Collier, SCWI, TOC welding instructor. "More often than not, someone inside is interested, such as an electrical systems mechanic who wants to try his hand at welding."

In the Door

Partnerships and in-house training centers, while extremely effective, are not the only answers to finding and keeping qualified welders. Once educated welders are hired, OEM starts them in an area where the weldments are less critical in their application. Delta works the same way. Delta currently has 99 aircraft certified welders and 102 certified non-flight hardware or ground support equipment welders. In both cases welders experience the manufacturing environment and begin to feed off the knowledge base of others before making critical welds.

OEM employs approximately 70 welders and runs four shifts. In-house training is built around a team or work cell concept. Teams are focused around a customer or group of customers. Teams are then broken off, where OEM may have an exclusive cell or particular part number for that customer. The person begins on a team with direct support from Exner and technical support from a team leader, as well as learning support from team members that have already been working on the customer's part(s).

Beyond internal training, OEM brings outside training in. Because of its close relationships to the technical colleges, the technical schools frequently provide training in a specific area. Concepts of lean manufacturing and some of the tools involved, such as kaizen events and 5S, are examples of recent classes taught at OEM by school instructors. Kaizen events are continuous improvement projects used to eliminate waste, and 5S is a technique for work place organization and standardization where any tools and materials not needed for the job are removed.

"These classes are ongoing," says Exner. "Typically with lean manufacturing concepts there is a start time, and the opportunity for constant and continuous improvement is possibly never ending. It's a culture. With the evolution of the type of work that we do, we do not have room for error."

By using the AccuPulse process, operators at OEM Fabricators can complete a weldment such as this one, using one wire and one gas. This contributes to OEM's 5S philosophy and training technique for visual work place organization and standardization.

Neither does Delta. Training at Delta is based on AWS D17.1, Specification for Fusion Welding for Aerospace Applications, the existing industry standard for aircraft applications. However, employees at the Technical Operations Center are trained and prepared to meet standards that exceed industry requirements. Within this standard, metals are divided into categories, and there is a separate certification for each metal/alloy category. Supervisors choose which internal candidate they want to send for certifying on various metals. All external candidates must have at least an Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) classification.

Prepared by the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology, Troy, Ohio, the TOC training program for GTAW (TIG welding) covers all the materials encountered in aircraft maintenance and repair: carbon and low alloy steel, iron based stainless steel, nickel-based steels, cobalt-based alloys, titanium, aluminum and magnesium, plus the relevant alloys of these metals. A hefty training manual covers every aspect of the TIG process, TIG equipment and welding terms and symbols. Each metal type has a chapter devoted to it, enabling the operator to learn about that alloy's welding characteristics (including an alloy data sheet), pre-weld preparations and welding instructions. Practical exercises, such as a square groove butt joint on .020 in. 6AL4V titanium (Group6:) or a fillet weld T-joint on .063 in. 6061-T6 aluminum, test for real-world skills.

Training consists of classroom and lab experience. The program is not easy, and it does not allow for skills to atrophy. Every operator must take and pass a re-certification test every two years.

Because of this type of structure, Delta gets a more efficient personnel draw. With operators trained and certified on multiple metals and tested in both the flat and vertical positions, Delta has a large talent pool for any job required.

Peer Experience

While each team at OEM has a leader responsible for scheduling and managing the team, OEM's Welding Department does not utilize supervisors. The team concept promotes knowledge transfer, not mistakes; in fact, OEM's philosophy is "everybody makes mistakes."

"If there's a training, knowledge or skill issue, we might have to step back a little bit and analyze what we can do to support someone's growth, because growth is what's going to show on our production capabilities and in our product quality," says Exner. "We find that a lot of personnel issues get handled by the team. It's a peer experience instead of an employee/employer relationship."

OEM's partnerships also extend beyond the technical colleges. The company even builds relationships with some of their competitors—something unheard of five years ago.

"Having a relationship with other people who are in the same business as you, and keeping the lines of communication open, are great for joint venture projects where the joint capabilities allow you to produce product," says Exner. "We all understand that we're here to make money, and it works a lot better if you keep communication lines open and share information to make a project successful."

Exner believes the relationship is key, and always mutual: "Anything you do in the world economy that we're in today, you have to develop partnerships. For example, with our welding supplier, the conversation we have about once a month is, 'If we make money on the products we sell, you make money on the products you sell to us.' Everybody has to be aware of that relationship."

Collier echoes OEM's relationship philosophy. "We have to focus on testing, because that's critical in our industry and requirements are stringent," he says. "It's not a perfect world, but we have to develop a persons' skills to where he can certify first. Then he needs to receive a sufficient amount of on-the-job training before he welds on live parts. It is up to the supervisor, but this way the supervisor can help grow the operator's skills and close the gap between training and required performance skills."

Training Outside the Box

Large manufacturers will continue to face shortages of qualified welders, yet, as long as companies increasingly employ innovative strategies to encourage welders, those shortages will diminish. Consider other options, such as OEM Fabricators and Delta Air Lines have, for hiring qualified welders:

* Talk to local technical colleges about their manufacturing-based programs and certifications.
* Consider teaching at a local college to promote a future partnership.
* Contemplate a full-fledged training center if a partnership with a local technical college is not an option.
* Re-evaluate your internal training program to encourage individual growth.
* Consider your welding equipment/technology for making training easier.
* Share knowledge with others in the industry.

While your immediate need may be to get qualified welders—or even personnel interested in a welding career—in the door, begin to review options for satisfying your long-term needs as well.<-->

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