The Coming Workforce Crisis in Welding

The average age of welders in the UK and Australia has now eclipsed 55. In the US it has just crossed 57.

Compounding this aging of the welding workforce has been the dramatic decline in welders from 570,000 in 1998 to 360,000 by 2012. To compound this still further, the manufacturing industry in general - and oil and gas industry in particular - has grown exponentially since mid-2009, accelerating job demand for specialist welders.

The average age of welders in the US has just crossed 57.

Two decades of deindustrialisation and offshoring combined with an overwhelming preference for knowledge-based work by school leavers has led to a complete inversion of the normal age distribution pyramid within the fabrication industry.

The US will have a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024.

The age profile of workers within our industry has been skewed to such an extent that crippling skills shortages of highly skilled welders is now inevitable. We’ve now moved well past the point of potentially averting this crisis through skills attraction. The question we now collectively face is how to respond constructively within the context of this unavoidable challenge.

Demographics Are Destiny 

The size and age distribution of our populations provide the macroeconomic backdrop which shape our economies, industries and lives. There are relatively few things we can project with high levels of certainty, but demographics are destiny.

For a case in point, look no further than Japan.

Over time, Japan’s fertility rate has gone from amongst the highest to one of the lowest. As a result, Japan’s population is now reducing at an alarming rate and becoming increasingly dominated by older people.

By 2060 Japan’s population will have reduced by one-third, half the population will be over 65 and Japan simply will not have the workforce required to support the industrial and economic demands of the country. It will enter a demographic death spiral. Indeed, it’s already started but it’s a relatively benign taste of what’s to come.

If this sounds eerily analogous to the crisis facing our welding industries, it should.

What applies to entire countries applies equally to any population or industry which fails to renew. Aging populations are not short-term crises which can be persevered through – they are structural, and very long term.

The current daily struggles that fabricators face in recruiting, retaining and motivating young workers are just the canary in the coal mine.

These long term demographics shifts in our industry, combined with the aggressive reindustrialisation and onshoring push of the Trump administration now underway, will see the demand for experienced welders skyrocket against a background of supply which is set to plummet.

The average age of welders in the US has just crossed 57.

This is not a speculative, soft trend. This workforce crisis is a hard trend. It is a future fact. The current daily struggles that fabricators face in recruiting, retaining and motivating young workers are just the canary in the coal mine.

We will look back on these days fondly – the real skills crisis has not yet started to bite.

How Did We Get Here?

When Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio declared in 2015 that “we need more welders and less philosophers”, he succinctly nailed the problem. Collectively however, we've failed to address the challenge, much less mitigate against it.

 We need more welders and less philosophers.Marco Rubio, Republican presidential candidate

Even in the exceptionally unlikely event that US manufacturing and fabrication flatlines for the next ten years, we still have a major workforce problem. In the far more likely scenario of a boom in US manufacturing, we have an impending workforce crisis.

Look no further than Australia for an illustration of what happens when demand for welders exceeds supply. In areas of short supply and high skill, welders in the US can earn over $100,000. In Australia, it is well over $200,000, and more than $300,000 on Australia’s remote gas projects. A simple consequence of demand exceeding supply, but it has been the death-knell for many fabricators operating with modest margins in highly competitive regional or international markets.

High wages, limited labour supply and a rapidly aging workforce have pulled the rug out from under the Australian fabrication sector. Some fabricators remain, of course, but it is now those who are set up to exploit high value niche markets and leveraging every high productivity, technological advantage at their disposal.

Like ignoring ever-rising debt or falling fertility rates, kicking the can down the road for a generation is about to have consequences. Dramatically increasing the productivity of the welding workforce is the only option now open to us that will have a material impact.

Can’t We Train Our Way Out of This?

Skilled welders, who have the depth of experience that only years spent with a torch can provide, are about to become an extremely hot commodity.

Now would certainly be an outstanding time to turnaround some unfortunate perceptions about vocational and trade-based education. The default position of many parents is to encourage their children to dig themselves into sometimes insurmountable debt by pursing one or more four-year degree programs.

Skilled welders, who have the depth of experience that only years spent with a torch can provide, are about to become an extremely hot commodity.

By contrast, welding is and will increasingly be a pathway to a long and rewarding career in an industry which will experience insatiable demand for decades to come. This has the potential to make welding and other trade-based careers highly attractive career options - if these options are canvassed with young people as they weigh up their career choices, and their financial consequences.

The opportunity that this represents to millennials is outstanding. There is absolutely no shortage in work. There’s only a shortage in workers interested in and prepared to step into welding and fabrication careers, and sustain those careers for the decade or more required to become highly skilled.

New welding talent may be able to pass a certification test, but that certification can’t replace years of experience and on-the-job training.Dan Turner, welding professor at Yuba College, Marysville, California.

Regardless, the window for training our way out of this has well and truly passed. While training legions of entry level welders would eventually pay dividends, it is the experienced end of the welder spectrum where the real impact will be felt. No amount of classroom training can replace one or more decades of workshop or in-field experience.

Opportunity or Crisis?

Whether the dramatic reduction in the availability of skilled welders is indeed an opportunity or crisis for individual fabricators will depend on the extent to which they’ve anticipated and adapted to this paradigm shift.

The initial and instinctive short-term response by many fabricators to the rapid decline in skilled welders will be a combination of increasing salaries and outsourcing. As this is maintained over the medium term it will add inexorably to a fabricator’s cost and speed of production, and consume resources that could have been deployed on a technological solution.

For many fabricators the skills shortages and acute escalation in hourly rates that experienced welders will command will unfortunately lead to a death spiral of higher costs, reduced competitiveness, increased turnaround times, lost revenue and declining margins.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

While business-as-usual won’t be an option, it’s not necessarily a reason to despair. Where many will see misfortune, some will see great possibility.

As with most structural industry changes – the larger the disruption, the greater the opportunity. Make no mistake, there will be some spectacular winners from this new market dynamic.

Increasing The Productivity Of The Welding Workforce

Labour is the largest portion of welding costs for any fabricator - about 80 percent of the cost in-field welding, for example. It is the primary reason that so much fabrication has been offshored to lower labour cost countries.

Developing new ways to increase productivity therefore represents the highest-impact pivot for innovative fabricators wanting to convert this crisis to opportunity.

Incremental process improvements have been slowly applied to welding for decades. These improvements have facilitated many minor but certainly welcome increases in productivity through higher deposition rates, more stable arcs and better operator control.

Examples of these improvements include features such as preset weld parameters, multi-process power supplies and more accurate control over current, voltage, travel speed, wire feed rates and purging systems.

These types of basic improvements are helpful, make the welding process easier for the operator, and in some cases reduce the threshold skill level required of the welder.

Incremental productivity gains, however, will not come close to addressing the workforce crisis we face as an industry.

Technology To The Rescue

In an environment where the experienced welding workforce is now rapidly aging and reducing in size, the only solution is higher productivity. Companies must adapt rapidly and leverage the myriad benefits to be gained from advanced welding technologies and processes.

The search is now on for new welding processes and technologies which can simultaneously allow developed countries such as the US, UK and Australia to not only dodge the impending workforce bullet, but indeed to capitalise on this challenge and reverse the offshoring trend which has ravaged our industry.

Robotics and fully automated welding/material handling is often cited as the productivity cure for fabricators and the employment curse for skilled welders. Both the productivity gains and potential workforce threats of robotic welding are vastly overstated. Welding travel speeds are limited by the underlying welding process, not by the speed of a robot.

The future of welding therefore isn’t full automation. It’s welder augmentation.

To have the industry-wide impact required, new welding technologies will need to share five common traits. They will need to deliver order-of-magnitude productivity gains. They will need to deliver consistency, repeatability and x-ray quality. They will need to ensure low heat input and low distortion. They will need to be easy to learn and master. They will need to be inexpensive.

High productivity welding solutions have typically travelled with very high price tags. The large capital investments required have put these technologies beyond the reach of all but the largest military and aerospace fabricators.

High welding productivity no longer requires large capital investments.

Electron beam welding (EBW) and laser welding (LBW) are the two most obvious cases in point. These technologies, both developed in the 1960s, deliver very high welding speeds.

Unfortunately, electron beam welding and laser welding are limited by very high capital and operating costs, the need for highly skilled operators, dedicated facilities and extensive occupational health and safety precautions. They also require near-perfect fitup – which is rarely achievable in a typical production welding application.

Plasma welding, also developed in the 1960’s has traditionally been used to fill the large gap which has existed between conventional arc welding processes such as TIG and MIG, and high energy density processes such as laser and electron beam welding.

Plasma welding is widely regarded as the most complex of the arc welding processes. The constricted, high energy density plasma jet is produced by maintaining a critical balance between plasma gas flow rate, shielding gas flow rate, current, orifice diameter and the alignment between the electrode and the orifice. This requires meticulous set-up and frequent maintenance.

Plasma welding’s limited speed, penetration, propensity to entrap gas voids, difficulty in managing tie-ins, high complexity, numerous critical parameters, minimal fitup tolerance, high cost of consumables and rapid process drift (typically 20-30 minutes) due to erosion of the nozzles and orifice have all contributed to limiting its adoption.

Much of the installed base of plasma welding equipment installed in the US are legacy systems and are no longer being produced or supported by a manufacturer.

There’s been a seismic shift in arc welding technology.

The need for a new, ultra-high productivity welding technology has been obvious for many years but until recently this has remained an elusive objective.

However, still not know to many in the industry at present, there’s been a seismic shift in arc welding technology that provides up to 100x productivity gains (yes, you read that correctly) at a modest capital cost.

New Welding Technologies

With fabricators struggling to secure talent in the face of escalating skills shortages and an acutely aging workforce, they must find new, innovative ways to increase welder prductivity, reduce production costs and improve their bottom line. Ideally by an order of magnitude.

A new Australian welding technology is now delivering on this very tall order.

Developed by the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Science & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), this new welding process has been quietly adopted by some of the world’s most productive fabricators.

K-TIG (Keyhole TIG) is a highly refined version of TIG/GTAW.

 K-TIG has 8x the penetration of GTAW, allowing it to perform x-ray quality welds in materials up to 5/8 inch (16mm) thick in a single pass, without the need for edge bevelling. The resulting welds are performed at up to 100x the speed of conventional TIG/GTAW. Gas consumption is reduced by more than 90%, and wire consumption is reduced by in excess of 90% or eliminated entirely.

Single pass TIG welding up to 5/8 inch thick is now readily achievable.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that K-TIG must be an exotic welding process which only works in controlled lab conditions. Not so.

K-TIG is now being used in production in Australia, UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Argentina, China and a range of other countries.

In the US, K-TIG has been adopted by fabricators in New York, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California.

GE has deployed the technology in multiple locations and is using it in the fabrication of the 7HA – the world’s largest and most advanced gas turbine, in addition to mission-critical power station applications.

The technology is suitable for use in ASME vessels & tanks, cryogenics, oil & gas, power generation, water treatment, renewable energy, nuclear and defence fabrication, tube mills, pipe spooling and a wide variety of general fabrication applications.

The speed, productivity, cost savings, quality and code compliance of K-TIG has been proven beyond doubt.

These early adopters have achieved enormous productivity gains. The average cost saving hovers at around 90%. In GE’s case it was 93%.

K-TIG welding is a new productivity benchmark. It sets an entirely new bar for what can be achieved with an arc welding system. The speed, penetration, quality and overall savings generated by the process are extraordinary.Attila Szabo, Principal Joining Engineer, GE

K-TIG has an extensive certification library of Lloyds-certified welding procedures in a wide range of materials and thicknesses, in 1G and 2G, both with wire and autogenously welded. The process easily handles almost all corrosion resistant materials including 300-series stainless steel, duplex, super duplex, hastelloy, inconel, nimonic, titanium, zirconium and other materials.

K-TIG is currently the best example of an advanced welding technology that is helping to overcome the looming welding workforce crisis by delivering dramatic improvements in productivity, efficiency, quality and cost.

Conclusion

While a renewed focus on training and skills development to engage the next generation of welders is paramount and must proceed at pace, the looming workforce crisis will only be averted by fabricators willing to embrace high productivity welding technologies.

The single, largest mistake that fabricators can make now is to assume that current skilled welder availability will continue. It won’t. It’s time for every forward-looking fabricator to take a long, hard and sober look at this, and to make a conscious decision as to how they are going to respond.

The dramatic reduction in the numbers of skilled welders, boilermakers and journeymen is now hard-wired into our future. Whether this drives us to achieve exceptional productivity - or simply drives us over the edge - is now up to us.

Contact K-TIG Now. 

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How does K-TIG compare?

K-TIG is a high performance, full penetration variant of the TIG/GTAW process which delivers productivity previously only possible with expensive laser, hybrid laser and electron beam processes.

Unlike plasma arc welding, there is only one welding gas and no orifice, making the process exceptionally robust and welding procedures highly repeatable in a wide range of materials, thicknesses and applications.