Over the past 10 years or so, there has been an uplifting trend for the U.S. manufacturing sector: Jobs are coming back from low-cost overseas countries that for so long have eroded the strength of the industry. Tied to that trend is a growing desire within U.S. consumers to buy things that are made in America. Together, the future for the U.S. manufacturing industry looks bright.
There is, however, a major issue that could stymie a greater resurgence in stateside manufacturing: a lack of skilled welders to fill the positions that are returning. According to data compiled by the Reshoring Initiative, more than 750,000 jobs have returned to the United States in the past 10 years with 2017 alone totaling more than 180,000, marking the highest annual number of jobs brought back.
“If we had brought back 300,000 or 400,000 jobs in one year, there wouldn’t have been enough workers,” says Harry Moser, president of the Reshoring Initiative. “As reshoring increases, it will be helpful for companies to announce that they’re doing it. Society has to see it’s happening to re-instill confidence for those considering a career in the U.S. manufacturing industry. You also have to open more apprenticeship and training programs and ensure that guidance counselors are telling the youth of America that it’s good to be a welder again. It all has to be synchronized.”
The American Welding Society (AWS) and its Foundation understand the importance of coordinating efforts to help establish the skilled workforce that is so badly needed. Monica Pfarr, executive director for the AWS Foundation, says that her work and the work of her colleagues is aimed at ensuring there are sufficient workers to fill manufacturing positions. Furthermore, she says the Foundation’s goals are about boosting the industry from a technology and innovation standpoint.
“We believe in the importance of ensuring we have a strong manufacturing industry that is growing and innovating,” Pfarr says. “Bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States is critical because manufacturing leads to more research and development and innovation, which is very important to the future of our nation.”
The AWS Foundation is constantly focused on making sure that the youth of America are getting interested in the field of welding and are able to convert that interest into viable, good-paying jobs. Likewise, the Foundation focuses on adults in the same way – helping individuals that may have never thought about welding as a career and offering them a path to new opportunities in the welding industry.
“The manufacturing industry offers good, well-paying jobs – especially for welders,” Pfarr says. “From an economic standpoint, we want to raise people’s standards of living, and we believe that manufacturing is vital to that effort.”
To help usher individuals into these good-paying jobs and, in turn, help to close the skills gap, the AWS Foundation is grounded on three pillars or focus areas: scholarships, grants and workforce development. Pfarr says those pillars are prioritized to help impact the overall shortage of welders. In regard to the first pillar, the Foundation is driven to provide as many scholarships as possible to those interested in pursuing a career in welding.
“We’ve strategically focused our efforts over the course of the Foundation’s existence on scholarships to students,” she explains. “Roughly 40 percent of our scholarships go to students that are pursuing short-term or one-year certificates. These are the welders that will enter the field in short order, which is incredibly important. Another 32 percent of our scholarships go to students that are pursuing a two-year associate’s degree at a community or technical college. Some of them might graduate to be welders while others might become technicians or supervisors.”
The remaining 25 percent of AWS Foundation scholarships are awarded to students that are pursuing four-year bachelor’s degrees. These degrees are largely in welding engineering, but because the opportunities in welding are so vast, many scholarship recipients set out to study in related engineering fields.
Since launching the Foundation in 1989, more than 9,000 scholarships have been awarded. Just this year, scholarships will total more than $1.4 million.
Supporting the manufacturing industry with skilled welders is a big task. Pfarr credits hundreds of Foundation donors over the years for helping to foster interest in manufacturing careers and creating paths to attain them. To enhance donors’ generous gifts, the Foundation will match funds and allow donors to earmark those dollars for their specific areas of interest within the welding industry.
Pfarr gives the following example of how a donor’s contributions might be carried out. “Hypothetically, let’s say a company donated $10,000, which we would match to total $20,000. We invest that $20,000 and guarantee that no matter how the market fares, we will pay out 5 percent annually in perpetuity. So, with that $20,000 endowment, we would pay out a $1,000 scholarship in their name every single year.
“Upon donating, the company could say that they want that $1,000 scholarship to be called the ABC Company Welding Scholarship,” she continues. “In addition to naming the scholarship, they’re also able to designate specifics, such as what type of student will receive the scholarship and at what institution.”
The recipients of AWS Foundation scholarships benefit greatly, but so do donors. Many are laser focused on finding specific types of individuals such as welding engineers or welding inspectors. The scholarship helps them fill these positions, considering they are given the flexibility to set their own applicant criteria, such as school location and area of study. The scholarship also gives donors important brand recognition in perpetuity.
In addition to corporate and individual sponsors, a significant number of scholarships come from contributions made by the AWS itself, its 70,000 members and its member sections. They work together to recruit more donors and to set up scholarships through internal fundraising.
“Many of our AWS and Foundation board members work for large welding equipment manufacturers like Lincoln or Miller, so working through them and making connections with their customers opens new doors to increased donor participation,” Pfarr explains. “Additionally, when you join AWS, you’re assigned to a section based on where you live geographically. Many local section members are donors and the section itself could be a donor.”
AWS sections conduct their own fundraising and establish scholarships and grants within their local areas. They raise money and then donate it to the AWS Foundation to earn matching funds just as a corporate or individual donor would do. When it comes to creating new scholarships and new pathways to a career in welding, the Foundation doesn’t leave any stones unturned.
An example of that can be seen in the Foundation’s Workforce Grants Program, which provides funds and equipment to the schools themselves.
“In 2017, we started looking at the whole workforce challenge a little bit differently,” Pfarr explains. “We wanted to continue to award scholarships to individual students, but we also recognized a need for supporting programs and schools to help them stay current with welding technology and help them grow the number of students that they can serve.”
Since the Workforce Grants Program was established, the Foundation has awarded more than $750,000 in grants to schools. Each school is eligible to receive a grant of up to $25,000 that can be used for equipment purchases – be it additional welding equipment to accommodate more students or replacing outdated equipment to ensure students are prepared to enter the workforce of tomorrow.
Understandably, if a potential student walked into a school that had old, outdated equipment, it would be difficult to entice or recruit that individual. Many donors understand the need and, therefore, dedicate a part or all of their donation to the Workforce Grant Program. This is critical to the Foundation’s work as one of the three pillars of focus is workforce development, which is essentially getting the word out that welding is a smart career choice.
Get the word out
The workforce development arm of the AWS Foundation includes the organization’s welding trailer, a big rig that tours the country 18 weeks a year. The trailer is used at large events to educate the general public about the exciting opportunities in the welding industry and expose people to all that’s available in the field. To further augment the workforce development arm, the Foundation’s Skilled Trades Coalition, a newly established group of 17 likeminded non-profits, aims to use the coalition as a vehicle for sharing best practices and lessons learned.
“We’re trying to work with similar associations that are all focused in the skilled trades or the manufacturing space,” Pfarr says. “After all, we’re all focused on the same challenges: finding workers and dispelling misconceptions about our industry. So why not work together and really elevate the message that manufacturing is here to stay? By raising the conversation together, our voices will be louder.”
These types of collaborations along with the work of the Foundation benefit so many: aspiring welders, the companies that donate, those involved in the reshoring effort and the country as a whole. Manufacturing is the backbone of America and when it thrives, it generates economic activity beyond the industry itself. For every manufacturing job that’s created, a whole ripple effect of related job creation ensues.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), there is a direct linkage between manufacturing jobs and service-related jobs – much more, in fact, than that of other industries. The EPI says that the number of indirect jobs lost for every 100 direct jobs lost in durable manufacturing is 744.1. By comparison, for retail trade, the number of indirect jobs lost is 122.1. Put in real-world terms, if an auto factory with 1,000 employees closed, 7,441 indirect jobs would be at stake. If a shopping mall with the same number of employees closed, only 1,221 indirect jobs would be in jeopardy.
Re-instilling confidence in manufacturing as a viable and stable career is clearly important work. And whether it’s a 17-year-old thinking about their future or a 40-year-old considering a career change, the AWS Foundation is rolling out the red carpet. Welding needs to be known as a sustainable, well-paying option, and thanks to the Foundation, the word is getting out.