When discussing manufacturing, there are few issues more divisive than the skills gap. Some commentators write that it has been a significant crisis in American trades for decades. Others write that it never existed in the first place. Some believe it did exist but has already been solved.

Put simply, a skills gap exists when the skills of a candidate or new employee do not match up with an employer’s expectations. But a more nuanced look at the situation from a welding point of view reveals that there is much more to it than a welder’s inability to weld.

What it is

In general, a skills gap is the difference between skills that employers need or desire, and the skills workers offer. While the existence and extent of a manufacturing skills gap is hotly debated, there are a few main contributing factors to the problem:

-Retirements: Generations that followed the Baby Boomers were generally smaller, so the sheer number of workers is smaller as older employees retire. Employers therefore cannot find enough qualified workers.

-Hiring candidates with “experience”: Employers usually desire job candidates with proven experience, creating two problems. First, hiring only those with professional experience in welding precludes those new to the welding workforce. Second, if educational institutions and training programs are not providing students with relevant experience, many in the workforce are left behind.

In the United States, most industries are challenged to produce more with fewer workers, leading to a slide in on-the-job training and mentoring programs. Managers and senior staff simply do not have the time to extensively train or develop new hires. Employees with proven skills or experience typically request higher wages at the outset, while employers would find it more affordable to develop that skill in an entry-level worker. The result is skilled welders who are unable to find gainful employment at an acceptable pay rate, and employers who cannot find affordable, skilled welders.

Beyond welding skills

New evidence shows that even welders who have mastered their craft through top-notch training programs may lack key skills. Imagine, as an employer, hiring someone who can consistently perform a perfect weld but cannot communicate effectively, does not get along with colleagues and has a poor work ethic. How long will he or she last, despite possessing great welding skills?

Many commentators now write that the skills gap in many industries is more likely a lack of soft skills like communication, critical thinking, determination, problem solving and responsibility. Employers are much more likely to value a curious, responsible and dependable welder with less technical skill than the inverse — that a welder’s work ethic means he or she will probably pick up new skills quickly on the job.

Many trade schools offer excellent welding instruction grounded in standards and certifications, but never touch on leadership development or soft skills. As a result, the graduate enters the workforce with welding skills but not working skills.

Figure 1: Technically skilled welders can possess a gap in their skill set if they are not dependable or collaborative. Source: U.S. Air ForceFigure 1: Technically skilled welders can possess a gap in their skill set if they are not dependable or collaborative. Source: U.S. Air Force

Aspiring welders can solve this problem in several ways. First, these skills are best taught from a young age, so the importance of parenting is critical. Looking for and taking on internships during high school — even if they are unpaid — can be helpful for developing welding skills as well as soft skills under the wing of a mentor. Many welding programs offer soft skills courses and mentorship opportunities — these programs should take precedence over ones that do not provide these opportunities. Finally, taking an entry-level job that is not necessarily good-paying or a welder’s dream job can go a long way toward building experience and learning how to get along with colleagues.

A necessary give and take

Discussions around the welding skills gap continue to evolve on both sides. Students can do their part by owning their own development and taking pride in their workmanship. But employers must also be careful to avoid “purple unicorn” job descriptions requesting low-cost yet qualified welders straight out of a welding program. Establishing a culture in which a welder takes pride in workmanship and an employer values its employees goes a long way toward closing the gap.