Where Have All the Welders Gone?

With a shortage of skilled labor affecting the country, education has the lead role in the future of the Canadian welding industry

Canadian Industrial Machinery March 2013
March 18, 2013

Canadian Industrial Machinery(CIM)talked with CWA Director Dan Tadic to discuss the state of the Canadian welding industry.

CWA Director, Dan Tadic

The Canadian Welding Association (CWA) is a not-for-profit division of the Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB) Group that promotes the welding industry in Canada. Membership is open to welding professionals, fabricators, and manufacturers.

With 24 chapters across the country, the association's goals are to educate companies and their employees, and improve productivity, profitability, and safety in the country's welding industry.

Canadian Industrial Machinery (CIM) talked with CWA Director Dan Tadic to discuss the state of the Canadian welding industry.

Tadic has been a CWA member since 1979 and has served on a number of Hamilton & Region chapter executive committees to promote industry initiatives and support welding education. He also is a former strategic account manager for Praxair. Tadic has been director of the CWA since 2009.

CIM: What is the role of the CWA/CWB in the welding industry?

Tadic: As a testing and certification body, we see firsthand that many jobs are fabricated outside of our borders and then imported back as finished products. This means that we lose jobs, income, and tax revenues.

We would like to see faster adaptation of new welding technologies by our industry. The world is exploiting some of our inefficiencies.

A few years ago we introduced a Value Optimizer program that is designed to help companies identify opportunities for productivity improvements. This is one of many ways that we are helping our industry become more efficient, productive, and competitive.

CIM: What is the future of welding in Canada?

Tadic: We are extremely excited and fortunate that we live in a country that is rich in natural resources, has excellent infrastructure, stable governments, and is well-positioned to grow our economy in the coming decades.

There are many reasons to feel good about our future economic prospects. In the coming decades tens of billions of dollars will be invested in numerous projects right across Canada, such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, and mining projects.

This all bodes well for the prosperity of our country and presents tremendous opportunities for the future generations of skilled tradesmen.

CWA Welding

CIM: What is the cause of our country's skilled-labor shortage?

Tadic: In the early 1990s we saw high schools eliminating or minimizing investments in trades education. It was felt that the computer technology fields would be the place for the future industry needs.

The cost of running skilled-trades programs is also an issue; it is less expensive for school boards to invest in arts and computer technology programs than in trades programs. However, we are glad to see that a renewed focus on the skilled trades is happening at the high school level, as school boards across the country are responding to our nationwide shortage in this area.

CIM: What does this shortage mean to the welding industry?

Tadic: The shortage in skilled trades impacts not just the welding industry, but all manufacturing and fabricating industries that employ welding professionals.

The high demand drives up costs and causes delays in new industrial development, which delays the creation of new jobs. The higher costs and pressure on schedules also further decrease Canada's ability to compete globally.

In the steel fabrication industry, Canadian companies already face fierce competition from international companies, and a labor shortage does not help the situation.

We all now realize that we have a labor problem or misalignment in our education system. We have students graduating from general programs with very low job prospects, and those graduating from trades programs are finding many opportunities.

At the Canadian Welding Association we are tackling this issue head-on, particularly at the high school level, by providing welding education promotional videos and marketing materials about welding trades and professions at various events across Canada.

CIM: What is the role of the CWA/CWB in combating these shortages?

Tadic: We are actively trying to promote welding professions to students.

We do this through our videos and promotional materials. And it's not just the students; we are also reaching out to parents so that they are fully aware of the huge opportunities the welding trade offers their children.

In addition, we are engaging our governments about these issues. Most recently the CWA met with Lisa Raitt, the federal minister of labour, to discuss how government, the industry, and CWA can work to combat these shortages. We are also regularly in touch with many of our Canadian colleges, trade unions, and high schools.

CWA Welder

We also organize and sponsor an annual Welding Education Conference with the purpose of providing our welding instructors with the most up-to-date information on technology advancements, discussions on ways to improve our education system. We also are having discussions on ways of creating some uniformity to our welding education programs.

CIM: Has there been success in sourcing foreign-born welders to fill some of these jobs?

Tadic: We are very active in providing customized training programs to our clients across Canada and in countries around the world. We have seen an increase in demand for CSA/CWB certification from many regions of the world, and this is a great indication that there is a lot of interest in our programs and having our certifications in hand when immigrants arrive in Canada.

The recent federal government announcement by Immigration Minister Kenney to make it easier to get skilled tradespeople to emigrate here is very helpful in attracting more skilled tradespeople to Canada. CWA believes that part of the solution to our skilled-labor shortage is to bring in skilled immigrants. We can't fully address the shortage from domestic sources alone.

CIM: Do welders from other countries have the same skill level as Canadian welders?

Tadic: The level and quality of welder education vary around the world. Recently we have seen an uptick in requests for training from a number of countries around the world. We like to believe that we have excellent welding education programs across Canada, particularly when it comes to welding safety.

We are the representative body for welding at International Institute of Welding (IIW) conferences. Without any doubt, Canada has the best welder certification and oversight programs in the world, which has resulted in a safe, high-quality infrastructure. We know this for a fact as we have many conversations with industry experts from around the world about this issue.

CIM: What can the industry do to attract more young people?

Tadic: We need to better communicate to students how broad and vibrant the welding industry is when considering their career choices. Students need to be aware what sectors of the economy are growing, expanding, and what the likelihood is of them having jobs available after they graduate that are rewarding, in demand, satisfying, and financially well-compensated.

CIM: What role should the government be playing to encourage young people to take up a trade?

Tadic: Our high school trades training programs are not well-funded.

Even today, when we are clearly facing skilled-labor shortages, many high schools are teaching welding programs with antiquated welding equipment. How is a student going to get excited about a welding trade by using training equipment that is obsolete and out-of-date? Investment in new equipment is one step that the government should consider.

The second step that the government could take is to provide more financial assistance to students, particularly apprentices. We have 24 chapters across Canada and many of them are actively involved in trying to assist high schools by providing them with materials and funding of their welding programs.

CIM: How important are the college welding programs to supplying a constant base of young welders?

Tadic: We have visited colleges right across this great country, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. We have seen firsthand the high quality of training programs that they provide.

CWA Welder Welding

A few years ago we started seeing colleges investing and expanding their capacity to teach by adding more spaces and investing in new equipment. Sadly, many of them have ample capacity to teach but lack the student enrollment that could potentially solve our skilled-labor shortage problems.

What is very interesting and encouraging is that the students from these programs are often hired before they graduate. They are also well-paid.

As an example, a student graduating from a three-year welding engineering technology program earns $85,000 or more to start. How many other trades and professions are there that are so well-paid after three years of education?

CIM: Does the curriculum need to change, or are there other problems that are causing attendance to be low in these schools?

Tadic: We believe that a number of steps could be taken to improve enrollment in schools, including:

  • Creating more uniformity in welding education and providing better opportunities for labor mobility.
  • Investing in new equipment in order to keep up with advances in welding technologies so that we are not teaching on equipment that is 10 or 20 years old.

Recently our Hamilton & Region chapter provided financial support to 30 high schools in the region, as well as with equipment, supplies, and training. This created some exciting results, with many high schools reporting waiting lists of students trying to enroll in welding programs. If we are able to expand this program right across the country, we would solve the welder shortage issues.

CIM: Do you think it's an issue of welding not being a "sexy" job to parents and some teachers?

Tadic: This is a huge perception problem that we need to overcome.

Today we see the basics of welding on television shows and movies. Most people are unaware how broad and exciting welding industry fields are.

Among some of the welded products that most people never think about are:

  • Pacemakers
  • Electronic devices including cell phones
  • Computers
  • Jewelry
  • Works of art
  • Spacecraft
  • Plastic pipes

CWA is actively communicating this message to parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, most prominently as part of our participation at Skills Canada competitions and many other events across Canada.

CIM: How can this change to better reflect the high-paying, technical jobs that are available?

Tadic: We need to communicate better that welding touches just about every industry sector, including manufacturing, construction, petrochemical, agriculture, transportation, mining, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, electronics, and pipeline.

There are numerous job opportunities such as welders, fitters, inspectors, supervisors, engineers, technologists, technicians, educators, and researchers. The welding industry simply offers an abundance of career choices.

CIM: Where are the main productivity drains in weld shops today?

Tadic: Training is an area that we see is lacking in many of our shops. Some of the areas for productivity improvement that we see are simple and require training to achieve. These include overwelding, procedure improvement, and process change.

Other improvements require more consideration and assessment to see if opportunity exists to adapt fixed or flexible automation. Simply stated, any company that has 10 or more welding stations should consider looking at automation.

In addition, companies should look at training their welding personnel beyond just the practical skills. If, for example, a welder can be trained on things like welding symbols, visual weld quality, and the effects of overwelding, companies can save thousands of dollars caused by delays and rework costs by helping ensure the job is done right the first time.

CIM: Can these productivity problems be solved solely by an upgrade in technology?

Tadic: Upgrading technology is only one step in productivity improvement. Training goes hand-in-hand with technology upgrade.

We see some companies invest in automation and then later abandon the automation process and switch back to manual welding. This often occurs when someone that is competent, qualified, and well-trained leaves and there is no one to take their place that is familiar with operations of the automated equipment.

CIM: What can be solved by improved technology and what can't?

Tadic: Today's welding robots are much simpler and easier to program. What this means is that you don't have to have very large part volumes to justify automation. In many cases, when companies invest in automation at the outset for one item, they find other work that they can also automate.

Some of the maintenance and fieldwork may not be ideally suited for welding automation; however, this also could be an area for improvement. As an example, adding a portable wire feeder for field and maintenance work could speed up completion of the work and at lower costs.

But technology is more than just automation and robotics. Even a simple investment in new semiautomatic welding equipment can help reduce welder downtime and increase quality and production levels.

CIM: What new technology can have a major impact on the Canadian welding industry?

Tadic: One of the reasons that I love my job is that I get to see some of the new technologies that are cutting-edge. We are trying to encourage our industry to adapt to these technologies so that they can be more efficient, productive, and competitive.

We see a number of new research papers on new and upcoming welding technologies at our annual conferences. A few examples are:

  • Many of today's newer welding power sources are much more energy-efficient, produce better-quality welds, and are much easier to use.
  • Laser/hybrid welding technology has a lot of potential to improve productivity and quality of welds.
  • Friction stir technology has traditionally been used for welding aluminum. Today there is a lot of research going on to use this technology on carbon steels. This technology is really exciting because it does not actually have a traditional welding arc and does not require welding consumables or shielding gases.
  • Improvements in robots allow for greater welding repeatability and adaptation of vision systems that can significantly minimize programming time.
  • The creative approach to the use of automation for applications and volumes of work never thought possible.

CIM: What can employers do more of?

Tadic: Employers could always consider taking on more student apprentices. This is one area that we could really use their support. We receive many calls and e-mails from students and parents looking for information about apprenticeship programs, and we try and steer them in the right direction. It would be beneficial if we had a registry for companies that are willing to take on student apprentices.

Employers can also support their local high schools by supplying equipment and materials; a small investment today can bring big returns in the future.

CIM: How important is training/retraining to welders?

Tadic: Training is critical to the success of all organizations, and this is also true for welders. Welding technologies are constantly evolving and improving, including improvements in welding power supplies, related equipment, consumables, and shielding gases.

Joint design, welding position, material thickness, filler metals, and welding process commonly change and may result in the requirement for welder retraining. The CWB retests welders every two years to CSA standards.

CIM: Is the technology changing to reflect that there is less "skill" in skilled labor today?

Tadic: I don't believe that this will ever be true. We will always have a need for a highly skilled labor force no matter how much our technology advances.

A highly skilled worker is able to provide guidance and aid industry in the design, establishment, and advancement of new technologies. There will always be welding challenges that will need highly skilled craftsmen to build, repair, and solve.

Technology does impact the type of skills required—robotic welding equipment operators and programmers is an example—but the skilled worker will always be key.