Kenny Creager, a senior at East Noble High School, knows what he wants to do with his life.
In his second year of vocational education for welding, the Kendallville 18-year-old plans to make a career out of welding. He’s already on his way, making $13 an hour at a local heat treatment plant while racking up dual credit hours at East Noble High School through Ivy Tech, and welding sure beats the other jobs he’s had.
Welders are in great demand.
Creager was one of about 100 students, company representatives and educational personnel who attended a welding event held in February at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, a first of its kind, according to Victoria York, assistant director of career services there.
Ten area manufacturing companies hungry to hire welders handed out brochures and took names.
The Indiana Department of Workforce Development for Northeast Indiana Works estimates there are about 2,750 people regionally employed as welders, solderers and brazers, said Rick Farrant, Northeast Indiana Works spokesman. The three skills are related and not broken down in the organization’s statistics, he added.
However, Gary Gatman, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for Northeast Indiana Works, said the number of workers needed who have the welding skill could be three to four times that number, even if the job is not counted strictly as a welder. The median hourly wage for welders regionally is $16.43, slightly lower than the national median of $17.52, according to Northeast Indiana Works.
But the median wage doesn’t tell the whole story. All 10 companies that set up booths at the Ivy Tech event also boasted benefit packages that included 401(k)s. Specialties bring higher pay, particularly across the country, industry experts said.
"If you can weld, you can find work," said Tracy Fancher, purchasing and sales agent for Nowak Supply Co. on Superior Street in Fort Wayne. "Not just here, but all over the United States." What they hear at Nowak is a need for welders trained in several welding specialties.
The shortage, Fancher said, has been more acute in the last three to four years. There are a couple of reasons the need for welders is staggering.
"We have to go back to how this shortage started," said Cindy Weihl, public relations senior manager for the American Welding Society, based in Miami, the national certification organization for welders. "Twenty years ago high school counselors and parents were pushing kids to go to college and get a four-year degree and so kids weren’t enrolling in career and vocational centers."
With fewer young people becoming welders, there is an aging workforce.
"Thirty-seven percent of welders, solderers and brazing workers in northeast Indiana are 45 years and older, while just 9.7 percent are 19 to 24 years old. This speaks to the need to replenish an aging workforce with young workers," Farrant said.
Welding and other manufacturing skills also have suffered from a bad image.
"Manufacturing has taken a little bit of a hit in the media, and lots of manufacturers closed," Gatman said. Manufacturing also has the reputation of being "dirty and difficult and hot in the summer. That’s not true, but that’s the perception particularly amongst young people."
Aaron Westfall, supplier quality engineer at Wayne Metals in Markle, described welding as "a lost trade. The average welder is at retirement age. Every year we’re looking for more people. People thought that manufacturing was dark and dirty and not a place to work. Our plant is a clean place, a safe plant." And like many companies, Wayne Metals is looking for welders, he said at the Ivy Tech event.
According to AWS’ Weihl, about 5 percent of welders nationwide are women, but it is a good job for women to consider. Women "tend to have really great hand-to-eye coordination, and we have patience," she said.
Amy Kelham, 33, of Auburn, decided to become a welder when she became disenchanted with her career in social work. Now in an independent study at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, she is pursuing an associate degree in industrial technology with a concentration in welding, she said.
Kelham already has been offered jobs, typical of Ivy Tech welding students, students and professors say, but she isn’t sure what welding route she’ll take.
"I’m intrigued by a course at IPFW to make jewelry," she said. "I’m mechanically inclined. I like to work with my hands." She’s also a cheerleader for the skill. "Anything that’s broken, you can fix it if it’s metal, and how many women welders do you see? I wanted to set a precedent."
Gatman said there is a growing need for robotics-trained welders.
Pro Resources Staffing Services Inc., an employment agency, has inquiries for at least five to seven welders each month, but can only find candidates to fill one or two of those positions, said Coffie Pippert, senior staffing specialist.
The company has no problem filling general labor requests and finds it easier to fill positions such as CNC machinists and carpenters, she added.
In Pippert’s experience, pay for welders starts at about $13 an hour and usually averages $15 to $16 an hour. "We do have positions probably $18 to $20 an hour, but those usually have added responsibilities," she said.
Creager, who is researching postgraduate welding skill, not only looks to make a good living, he said, but also finds satisfaction in the labor.
"It’s always different," Creager said. "It’s cool when you’re done, you can see what you built."