MIAMI, July 7, 2012 — Welders took it on the chin during the economic meltdown of the late 2000s.
No skyscrapers or big buildings to construct, no jobs. Work dried up.
But even before the Great Recession, experts with the American Welding Society had been warning about a shortage of welders for years because vocational training programs and trade schools had lost out on teaching the next generation of blue-collar tradesmen.
"There was a lot of focus on graduating from high school and going to college," said Cindy Weihl, a spokeswoman with the Miami-based AWS, of the changing ambitions of America's up-and-coming workers. When the recession hit, a huge shortage of welders revealed itself, Weihl said.
Today, with about 500,000 welders in the nation's workforce, there remains a projected shortage of nearly 238,700 welders through 2019, as some welders have retired, others were laid off and some left voluntarily searching for better jobs, according to Weihl and figures provided by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Observers of the welding industry locally in San Diego and Riverside counties say they're seeing a comeback — or at least renewed interest in the trade — with some pointing to a surge in training and hiring at local trade schools and metal-bending shops.
Greg Clark is president and CEO of Escondido-based ROC Industries, which employs about 70 workers involved in welding structures for turbines, pumps and other infrastructure used on oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and other oil-rich hotspots. He's seeing business just now return to pre-2008 levels.
In 2009 and 2010, ROC was rocked by a downturn in business. Energy contract work dropped 50 percent, though the flow of welding work to support the region's burgeoning drone business and other military orders has stayed even, Clark said.
Now, the energy industry has come back strong, with growth averaging 12 percent to 14 percent annually since. Clark, however, warned that some slowness in his business has only begun to emerge in recent weeks because of financial jitters caused by the European debt crisis and China's downward revision in its own growth forecasts.
Still, said Clark, the welding business is back, but not after seeing some recruiting snags.
"Welding has always been a tough position to fill because there is just a shortage of qualified people," he said.
Palomar College is doing its part to train future welders.
"We have a huge waiting list to get into our welding programs," said Jay Miller, the lead welding instructor at the San Marcos college. He estimates there are 20 students per class, with roughly 15 classes offered each semester. There are waiting lists of up to 10 students per class, he said.
"We get a lot of people coming in and saying they need a job, (need to be) retrained or that they've been laid off," he said.
Miller's core job is to teach the ABCs of welding, basically defined as the joining together of different kinds of metals and alloys with superheated bonding agents as glue to hold everything together without ever breaking. It's all melted together at a few thousands of degrees Fahrenheit with a special torch. Welders famously wear helmets with shields that can be flicked down over their faces with a jerk of their necks. The shields provide protection from the searing heat, sparks and blinding light of the burning torch.
Over the past decade, Miller estimates that he has graduated hundreds of welders with certificates that get them entry-level jobs paying $15 an hour, $40 an hour for an experienced journeyman, or up to $70 as an inspector.
The people who have gone into his program are Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton seeking the extra training, or welders who received basic training in welding at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego and want to move up to a more specialized welding position in the military or life sciences fields.
Carlsbad resident Robert Sawin, 30, has earned several college degrees from Cal State Fullerton, mostly to help him land a plum job in the digital video editing world in Hollywood. Instead, he's ended up either laid off or in a dead-end job. He's now taking one of Miller's welding classes, and hopes for a better position, perhaps relocating to North Dakota to take part in the oil rush there. "It's possible," said Sawin of moving.
Another student of Miller's, Fallbrook resident Rachel Lawrence, 31, wouldn't mind moving, either.
"I've lived in South Dakota. I'd rather not. But I'd consider Texas or Georgia," Lawrence said. "As long as my husband is OK."
Temecula resident Mark Brandon, 47, said he's ready to leave the region once he completes training in Miller's class. "Yes, I'd leave to go work in the oilfields."
In Oceanside, Carlsbad-based Arc-Zone.com Inc. is selling a wide selection of welding apparel and high-tech components over the Internet.
Arc-Zone CEO Jim Watson recently expanded his warehouse and retail space in Carlsbad along Las Palmas Drive, and hired a new director of operations, director of marketing and three customer service workers who answer phones. "It's reinforcing what we're seeing in the marketplace," he said.
"There are a lot of welding jobs available," he said. "There's also a lot of action in Texas and Oklahoma in the oil and gas industry."
Source: nctimes.com, © 2012, North County Times