If you had to venture a guess, what would you say is the average age of a welder in the United States? Thirty years old? Forty? Guess again. The average age of American welders is 55, and fewer than one in five of them are under the age of 35.
Why, you might ask, is this noteworthy? Well, the average age of employees in any profession in the United States is about 42, which means welders as a population are significantly older than the workforce overall.
This, in addition to other pieces of data, tells us fewer younger workers are entering the profession, and over time, experts say we’ll see an increasing labor shortage in the field of welding as a result.
Though on its surface it sounds like bad news, for welders it’s a lucrative opportunity to leverage their skills to land secure, well-paying employment. Here, we’ll dive into some of the reasons behind America’s welder shortage and what it means for workers, employers and society as a whole.
The shortage of welders in America can be summed up in a single statement: older welders are reaching retirement age and younger workers aren’t replacing them in sufficient numbers. Just how many are we talking?
According to one estimate, we’ll see a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024–that’s about the size of the entire welding job force in America as of 2019.
Think of the people you know who are your parents’ or grandparents’ age. Chances are you know more of them who worked in trades like construction, plumbing, mechanical and electrical work than you do people who are your own age.
Today, it’s likely you know more people who commute into cities, work in offices and spend the majority of their day behind a computer screen.
The workforce has evolved, with more young people being encouraged to pursue jobs that require a four-year degree than those that require vocational skills. The 80’s and 90’s in particular saw a marked drop in trade school attendance.
Yet at the same time, America has become no less reliant on construction workers to build buildings, electricians to wire circuits or welders to repair pipes. As a result, there are more job openings in the skilled trades than there are workers to fill them.
According to the Georgetown Center, the country has some 30 million jobs that pay $55,000 or more per year and do not require a bachelor’s degree, and it’s not uncommon for supervisors and highly trained tradesmen to earn well into the six figures.
It’s a situation that has led some experts to point to trade school as a promising solution to America’s persistent wage gap.
For individual workers, it’s a great opportunity to buck the trend of getting an expensive four-year degree in favor of work that pays well, offers multiple paths to advancement and requires a much lower up-front investment.
When it comes to building structures or creating products used by the masses, welding is a near ubiquitous technique. It’s used to join the steel beams that support skyscrapers, fuse the tiny components in our electronic devices, and everything in between.
Public infrastructure like roads and bridges, energy sources like pipelines and turbines, modes of transportation like cars and airplanes, and manufactured goods like computers and furniture are all made with welding. When you consider the far-reaching impact of welding as a craft, it’s easy to imagine the implications a shortage of welders could have on society as a whole.
America’s infrastructure is aging, and it’s long been a hot topic in engineering circles. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and calls the current levels of infrastructure investment “woefully inadequate.” Estimates put the price tag of necessary upgrades at $2 trillion over a decade.
With welders in short supply, it will cost more and be more difficult to hire them in the numbers required to complete these sweeping infrastructure projects. For society, this means investing in training and developing a new generation of welders would be a smart allocation of resources.
Many high schools, teachers’ groups and youth organizations have taken note, promoting trade schools and community colleges as a viable alternative and in some cases, a preferable option to pursuing a four-year degree.
2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, even made promoting vocational education a core policy component of his political platform.
For employers, it’s hard to find a silver lining in the shortage of welders. Not having enough skilled welders on staff means lower productivity, missed deadlines and lost revenue.
A short supply of welders in the job market means it costs more to recruit candidates for every open position and takes longer to hire, which further slows down operations. In the worst case scenario, it means work is done to an inadequate standard because there aren’t enough highly skilled welders to cover every project.
The strong demand for good workers means employers will be more competitive when looking to hire welders. They may offer higher salaries, better benefits, or more attractive perks.
They may be more willing to negotiate on things like flexible schedules or vacation time, or offer other incentives like sign-on bonuses. Labor unions will benefit from the increased leverage, as well, able to command hire rates for their work.
A shortage of human workers may also means companies will turn increasingly toward automation to handle their welding needs, which is a double-edged sword for welders.
Though automation reduces some hands-on positions, like assembly line work, it increases the need for more skilled positions like robotic welding engineers, which typically pay more and offer more paths to advancement than your average production welder job.
So the big question on your mind is probably, ‘how does this affect me?’ Well, if you’re a welder or considering getting into the field of welding, the answer is, it could affect you quite a bit.
And that’s a good thing–the welder shortage means more employers competing to hire, more opportunities are available to break into the field, and there are ample pathways to move up the ranks into a range of highly paid positions.
First off, now is a great time to get into welding. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a healthy employment outlook for the profession, with projected job growth of 3% over the next ten years.
This is right on par with the national average, which means the field is keeping pace with the economy as a whole. The BLS notes that welders with skills in evolving technologies and those who are willing to relocate will be at the greatest advantage.
Wages for welders have been growing consistently year over year, as well, with the median pay currently sitting at about $42,500 a year. The highest paid welders earn $64,000 a year or more, with more specialized professionals like welding engineers and welding inspectors enjoying earning potential in the six figure range.
The welder shortage also means you’ll have your pick of employers to work for in many parts of the country. Welders are heavily employed in manufacturing, aerospace, transportation, construction, and more.
Since many welding skills are highly transferable, you can choose the industry that’s most interesting or promising to you.
A lack of skilled workers means those who are willing to put their heads down and work hard can prove themselves and climb the employment ladder quickly, moving into management and other more advanced roles that offer greater earning potential.
Welding supervisor, welding inspector, NDT technician and welding engineer are all promising jobs to look into.
Those with a niche skill, like underwater welding or aerospace welding, will fare particularly well as a result of the welder shortage. Such skills already put you in a position to earn a lucrative living, and that will only be compounded by the competition in the market overall.
New technologies like robotic welding, laser beam welding and friction stir welding are all good areas to study if you’re looking to build a repertoire of more advanced skills.
At a time when millions of Americans are looking for a well-paying job, a career in welding is a viable choice with a low barrier to entry. It’s a profession where you’ll enjoy stable job prospects, high level of job security, and decent wages without accruing all the debt that comes with spending four years in school.
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