Machinists and welders

Machinists and welders have become public exhibit #1 of why we need to reemphasize vocational training in high school and beyond. The claim is these are high demand/high wage occupations that are now suffering labor shortages because the culture and policy is insisting that everyone get a four year degree.

Lets look at the data:

Welders (offically categorized as Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Workers)

  • employment: 521,000
  • 10 year job projection: about as fast as all occupations (+10-20%)


  • employment: 430,000
  • 10 year job projections: slower than average (+3-9%)

Seems like a strong case that these are occupations for a decade where there will be jobs. One problem: the projections didn’t turn out to be true. Not close! These are the projections for 2000-2010 made by the very capable folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in their 2002-2003 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

What actually happened? Employment for welders between 2000 and 2010 fell from 521,000 to 370,000. Instead of the minimum projected 52,000 jobs increase, there were 151,000 fewer employed welders in 2010 than 2000. For machinists instead of the minimum projected 13,000 jobs increase, there were 60,000 fewer employed welders in 2010 than 2000.

So for the last decade, despite the projections, these have been anything but high demand occupations. In fact, the exact opposite. Anyone going through a vocational education program in high school or beyond to become a machinist or welder had a high probability of not finding a job in their field or finding one and being laid off. If the philosophy, as many policy makers are now urging, is that we want an education system to prepare students for current job openings, machining and welding training should have been eliminated last decade

Lets look at the projections for 2010-2020, once again from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in their 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook. (BLS is as good, if not better, than anyone doing job projections. Predicting future occupational demand is more and more difficult in an economy being constantly altered by globalization and technology.) For machinists the projections are for an increase of 31,500 (8%) jobs over the next decade. For welders the projected increase is 50,700 (15%). Machinists are projected to grow slower than average, welders about average. If these projections hold true in 2020 there will be 401,000 machinists in America, 29,000 fewer than in 2000. 387,700 would be employed as welders, 133,300 fewer than in 2000.

So the high demand case at best is weak. What about high wage? In 2010 the median machinist earned $18.52 an hour. The top ten percent earned $27.91. For welders a little less: $17.04 is the median hourly wage, the top ten percent average $54,000 a year. So for both occupations the typical worker earns in the middle to upper $30,000s. A decent middle class job, but certainly not the “you can earn up to $100,000” rhetoric you hear from industry and policy makers. And a far cry from the $28 an hour that low education attainment UAW members earned as assemblers at the Detroit Three just a few years ago.

Do we need an education and training system that prepares future machinists and welders? Of course. But as the above data demonstrate matching current demand by employers with education supply of workers is probably a lousy way to design such a system. Such a system would need to expand and contract constantly. Almost certainly not a good way to build an training infrastructure. Particularly one that will need to constantly update its skills as the occupations change because of smarter and smarter machines. Add to that that it is really hard to predict future demand even a decade out so you really don’t know what the demand is or will be.

Also steering high school students into narrow occupational training is almost certainly not good for their building a middle class career. One of the big challenges the country now faces is predominantly blue collar males that have either dropped out of the labor market or are long term unemployed (and in many cases unemployable). Many of them were probably trained in vocational programs in high schools. Where they were able to get a good paying job that is now obsolete. They never developed the broader skills that enabled them to learn new skills when the world changed. My guess is that is a leading reason why we have labor shortages today in occupations that experienced wide spread layoffs last decade. If everyone who didn’t retire who was employed as a machinist or welder in 2000 had the skills for today’s welding and machining jobs it is likely that we would have a labor surplus, not a shortage, today.

I keep coming back to Ann Arbor software entreprenuer Bill Wagner’s column as the foundation that we should build our p-20 system around. A system that builds broad knowledge. It is the system that almost certainly is best for workers, employers and the economy. Wagner writes:

The country, and especially Michigan, seem stuck in the mode of thinking of education as a means to a job, as a vocation. The problem with this attitude is that the hot jobs change frequently. Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force.What happens to those individuals who have prepared for nursing jobs when thereʼs a glut of trained nurses on the job market? Do they have the necessary core knowledge to adapt to other positions in the health care field? Can they grow new skills and new responsibilities? Or, have they been trained for just one position? Deep knowledge of nursing got them that first job. Broad knowledge will let them adapt to new responsibilities.
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