In new economy, welding is a STEM job

Welding is a STEM job, says Traci Tapani, CEO of a Minnesota sheet-metal company that’s  training its workers, rather than relying on local community colleges, writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Wyoming Machine works on armoring Humvees.

“Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined.

Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained Tapani, “unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day.”

Unable to find qualified applicants, Wyoming Machine hired a trainer. But it was hard to find trainees with sufficient math and science skills, says Tapani.

“I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.”

Many community colleges and universities can’t keep up with employers’ needs, Friedman writes.

Miami Dade College makes workforce training a priority, collaborating with more than 100 companies, says Eduardo Padrón, the president.  “Every program that we offer has an industry advisory committee that helps us with curriculum, mentorship, internships and scholarships.”

Immigrants used to take an unskilled job and work their way into the middle class, Padrón says. “That is no longer possible.”  Education is a necessity, not a “luxury for the few.”