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Training in Custom Metal Fabrication

We’ve previously written about the upcoming labor shortage as young workers fail to look for opportunities in the manufacturing industry as baby boomers retire. One of the most surefire ways to mitigate labor shortages and talent gaps is the implementation of in-house training programs. In fact, many of these onboarding programs for metal fabricators already exist, as manufacturers realize that incoming skillsets aren’t nearly as important as analytical thinking or the willingness to learn. If the desire to gain knowledge is there, a well-oiled training program will support and nurture a successful manufacturing business. This is especially applicable where hiring trained welding and forming staff is highly competitive.

With that in mind, training for manufacturing is changing for the better as new technology becomes increasingly integrated. Though the methods of training are quickly changing, the fundamentals of welding, machining, cutting and forming remain the same. As more people realize the rewarding aspects of a career in manufacturing, more metal fabricators and manufacturers should look for ways to both market and improve their own training programs.

All manufacturers wrestle with these 7 challenges, but effectively dealing with them is another story.

Keep Employees and Trainees Engaged

Training in Custom Metal FabricationManufacturers that see training exclusively as the means to an end are going to lose out in the long run. Leveraging fear is no way to build the foundation of any organization. In order to stay competitive, they must invest in the career development of everyone from the managerial level to the operator level. The last thing a fabrication shop wants is employees that clock in and clock out because they can’t see the way forward. If someone believes they’ve reached a dead end, you as a manufacturing organization will eventually get dead-end results. Instead, manufacturers must be upfront about how employees can advance in their careers through professional development and compensation. The more transparent and forthcoming a manufacturer is to their employees on this front, the more employees will be engaged in their work. 

If someone is a laser-cutting operator, but they eventually want to move into an engineering role, a manufacturer should be able to lay the groundwork for how that can happen. This can mean operators diving into CAD software, interpreting engineering data or learning to code their own machines. The benefits of this are two-fold. Not only is the operator gaining skills that could be applicable later in their career, but they also learn how their individual role fits in the larger manufacturing puzzle. This could also mean financially supporting employees that pursue related professional development problems, such as vocational or technical certificates.

Further, a positive culture will generate a quality end product as employees feel more invested in their roles. The continuation of negative, fear-based culture, on the other hand, only serves to build resentment, poor quality work and unhealthy off-duty psyche.

Tricks of the Welding Manufacturing Trade 

Welding is the bread and butter of custom sheet metal fabrication. It is also one of the most skill-intensive on the part of the operator, requiring refinement of muscle memory and technique. There are many schools of thought as to the “proper” way to train a welder, but these methods all lead to the same place more-or-less. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to find a large enough supply pool of well-trained welders to hire. These talents are highly sought after and the competition is fierce in custom metal fabrication work to find the right personnel for the job. Fortunately, there are innovative ways to not only evaluate incoming talent, but also improve or teach the welding fundamentals needed to become a fully functional welder for a fabricator. 

One of the newest technologies metal fabricators are using for weld training is virtual reality headsets. Through virtual reality, manufacturers can set up a safer training environment without using their own precious production resources for the same job. While VR isn’t a perfect substitute for working with actual welding equipment, it allows managers to correct fundamental mistakes before they carry over to the real thing. Combining VR with traditional welding in a hybrid method is actually one of the most effective ways new or intermediate welders can perfect their skills. Further, manufacturers can easily screen welding applicants to see if they’re up for the task. If they say they have experience and can prove themselves in a virtual environment, it’s much more likely they will succeed at a welding post. While no welding experience isn’t always a bad thing, any way to make the screening process for cost-effective for welding manufacturing is much welcomed.

Though VR is a solid launching point for welding training, it’s certainly not the end point. Trainees that grasp basic technique and muscle memory must become familiar with a metal fabricator’s welding equipment and begin practice in an actual welding booth. Learning to control the welding arc and the puddle come from deliberate, hands-on training in a real work environment. If metal fabricators don’t already have welding apprenticeship programs prepared to teach welding fundamentals, they will struggle to pull from an already shrinking pool of candidates.

Why Cross-Training

It comes as no surprise that custom metal fabrication shops have spikes and dips in work capacity. Projects might call for more labor than is practical to hire full-time staff to execute. That said, manufacturers at various points in their business cycle will have a labor deficit that is too commonly solved by hiring temp workers. While this can be a quick-patch and cost-effective solution to the problem, it’s not efficient for a few different reasons. First, those workers will likely not be familiar with the company or any of its processes. They will quickly need to learn how jobs are relayed throughout the organization. They will need to be rapidly on-boarded only to be thrown into the crucible when they’re not fully prepared. Secondly, a temp employee knows that he or she will not reap the rewards of career path development, so they have less incentive to be engaged in their work. A business might even lose money if less-than-satisfactory results create the need for part reworks or cause failures of products in the field. Failed products are especially devastating as they could compromise the relationship with customers, shutting off a crucial source of revenue. 

To solve the problem of labor deficits during demand spikes, it’s important that opportunities for cross training are implemented. There are multiple benefits to cross training beyond allowing manufacturers to do more with less during busy seasons. Yes, it is more expensive to invest in training full-time employees and take the time to ensure they are cross-trained, but the effort is worth the long-term results. Welders learning laser cutting or forming specialists learning to program and tool equipment for machining can easily shift tasks when needed. 

Back to career path development, cross training is an effective and important way for metal fabricators to set up incentives for learning new skills. Whether this is obtaining a welding certification, a laser-cutting certification or learning the fundamentals of coding the machines they operate, setting up a reward system is one of the best ways to make the workforce you already have more efficient and productive. They already know the ins and outs of your company. It’s almost always better to invest in what you already have.   

Solving the Labor Shortage

Given the 2.7 million baby boomer retirements by 2025, there’s going to be a drastic uptick in the need for quality custom metal fabrication training programs. In fact, according to a report by Deloitte, there are more than 1.7 million of those jobs that won’t be filled by that time. Desperate times call for innovative measures, and it’s crucial that manufacturers reach out to the community to build awareness of their industry while upgrading the opportunities for in-house apprenticeships and training programs. The young workers that are apprehensive about working in manufacturing feel that way because they lack knowledge, but also carry false misconceptions about manufacturing jobs. Little do they know that a career in welding or laser cutting are not only financially rewarding, but also rewarding as trades in and of themselves. 

In the end, manufacturers must be evangelists. Whether that’s sharing knowledge and developing skills of current employees, new trainees or those who have never picked up a welding torch or worked in a metal fabrication environment.

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