How can welding shops deal with the talent shortage? Is the move to robotics a significant part of the answer? If interest rates make new equipment purchases unpalatable, are there other options? Max Ceron, director, CWB Association-CWB Group, answers these critical questions and more in an exclusive interview.
SHOP: What do you see as the main issue for the welding industry heading into 2023?
CERON: In my conversations across Canada between the chapters and the industry, the same issue keeps coming up that we all dread: the labour shortage. It’s something that we are really working very hard to address. We have tried to address it for many years but now the fuse has gotten quite short, and we are trying to deal with it before it becomes a bomb. In every industry from manufacturing to automotive to marine to nuclear we are hearing the same thing across the country from welding companies: there is a shortage of workers. Not just entry line workers, which seems to be what a lot of people focus on, but also we are seeing an exodus of experienced workers through retirements. So there is a gap in management, there is a gap in leadership, there is a gap in lead hands and foremen and a knowledge drain. We are losing a bit of the wisdom within the industry with the outgoing workforce and there isn’t much of a mentorship overlap, which is going to be very hard to address.
SHOP: What are the steps we can start taking to at least start addressing this issue?
CERON: It’s a cradle to grave mentality. In the early years, we must get the information in front of elementary and secondary school students that the trades are a viable and necessary part of life and that they are great careers that pay well, have good coverage in terms of benefits, and are not a career where you need to stay pigeonholed for the rest of your life in a particular position. There are growth opportunities. That is important at a young age. There is also the lack of celebrity status for the profession in TV, movies, comic books, etc. We have doctors and lawyers and firefighters and police officers as celebrities but not electricians, not boilermakers, not welders. There isn’t the indirect, unconscious overlap into our youth about what these professions are about. There aren’t conversations had at home at the supper table about them. We have to get the profession in front of kids and show them these are cool jobs, necessary jobs, enforcing that everything around them is built by somebody.
The second step is making sure that we have a proper infrastructure for the post secondary. We have the CWB Foundation and the CWB Association and we reinvest in the community. You also need private industry doing this and funding schools, as well as other non-for-profits, non-government organizations, and federal government initiatives. We need to be trying to develop trades programs at the high school level so that if it is something you thought about as kid and you like to work with your hands or you have a math or engineering focused mind, you can then find the high school to go to that can support this. With mentorships we are working very hard to make sure welders are getting in the classrooms to talk to students and tell them what they do. And then you go to college having a proper training program and that’s somewhere Canada does excel in. We have some of the best training programs for welding in the world. Our CWB standards are some of the highest on the planet and they’re used by countries around the world. Once we can get them into these programs, success is almost a given. It’s just getting them into that stream.
Now there is a caveat. If every single kid in Canada signed up for welding today, we would still be in a rough spot because they require four years of high school and three years of training programs before they can be part of the workforce. That gap is huge, and we are really struggling right now because of the lack of immigration during the pandemic. We got used to a steady stream of top-quality immigration cycles where we could lean on other countries to send us their tradespeople and we could incorporate them into our facilities but over the last two years we didn’t have that and it exacerbated that gap. So immigration is going to have to open up, which the government is doing. At this point it has to be all hands-on deck to get these gaps filled.
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SHOP: What’s your advice to welding shops with work to be done and not enough people to do it? How do they get over the hump right now?
CERON: I would advise that one of the best ways for companies to secure workers is to get directly involved with a local training program. This used to be standard practice in the past for companies to reach out to their local training centre, explain the work they did and the help they needed, to ensure that information got in front of students. The larger companies still do this but the smaller companies have fallen out of this practice over the past three decades. You need to build those relationships to keep local talent available. You need that communication between local industry and local training programs. Companies that don’t have those connections can also reach out to us. We have 17 chapters across Canada. We will connect them.
SHOP: What role can automation play in solving the talent shortage?
CERON: Automation is a huge leverage for a prosperous country like Canada. In many ways it solves many of the manufacturing outcome problems. It’s not a labour replacement. Manufacturing automation has been shown to actually increase hiring of humans. For every robot that does welding there is an operator who needs to know how to weld. For example, let’s say you have a manufacturing robot that can work 24 hours; that’s three shifts of humans who are needed to monitor that robot. That’s three shifts of people with welding experience that is required to do that. And then you have the people who build the robots, the people who install them, maintain them, etc. The network of automation is wide, and it is actually a huge opportunity. I have worked with large companies which have gone to automation, and we would double our workforce in support of the automation. You are producing three times the widgets with automation, but you are also increasing the staff. But you now have the output to satisfy your customers and you are not falling behind, which is what the skills gap is causing.
SHOP: Are high interest rates having an impact on capital purchasing for things such as automation?
CERON: There is going to be a little hesitancy in terms of pulling the trigger on a $100,000 purchase and then the training and the hiccups that come with the learning curve. But there is another side that is starting to become dominant in the robotics industry. We have 30 years of automation so the used market for automation and robots is growing substantially. Many companies now offer a used robot option for sale. These are robots which have come back into the market and are a fraction of the price. I have seen companies start to look into buying slightly used automation options for simple production runs, things that are quick repetition, recurring buys. This may be something for which you don’t need a $200,000 robot. It’s judging your needs against what you’re trying to produce and being realistic. If you’re hiring an employee, it’s a $75,000-$100,000 investment when you’re including salary, training and benefits etc., and there are availability issues. If you can spend $50,000 on a slightly used robot that was twice that when new, that might be worth considering.
SHOP: What’s your advice to our readers for 2023?
CERON: Research is always good, which is a bit tricky if you haven’t gone down the path before of trying to see what your local jurisdictions are producing and what’s the “win” for your area. We have a tendency to follow paths that have been consistent but in markets like this that are volatile there are things than are on the up—for example, the marine industry in Canada is exploding right now on all three coasts. If you are a company in the Prairies, there is nothing to say you can’t bid on those jobs. Look outside your local markets. Look for market assessments by jurisdiction. See where the big players are and where the money is being invested. You might have to chase a little bit, but the work is out there. It may not be the same work you have always done but we are seeing parts of boats being built in Saskatchewan and Alberta. That was not normal before but it’s happening now.
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