The seriousness of the situation was clear as soon as Jack Boysen started talking.
Boysen, a Valmont Industries supervisor in Valley, was explaining how the plant's 220 welders are being pushed to their professional and physical limits.
Seven days of work nearly every week and heaps of overtime force the company to rotate three shifts so that every other Sunday workers can have some time to spend with their families. And a steady stream of demand from Valmont's global customer base isn't going to ease those pressures anytime soon, he said.
“It's putting the burden on all the employees we have. We're extremely busy,” Boysen said Monday during a job and career exploration fair at Metropolitan Community College that was specifically aimed at manufacturing companies needing welders and people seeking jobs in welding.
The event drew about 150 people interested in welding, and 35 companies hoping to obtain the services of qualified candidates. In addition to the job fair, individual companies have been hosting events and tryouts to unearth welders who can help their operations.
Valmont and many other manufacturing and production companies in the Midlands are grappling with the reality of a small pool of qualified welders who also can deal with the rigors of a full-time position, including being reliable and showing up to work, having the ability to work and communicate in a team environment, and having other critical skills like basic math and blueprint reading.
A search of popular job sites and the Nebraska Department of Labor's JobLink showed there are hundreds of open jobs in welding across the state. And there are many more that likely never get posted, said Deb Christensen, a workforce coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Labor who spearheaded the welding job fair.
“These companies are begging for people in manufacturing production,” she said. “Many of these companies are saying the same thing: ‘If you get me more welders, we'll stay and expand our business.' ”
Because companies want to hire quality welders with a broader skill set, employers are encouraging people to get an associate's degree from an area community college.
“They really want people to do that because they need more than just the welding,” Christensen said. “They're just trying to get more people involved in (welding) and hoping some people will come back to welding who did it before.”
For those facing the prospect of going back to school, there are programs that will help pay for training and tuition, including the Adult Career Program through Goodwill that on Monday was actively seeking people who would qualify for the funds. The federally funded Goodwill program also offers incentives to employers for sending workers back to school for training.
The cost of going back to school, Christensen said, can be a significant hurdle, so programs like Goodwill's help remove those barriers to entry for some people who qualify.
At Metro, a certificate in welding technology includes 21 credit hours of class work, while an associate's degree requires 108 credit hours. According to Metro, each credit hour costs roughly $48, so tuition alone for a welding certificate would cost at least $1,008 and tuition for an associate's degree would cost $5,184.
According to a sampling of employers at the fair, most full-time welding positions paid between $15 and $20 an hour, with chances for overtime. Some included benefits packages as well.
Jourdan Rabbass, 22, of Norfolk, Neb., soon will graduate from Northeast Community College with a welding degree. He attended the event trying to make some inroads with potential employers that he'd like to work for after graduation.
He concluded there's a “very good possibility” he won't have much difficulty landing a job.
Another attendee, Stacey Hollingsworth, 38, of Omaha, has been laid off from a previous position as a traveling welder for about a year, he said. Although there are positions available, Hollingsworth said, he's had difficulty landing a welding job that he could make a career out of.
“I'm trying to stay home because I'm recently married,” Hollingsworth said. “I'm a certified welder just trying to find a place that's willing to hire me on.”
Others have the same goal. On a Saturday in April, Intersystems Inc., which makes bulk material handling equipment, drew 140 people to its tryout. Around the same time, Valmont hosted a similar outing, drawing 60 people who all were put through the ringer of interviewing with Valmont officials and later actually demonstrating their welding skills.
Of the 60 who showed up, Boysen said, 50 could actually weld.
The company plucked its top 20 candidates, then had a full-fledged draft, where managers from Valmont's utility division and infrastructure division went back and forth, selecting which welders they wanted on their teams.
“It was surprising,” Boysen said. “I really didn't think we'd see that many.”
Boysen said he wanted to find 10 more welders at Monday's fair.
Meanwhile, Kurt Hentschke, vice president for Intersystems, had hoped to find 15 welders and other skilled workers to add to a staff of 45 welders the company has in-house.
“It's been a tight market for the last couple years,” Hentschke said. “During the downturn, our business didn't get as bad as many. In 2010, we hired a lot of good skilled, experienced folks, but in 2011 that dried up.”
The opportunities for professional welders in the Midlands and across the country are there for the taking, Valmont's Boysen said.
“It's a good skill to have,” he said. “Even if you don't want to do it for the rest of your life, there's always a strong need for welders anywhere in the country, and you can always fall back on that.”
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