How two metal fabrication shops have found long-term success for welders with on-the-job training
By Amanda Carlson
Editor's Note: this article is reprinted with permission
The key to any successful welding operation is a trained and prepared workforce. It’s a simple concept, but it’s not as easy to execute for production weld shops. Finding and keeping welders is a challenge for these high-volume, fast-paced environments. Keeping them engaged and motivated can be another.
Two Midwestern fabrication shops struggled with both challenges. Neither was satisfied with what they felt was an unsustainable pattern of finding and losing welders. To address the problem, both shops invested in and adopted training programs in-house to help develop welders or welding talent and groom them for success.
The obvious upside for the shops has been their ability to teach, correct, and foster the skills of their welding workforce. And for welders, it’s given them the opportunity to acclimate to their surroundings, their tasks, production flow, and company culture. It’s also a sign from the employer that it is willing to go above and beyond to help welders succeed.
The downside is that in-house training programs require an investment of time, money, and resources with no foolproof guarantee that the person will pan out.
These companies have found that the benefits outweigh the risks. Shouldering the responsibility for training their welding workforces has not only strengthened the quality of their welders, in some ways it has also fostered goodwill among employees and become a valuable component of the overall culture.
If You Can't Find Them, Train Them Yourself
Ten years ago DeWys Mfg. Inc., a sheet metal fabrication shop in Marne, Mich., and 2014 Industry Award winner, had trouble finding good welders. As a provider of complete metal fabricated components for a variety of industries including furniture, fixturing, medical device, and power generation, the company tends to stay consistently busy. As such it needs a fully functioning welding workforce at all times, which it didn’t have.
“We were struggling to find people,” said Laura Preuss, dean of DeWys University. “Some people we’d find were very interested in getting into manufacturing and had the motivation and drive to do it, but really didn’t have the skillset to jump in and get to work right away.”
Schuette Metals, Rothschild, Wis., experienced a similar problem as DeWys in that it struggled to find welders. The company, which manufactures components used in the architectural, agricultural, construction, and defense industries, needs welders who can produce quality parts quickly and efficiently.
Not only did the company have difficulty finding skilled welders, the welders it did hire struggled to keep up in the fast-paced production welding environment, said Tony Schmidt, director of education and safety. That led to a revolving door where welders were out as quickly as they came in.
“We were placing them in a high-production environment with equally high expectations for repeatable parts, and that just didn’t work. We ended up letting go of a lot of good welders, and we realized it was because we hadn’t given them the tools they needed to be successful with us,” Schmidt explained.
DeWys came to the decision that it wasn’t a sustainable practice to constantly pass over motivated and driven individuals simply because their welding skills were lacking. Instead of passing them over, why not train them?
“We decided to do something different and we felt that we had the capability internally to do it. At the time we had a trainer on staff who could be that person to educate new welders and get them up to speed on what we needed,” Preuss said.
That led to the creation of DeWys University, a 12-week training program to help fill in the gaps for new or experienced welders and bring them up to speed for the job in which they were hired.
Today potential hires must undergo a two-step interview process to vet aptitude, attitude, motivation, and existing skill. Once someone is hired, weld instructor Sara Gardner, who has a degree in welding engineering, provides both classroom and hands-on instruction for six weeks. The program is heavy on the bookwork in the beginning, but there is a healthy mix of hands-on work too.
“We build up their skills on the floor and give them the base-level knowledge that they’ll need to use toward their job every day. And then we get them on the shop floor where they are handling parts, running equipment, and getting comfortable with the different components and products we work on here,” Gardner said.
Gardner, Preuss said, is not just instrumental in introducing necessary skills, she also helps indoctrinate new hires in company culture.
“She’s not just a trainer, she’s also a mentor. She’s going to help them get acclimated with the company –where to park, where the restrooms are. And she’s going to teach them the why behind what they’re doing. That’s been a great addition to the curriculum,” Preuss said.
After six weeks of classroom and hands-on training, the new welders then are assigned to their designated production teams, where they will be observed for another six weeks.
At Schuette, management approached Schmidt, then quality manager, to head up an in-house weld training initiative that would put incoming welders on a path to be successful once they hit the shop floor.
“My quality background gave me a lot of insight into the mistakes that were made, and almost every time I’d say it was a result of a lack of training,” Schmidt said.
Schuette opened the Welding Academy eight years ago to help new welders get up to speed with the welding processes and acclimated to help ease their transition to the shop floor. The program, shepherded by Schmidt, is required for all new welders, regardless of experience level. He evaluates each welder and decides how much time he or she needs to spend in the academy. Some need more than others.
“Some welders will spend four to six weeks with me in the Welding Academy, while others who are more experienced will spend just a week getting up to speed on our processes and our manufacturing flow,” Schmidt said.
Schuette welders who graduate from the program are then handed off to a mentor on the shop floor. The mentor is their go-to person for problems and questions, freeing up Schmidt to tend to other facets of his job. Mentors have a check-off list of required tasks for the new welders to complete, and afterwards the mentor submits it to their supervisors. The mentors can help answer questions or work through problems during this phase.
Trial, error, and time have helped DeWys University evolve over the last 10 years into something patently unique to the company. First, according to Preuss, a welder is hired to fill a specific need within the department, whether that be manual production welding or working in a robotic weld cell. No more than two welders are in the program at a time, giving Gardner ample opportunity for small-group instruction.
Second, the program is much more flexible now than it was in the beginning, allowing it to cater more to an individual’s specific needs. The trainers make it a point to learn and understand different personalities and learning types and make adjustments based on an individual’s needs.
“Some need way more hands-on, some need more visuals, and some need to sit down and talk through their concerns. I think the team in general is less focused on an individual meeting one objective and more focused on if they believe the individual will be successful in the long run,” Preuss said.
Sometimes that 12-week period reveals an employee might be better served in another department.
“Just because someone doesn’t make it in one specific area, that doesn’t mean they are a bad team member. If they meet our culture, then maybe there’s a different area that’s better suited for them. The nice thing about DeWys is we have such a variety of skilled trades positions inside our facility that if this is someone who is a great fit for our company, we’re going to try to work with them to find the right fit for a position,” Preuss explained.
Schmidt said Schuette’s program has done what the company intended, which was to arm welders with the tools they’d need to be successful in their jobs.
“It’s really been a positive for our new hires. Whether they have little to no experience or they’re a seasoned welder, the Welding Academy has helped them make the transition to the shop floor instead of us just placing them out there and letting them fail,” he said.
The academy also has opened the door for existing welders to work through any problems they may be experiencing. Schmidt receives an email from the supervisor with whatever the problem is and he carves out time to work on it one-on-one with the welder.
“It’s a great way for me to get with someone who’s frustrated and can’t figure out what’s going wrong. Sometimes it’s as simple as the gun angle; other times they’re dealing with a bigger problem stemming from parameter issues. I spend time observing their process and to nail down the root cause and we go from there. It’s just another way we can support our workforce and give them every opportunity to succeed,” Schmidt said.
Investing In Talent Is a Win-Win
A major roadblock for anyone entertaining the thought of adopting an in-house weld training program of any kind is the financial investment necessary to get it off the ground and keep it running. For Schuette and DeWys, that included budgeting salary for staff, carving out space within the shop for a classroom and training equipment, developing an interview process, and creating a culture where existing staff accepted the role as mentors.
Preuss said there was apprehension about whether a concept like DeWys University could be successful or even sustainable given the financial investment required to run it the way they intended to. Would the payoff in the end support the investment at the front end? Ten years later, the answer, Preuss said, is yes, it’s worth it.
“It’s just become a part of who we are. It’s taken a lot of effort on the part of our trainers to prove that success and prove that what they can do truly does support the company as a whole.”
Now, Preuss added, people seek out employment opportunities at the company specifically to receive training from DeWys University. The welding program’s success led to the addition of press brake, machining, cutting, and assembly training to the university’s offering. That has opened the door for cross training as well as upskilling.
“People want to work here because they know they’ll get good training. They know they won’t be stagnant because there are different levels of training and cross training if they want it."
Schmidt agreed, saying it’s the risk you take in making that kind of investment. But he, too, said it’s been worth it. Employee retention has improved significantly since the addition of the Welding Academy.
“It comes down to making sure the employee is happy with what they’re doing and that they have the tools necessary to do it well. By truly investing in your employees to get them the best tools in terms of knowledge, I think people appreciate that,” Schmidt said.