BIG RAPIDS — Manufacturers often find themselves at an impasse when it comes to sourcing qualified welding talent.
As the baby boomers who have filled shop floors reach retirement age, many manufacturers say they’ve been unsuccessful in courting the next generation of welders to support production.
That dynamic has created a boon for Ferris State University’s welding technology and engineering program, generating a nearly two-year wait list for students wishing to enter the degree program.
Companies like the program because it produces welding engineers who can develop automated welding equipment, according to FSU faculty member Jeff Hardesty, who serves as the program coordinator. Instead of having to hire multiple new welders to replace the retiring workers, companies can recruit one welding engineer to develop automated solutions and allow the remaining welders to focus on top-priority work.
“As a result, they can be just as productive as with the welders they had before,” Hardesty said.
Making the most of the welders a company does have will become increasingly important for manufacturers as the welding industry is expected to face a shortage of 400,000 workers by 2024, according to the American Welding Society.
Ferris State is one of six universities across the country to offer programs to train welding engineers, underscoring the university’s concentration in offering highly-specialized training for specific, in-demand positions, Hardesty said.
“This program is a poster child, if you will, of what Ferris is all about,” he said. “It’s a degree that has a job attached to it.”
The program offers students the option to choose either a two-year associate degree in welding technology or a four-year welding engineering technology bachelor’s degree program.
Students begin with a foundation in welding before applying those skills to learning about the science and technology behind welding and welding equipment.
All students begin the program with the associate degree coursework, and roughly 80 percent of those students continue for the full four years, Hardesty said.
Currently, 200 students are enrolled in the college’s welding engineering technology program with 40 students expected to graduate this year. The program has roughly 700 alumni spread out globally.
“Certainly, if there weren’t jobs at the other end of the rainbow, the seats would be harder to fill and students wouldn’t be able to wait,” Hardesty said.
Students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in welding engineering technology can fetch at least $65,000 a year as a starting wage, and most students receive offers by companies in their senior year, according to the university.
In addition to the welding engineering program, Ferris State also offers similar highly specialized degrees in plastics engineering technology, rubber engineering technology and heavy-equipment service engineering technology, among others.
These programs also feature an associate degree track, which prepares students for supervisory roles, or a bachelor’s degree focusing on engineering-specific systems used in industry.
While Ferris State does concentrate on specialized degree programs, the university also emphasizes a well-rounded education, particularly as it relates to the field students are studying.
“With our associate degrees and leading into bachelor’s degrees, we provide the ability to run the machine, but one thing we do is to provide the science and technology behind how things work,” said Larry Schultz, dean of the College of Engineering Technology at FSU.
In addition to their core classes, students in the welding technology program also take classes to study automation and materials, for example. That versatility gives students a leg up not only when it comes to finding a job, but also in moving up through the ranks of the organization. They have an advantage over students from educational programs that focus solely on one aspect of the industry, Schultz said.
“There are a number of apprenticeship programs popping up where kids in high school are released to an apprenticeship-type learning environment,” he said. “That’s great and they’re going to get that particular skill and be very good at that particular skill. But with a four-year degree program, you’re developing someone who is going to be able to be more versatile and able to switch positions at a faster rate.”
Beyond being more valuable to their future employers, students with a well-rounded education also have a hedge if their field were to be phased out due to new technology or other market developments, Schultz said.
“Should the particular industry they’re working in have problems and all of a sudden their expertise is gone, they have enough skills to recover from that and take a look at it from a different level,” Schultz said.