While wandering recently on the Internet, I happened upon the 2006-07 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The handbook contains a chapter titled "Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Workers," and in this section the following two points are highlighted. First, that "employment in this category is projected to grow more slowly" than the average for all other occupations. And secondly, that "job prospects should be excellent as employers report difficulty finding enough qualified people."

At cursory glance these statements seemed true enough. In the first instance, slower than average growth for the occupation is not surprising, but a closer look at the statistics made me wonder whether, in reality, we're looking at an occupational decline. For example, the chapter says that there were 14,329,000 manufacturing workers in 2004. Among the 429,000 welders, solderers and braziers counted, 65 percent (279,000 workers) were in the manufacturing sector, accounting for 1.95 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

We also know that the U.S. manufacturing sector lost about 3 million jobs since 2001. Applying the 1.95 percent rate, we can calculate that 58,500 welding, soldering and brazing jobs were a part of manufacturing's losses since 2001, coming to about 14,000 to 15,000 jobs lost annually. Though some of the lost welding jobs may have been absorbed by growth in construction industries, it seems unlikely that construction growth could absorb all that job displacement.

Concerning the second statement, which is at odds with the first, manufacturers have bemoaned the lack of qualified employees regardless of industry or skill discipline. It is a universal complaint that has not always translated into excellent job prospects. However, given the elevated average age of skilled welders, who already have or will soon be leaving the workforce, and given the fact that modern equipment and welding techniques make better welders out of those who are less experienced or skilled, there is still sufficient demand for welders to make the profession worth pursuing by an aspiring student.

The outlook for welding jobs depends on three major things: the health of those industries that use metal joining; the pressure on companies and industries to improve productivity and invest in automation to remain competitive; and the advancement of technologies that broaden the application of joining materials.

The manufacturing sector, which employs the most welders, is expected to decline in the near future as manufacturing jobs increasingly move overseas. The construction industry may still be able to take up some of the slack, as will government expenditures on shipbuilding and infrastructure repair, but we can expect the availability of welding jobs in manufacturing to remain slack in the foreseeable future.

Efforts to improve productivity, invest in automation and control labor costs are vital for metal joining processes moving forward. As the Big Three auto companies, for example, shutter one plant after another, many foreign automakers have recently opened or announced plans to open production plants in the U.S. These plants, as they come on stream, will be highly automated and are using sophisticated workstations, robots, computers and control technologies to turn some of the welders of today into the machine setters and operators of tomorrow.

Finally, technology has expanded employment opportunities by creating more uses for welding in the workplace even among dissimilar materials. New ways have been, or are being, developed to join materials, including new alloys, composites, and plastics. Lasers, electron beams, friction stir, ultrasonic pulses and other terms have found their way into the lexicon of the welding community.

The variety and versatility offered by these emergent technologies have already begun to change the welding landscape. Their integration into the portfolio of more traditional welding techniques may prove vital in keeping welding a viable profession in the future.

Dean Peters is principle at Syntactical Communications, Cleveland, Ohio. Peters formerly was chief editor of Welding Design & Fabrication, Gases & Welding Distributor, and Foundry Management & Technology magazines. He may be reached at dpeters@penton.com