Aluminum welders in short supply, say boatbuilders

   The Northwest is becoming a boat-building haven, where buyers are increasingly turning to aluminum as the must-have hull material. To fill orders, local companies must wade into the labor pool looking for skilled laborers, namely aluminum welders, people that have been tough to find.
   Local colleges are on the verge of providing programs to contribute skilled laborers, and boat-builders are also developing solutions, but will it be enough to satisfy demand?
   At Fairhaven’s Aluminum Chambered Boats, CEO Larry Wieber is looking to add 30 workers to the rapidly growing boat-building company in the next 90 days. The company is looking for riggers and aluminum welders, and Wieber said filling the company’s needs has been a challenge.
   The company finds new employees from in and out of the area by placing newspaper ads and by word-of-mouth advertising, he said, and gets its fair-share of walk-in applicants as well.
   The expanding company, which had around 80 employees when it began hiring last month, has picked up nine new employees. Wieber said getting extra space will not be the problem for ACB, as the Port of Bellingham will accommodate them — the sticking point will be building a skilled workforce.
   Currently, he said the community, including local trade schools, has not yet addressed the marine-industry labor shortage. The lack of aluminum welders, a vital labor force for ACB, is a problem the company needs to solve, he said.
   If the labor issues are not addressed in the future, the company may look to other facilities or locations, said Wieber. Based on what he has seen, the company can recruit and keep about 150 to 200 workers before the local labor supply becomes too weak for ACB.
   All American Marine, Inc. (AAM), also in Fairhaven, has similar labor-related problems.
   The 40-employee boat-building company doesn’t have a high demand for new staff, because it is not rapidly expanding — but when a worker is lost, finding a new one is tough, according to AAM controller, Del McAlpine.
   Like ACB, AAM’s boats are made from aluminum, a material that requires different training and skills than working with other metals.
   To address the problem, McAlpine, along with others in the industry began meeting to find a solution and set aluminum-welding standards.
   AAM recently developed its own training curriculum, and partnered with Worksource Washington to train new workers.
   “The strategy is to help businesses grow their own welders by training them with their own workers,” said Alex Kosmides, deputy director of Northwest Workforce Development Council for Worksource Washington, who is working with AAM.
   Kosmides said his agency has provided a $75,000 grant for the training program , which was matched by AAM and further funded by the company’s trainees. The agency has also worked with a panel of marine manufacturing industry representatives to find a solution to the problem and establish training standards.
   According to Kosmides, the lack of aluminum welders is a problem that has surfaced with the recent rise in popularity of aluminum boats.
   Tech schools to respond
   Satpal Sidhu, Dean of Professional Technical Education for Engineering and Technical Trades at Bellingham Technical College, said he has been aware of the demand for about two years, and has met with local boat-building companies on the issue.
   BTC has had a welding program, but only for steel; aluminum welding takes different facilities and a different training curriculum, said Sidhu.
   In 2007, however, things will change as BTC will open the new 50,000- square-foot Morse Center, which will house the school’s welding and auto-body programs, complete with a new aluminum-welding area. The college has also developed a curriculum to teach it.
   In the meantime, BTC has shared its planned aluminum-welding curriculum with Skagit Valley College, which has already started to train aluminum welders.
   Sidhu said the college has been very proactive in accommodating the needs of local industries, not just in aluminum welding, but in other areas such as electricians.
   Sidhu said demand for skilled labor is quite high right now, with a building upsurge going on in Washington; the oil boom in Alberta is also drawing welders northward, where higher wages are offered.
   BTC will soon be able to satisfy some of the local labor demands, according to Sidhu, but will not likely quench the marine industry’s thirst.
   Until then, those needing more employees may have a rough time finding workers.
   “We have to work hard to get the word out, because there is just not an abundance of able bodies,” said Wieber.


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