COLUMBUS - When Katana Summit received an influx of orders for its wind turbine towers this summer, the Columbus company set a goal of hiring up to 90 new workers.

The additional manpower needed to produce the 130 massive units by mid-2012 was expected to nearly double the plant's work force during a record year for orders.

But, a sign in front of the East 29th Avenue plant tells a story that is all too familiar for area manufacturers.

Help is still wanted, especially when it comes to welding positions.

Katana Summit currently has 89 openings, most of which call for welders in skill levels ranging from entry-level to senior experience.

"We're having some difficulty filling all the positions," said Kevin Strudthoff, the company's president and CEO.

And they're not alone.

According to the Nebraska Department of Labor, the demand for welders is expected to increase by more than 6 percent between 2008 and 2018 in northeast Nebraska. To accommodate this growth, approximately 10,000 of the workers would need to be hired in the 22-county region, taking the total welding positions filled to around 150,000.

Fabricated metal manufacturing, a welding-intensive process, also has one of the highest growth projections for the area, according to Kendrick Marshall, regional manager of Nebraska Work force Development.

"The demand is definitely rising for welders," he said.

For Katana Summit, Strudthoff said the current situation has created a "perfect storm" of hiring problems.

In a time when many local manufacturers are typically slowing down, Strudthoff said most major players are thriving, leading to high employment needs across the board.

Katana has attempted to recruit from out of state, but an increased demand for welders in Texas and North Dakota oil fields has limited that pool.

The wind tower manufacturer also added a weekend shift with hopes of attracting local farmers, but applications have been slow to arrive.

"It's definitely tighter than it has been in the past," said Strudthoff.

This has caused wages and benefits to increase for welders, making the career path more lucrative.

The average northeast Nebraska welder makes $16.79 an hour, according to the Department of Labor, putting them 35 cents behind the area's mean wage.

"It's not going to make you the rich guy on the block," said Marshall. "But, average wages are wages that people tend to be happy with."

Katana pays $21 per hour or more for senior welding positions and has increased its retirement, overtime and goal-based incentives to attract workers and remain competitive.

"We're trying to put things in place to make it work," said Strudthoff.

The problem may simply boil down to a lack of available workers as welders reach retirement age.

"We see some of the younger people moving in that direction, but I think welding is one of those areas that doesn't receive enough attention," said Strudthoff.

At Central Community College's Columbus campus, they're trying to change that.

Interest in the college's welding technology program has nearly tripled in the past couple of years, instructor Gary Senff said.

Last semester, 105 people looked to the school for training, qualification testing or as part of the certification and two-year degree programs.

Fourteen students are enrolled in CCC-C's full-time associate's degree program for welding next fall. The program now has a waiting list as many employers have made a shift from requiring four-year degrees.

CCC-C also partners with numerous manufacturers and companies in the area, including Katana, to deliver industry-specific training to both new hires and advancing employees. In return, the college receives equipment and materials that help keep costs down for students there.

This training can be completed in as little as a week, Senff said, depending on the individual's experience level.

Because of the high demand, Work force Development is also partnering with the college and employers on training programs and the effort to recruit welders and push the unemployed toward the welding profession.

"We're working to help fast track folks into the vocation," Marshall said.

Behlen Manufacturing, which employs more than 300 welders, uses the training as a way to "grow" welders internally.

Jason Buss, director of organizational development and continuous improvement, said the company doesn't expect to fill its welding needs with outside candidates. Instead, they use outside and in-house training to turn current employees interested in the field into certified welders.

"It's always a challenge to find good welders externally," he said, "and you have to have a good strategy to grow them within."

Behlen also utilizes resources such as career fairs and websites like Facebook and Craigslist to attract welders, Buss said.

The two main reasons students pursue a career in welding are pay and demand, instructor Ryan Woehl said.

And that pay, according to Senff, will only increase as more welders retire.

CCC-C visits students in elementary school and collaborates with high schools because the success of area manufacturers may depend on increasing interest in welding.

"The big thing now is to get the young kids involved and get the people who aren't employed convinced that welding is a good career and they can make a pretty good living out of it," said Senff.


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