Why are politicians obsessed with welders?

"Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and fewer philosophers," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) infamously said during the last presidential election. 

While the statement was not completely accurate, he did put the spotlight on a career that many politicians like to use as the poster child for preparing students for a skills-based economy.

But the reality of technical jobs like welding is a little more complicated than politicians make it out to be, writes Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Welding is a trade that is in demand, does not require a college degree, and provides a comfortable living ($36,980 is the median annual salary). These are all characteristics that would allow a student to easily fill the skills gap that politicians say currently exists in our workforce. After every recession is over, there is a renewed interest in trade labor because companies can suddenly focus on expansion. 

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For example, Aims Community College in Colorado has seen a huge uptick in enrollment for their welding program. The program has always been in demand, says Paul Hasty, the welding program chair. But he says it's grown so much in recent years that officials have been forced to add a waitlist and hire an additional faculty member.

But the path to jobs for new welders may not be as easy as politicians make it seem. Jeff Klein, a welding instructor at Aims, says employers are looking for welders with hands-on experience. 

Finding opportunities for experiential learning is one of the challenges students face when considering a welding program.

Community colleges must provide the kind of practical experiences that employers are seeking if they want their students to secure employment post-graduation, says Peter Cappelli, director of the center for human resources at the University of Pennsylvania.

This is particularly true for students with families and other commitments, he adds. These students may have a tough time getting through a welding program in a timely manner because of the kind of commitment that is required—a detail that politicians rarely acknowledge (Zamudio-Suaréz, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/14). 

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