Gary Konarska The Manufacturing Executive podcast

The Manufacturing Executive: Episode 13

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Episode show notes

We hear grumblings about automation taking away job opportunities. But inside the manufacturing sector, companies are struggling to find high quality, consistent human laborers.

The real challenge facing the industry is this: Baby Boomers are exiting the workforce, and there aren’t enough people in the skilled trades to replace them.

Gary Konarska, Executive Director & CEO at American Welding Society, joined this episode of the podcast to discuss how to attract and retain high quality labor.

Gary and I talked about:

  • The opportunity cost of college and the value of learning a skilled trade 
  • How to address the shortage of welders
  • Ways to attract fresh talent through creating great content
  • How to upskill the current welding workforce

Resources we talked about:

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Transcript of episode

Joe Sullivan:
Welcome to another episode of The Manufacturing Executive podcast. This show is being brought to you by our sponsor Cadenas Part Solutions. I’m Joe Sullivan your host, and a co-founder of the industrial marketing agency Gorilla 76. So we talk a lot on this show about top line growth, sales, marketing, lead generation, and so on. Attracting, engaging, winning, and retaining great customers is really hard work. But so is attracting, engaging, hiring, and retaining great employees.

Joe Sullivan:
If you talked to the average person in the general public, you’d probably hear grumblings about automation and other technology taking away job opportunities from the workforce. But when I look inside the manufacturing sector, what I see is one company after the next struggling to find high quality and consistent labor. The reality today is that many people don’t want to do the dirty jobs, work night shifts, operate heavy machinery.

Joe Sullivan:
And on top of that, in many cases, not enough skilled laborers are being trained to replace those that are on their way out. So in today’s episode, we’re going to tackle some of this head on. My guest is Gary Konarska, the executive director and CEO of the American Welding Society, or AWS. Gary has spent more than 20 years in the welding and automation industry.

Joe Sullivan:
Most recently working for the Lincoln electric company, where he held roles including, vice president of global automation, managing director of Southeast Asia, Korea, and Taiwan based in Singapore and director of business development based in Shanghai, China. Throughout his career Gary has focused on sales, strategic planning, international business, and foster relationships among highly diverse teams. Gary, welcome to the show.

Gary Konarska:
Thank you, Joe. I appreciate you having me on here.

Joe Sullivan:
Yeah, thrilled you’re here. Well, before we get into the nitty gritty Gary, can you tell the listeners a bit about your personal journey up to this point in your career? And also just tell us a little bit about AWS and what you guys do over there.

Gary Konarska:
Yeah, sure. So from a personal standpoint, obtained an industrial engineering degree, but realized that I probably didn’t want to be tied to a desk or inside a facility. So I actually went into technical sales. So stayed in the industrial space, but went into the more dynamic aspects of sales. I spent about seven years on the streets really looking at, how do I add value to an end user customer?

Gary Konarska:
So that was one of the beautiful things is, I wasn’t a product sales guy, I was a solution sales guy early on. Early in my career, I was really trying to help people be more productive and effective in their operations. I had the unique opportunity to actually work as an ex-patriot, which was supposed to be a two year assignment, but I ended up actually spending 10 years living and working in Asia.

Gary Konarska:
So I went over as a senior level sales guy, trying to mentor some local resources, but that expanded to regional subject matter expert type roles. And then eventually moving on to Director of Business Development, as well as a manager and director role for about a 13 country region in Southeast Asia. After that, as I repatriated back to the US, I moved back to Cleveland, Ohio, and I left the core business, which was product based and went into the automation industry.

Gary Konarska:
So still with the same organization, but focused on providing firstly arc welding robotics solutions. So basically addressing that skilled labor shortage or trying to help increase productivity of manufacturers. Then eventually took on a role where I had actually 13 locations around the world that were doing all kinds of automation from material handling, to laser processing, welding processes. So quite the start as a sales guy to eventually leading a pretty substantial footprint as a business leader.

Joe Sullivan:
Good background. And now with AWS, can you talk a little bit just for anybody who’s unfamiliar about what AWS is and does?

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. Thanks. So I joined AWS just here in April of 2020. And so the mission of the American Welding Society is to advance the science and technology of welding joining an allied processes. So we are the recognized body that’s created the standards at which US manufacturers in particular, adhere to from a welding standpoint. So if there’s any type of code quality welding, any type of classifications on welding products, such as welding consumables, those would adhere to the standards that were developed by AWS.

Gary Konarska:
We also actually provide certification programs. So our largest program being a program called the certified welding inspector, who actually … They work in the quality assurance space, looking at the reliability as well as the safety of welded products. And so we are an industry trade association. We do also have individual membership, which is nearly 70,000 members of the AWS, both here domestically as well as internationally. I mean, we’re here to support the welding community.

Gary Konarska:
Now our job is dual focus is to provide services to the welding community. But also one of our core missions that we have is that we [inaudible 00:06:11] promote through our, what we call the AWS Foundation, is to help address the shortage of welding personnel in industry today. And so that is actually something that I personally am passionate about as one of the interesting things. And as I looked at this opportunity to join AWS was really that balance between, running a business, but also giving back to in this case, the welding community.

Gary Konarska:
And so hopefully today we’ll talk a bit about some of the things that we’re doing, not just here at AWS, but also what industry participants can do to do this at a local level to help you as a manufacturer.

Joe Sullivan:
Yeah. That’s exactly I think what made me say, “I think Gary would be a great guest on this show.” As I alluded to in the intro to this conversation, and one of the things I hear most commonly from manufacturers is, it’s really difficult to find high quality and consistent labor, to attract them, to retain them. And so I’d love for you to be able to, during this episode, speak to that from your experience in the welding industry.

Joe Sullivan:
But also think of it more broadly for our audience inside the manufacturing space. Because it’s absolutely a problem that is … As I’m sure you know, is prevalent throughout manufacturing. I guess, we can start at a high level. What are you seeing on this front in terms of this … The shortage in skilled labor and this gap that has to be filled? Maybe start by talking about it in the welding industry.

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. And I’ll add some personal anecdote to it.

Joe Sullivan:
Please.

Gary Konarska:
25 years ago when I was myself going through high school, I was in a bit of a rural area, I grew up in Michigan. And there wasn’t really vocational programs available to me. There were, but the types of students that were enrolling 25 years in the vocational programs, were the ones that were deemed the ones not going to college. Right? And there was a negative connotation to going and joining the skilled trade.

Gary Konarska:
And I think over time, and it’s really been probably a two decade journey that that pendulum has started to swing back where the emphasis on vocational skills, bringing back those types of programs into the high school level and then into the post secondary level has really started to gain speed. I was looking at some data. I do see that we’re making progress on that front. But the challenge that we face is, we knew the baby boomer generation.

Gary Konarska:
We knew that there would be a large number of people exiting the workforce at some point, but we didn’t really see the effects and take action probably early enough. So as we start to see more and more of this generation retiring, we don’t have as many entry level people entering the industry as well. And so that’s the real gap that we’re really trying to address is, we’ve got more people exiting and we could say skilled trades, specifically welding as well. But there’s more people exiting the skilled trades than are entering the skilled trades today.

Joe Sullivan:
Yeah. I think you summed that up really well. There’s a book that I read recently, it’s called Leveraged Learning and the author is Danny Iny, I don’t know if you’ve come across this. But it immediately struck me because, the book is really about … I’m going to read a quote here that I have bookmarked. He wrote, “If not colleges who will provide the lifelong learning of the future, from the only place that it can come from.

Joe Sullivan:
The experts and professionals on the cutting edge and front lines of their respective fields. They’re the ones whose knowledge and skills will be sufficiently up to date to provide what learners will need, while their skill level and opportunity costs will command a premium, the transformation they will deliver, will justify paying for it.” When I read that book, I flagged that because it’s … This is so relevant I think in the manufacturing industry, because I’ve seen this.

Joe Sullivan:
I’ve heard this from others, this shift you described it as the pendulum swinging back toward vocational programs. And the fact that you leave high school, you go into one of these and you learn a skill. The opportunity cost of college at this point sometimes can … It almost doesn’t even justify what you could be doing, learning a usable skill, going into a really good job and being trained to be an expert in something like in welding. Right?

Joe Sullivan:
I think it’s really interesting have you talking about this. I don’t know if you agree with that quote and what’s being said there.

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, when you look at the skill sets, and like right now as an example, I’m looking to hire a director of global sales. And I’m looking at the experience that that individual has. The skills that they’ve developed over the course of their career. And I actually just made this joke. I looked at a number of great candidates. I couldn’t tell you what university any of them went to. Right?

Gary Konarska:
It’s not really at this point of this type of role, it’s really about the experiences that they’ve gained. Now, when you look at a role like a skilled trade, right, experience is really what makes that role so important. But getting that foundational start that’s where the vocational programs, the continuing technical education programs, getting that solid foundation, they’re learning the basic ways to approach problem solving. Right?

Gary Konarska:
That’s what’s so important for that longer term career where you can maximize earning potential longterm. I mean, if you look at, and I have some data on the welding industry in particular, now the median income is about $43,000. Right? I mean, that sounds like a pretty good start. So if I’m looking at, I just graduated high school, I’m looking at my options, I can look at a continuing technical education program. Typically they have a pretty low cost to go through them.

Gary Konarska:
They’re not typically that long. Oftentimes six months to a year. Right? And then you’re out in the workforce earning. So on the alternative, you look at college. Right? Many people take out loans, they’re saddled with high debt. Right? Four years if you’re lucky, typically five. Right? Now you look at starting to earn, so you dig this hole, you create this debt and long term, is the earning potential maybe higher?

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. You could say that there is a potential that over the course of a 40 year career, that the earning potential could be higher. However, at what point does that cross? Because now if you’ve gone into a vocational program, you started earning at, let’s say 19 years old, you don’t have debt at that point. So you’ve got a four year head start. You’ve also now been building your experience, which means you’re more qualified for further roles.

Gary Konarska:
And you continue to expand upon your skillset, because in most skilled trades, there is progression to be made. Right? There’s more difficult machinery run as a machinist, there’s more difficult welding processes to learn. It can progress to running automated equipment, doing those processes. So there’s tremendous career opportunity within these different skilled trades that can really make a great career for an individual.

Joe Sullivan:
I love it. Totally love it. So give some context maybe for listeners here from maybe what you guys … I know you’ve mentioned that there are things you’re doing at the American Welding Society. Initiatives you have underway that address this welder shortage specifically. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Gary Konarska:
Sure. So I’ll highlight a few of the different things we’re doing here at AWS. So, one of the things that we recognize is that, for those that are leaving high school, it’s important for the parents as well as the students, to understand what a career in welding might look like. And so we’ve created what we call … A Website called Careers of Welding, that highlights a number of the different career paths that an individual can take when entering the field. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So we’re really trying to present, the knowledge process of what does it mean to become a welder? What does that look like? Now there’s a lot of testimonials from actual people that are in the profession today, so they can learn to identify with, what does the future look like if I go into this particular field? We’re also doing a number of things financially. So we have the AWS Foundation. And the AWS Foundation is our arm that’s really looking at direct support to the industry.

Gary Konarska:
As an example, in 2019, we actually gave out $1.8 million in scholarships and grants across the United States. From a scholarship standpoint, that was more than 1000 individual students, received a scholarship from AWS to basically go and attend some type of welding related program. So that could be actually learning to weld itself. It could be going to get an associates degree in welding technology or even a four year engineering degree in a university as well.

Gary Konarska:
And so in addition to that, we then have offered a series of grants to education facilities. So whether to expand the capacity of an existing program to meet increased demand in that area, or even to help schools start a welding program. Right? So there’s some specific campaigns to actually focus in places that need to introduce or want to introduce welding into their curriculum or their vocational programs. We’re really trying to get into the career entry point, attracting people to welding as a career. Right?

Gary Konarska:
Another thing that we do is we have something called … We have a welding mobile trailer that travels around and attends things like the state fairs. Right? The Future Farmers of America Annual Convention, Boy Scouts of America Annual Convention. And on that there’s these welding simulators. Right? And so the welding simulator is a virtual reality system, and that virtual reality system actually gives a student or anybody, an opportunity to try welding basically in your tee shirt and shorts. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So gives you that real life experience even gives you the sound. It doesn’t give you the smell of the heat, but it does give you the chance to at least try the skill to say, “Hey, do I have an aptitude for this?” It gives great exposure. And actually during those events, we run a competition because those virtual reality machines actually score your weld. The highest score of every one of those events earned a scholarship to a welding program.

Gary Konarska:
So we’re trying to generate awareness that you can have a great career in something like welding, and really trying to get out and bring people into the industry is a lot of our focus.

Joe Sullivan:
We’re going to take a 30 second breather here for a word from our sponsor Cadenas Parts Solutions. Let’s talk real quick about getting specified. Are you a component manufacturer? Maybe you sell architectural products to parks or large facilities. Engineers and architects need models of your products to test fit in their designs. That’s where Cadenas comes in, to help you create a dynamic shareable CAD catalog you put on your Website. Designers can preview the product from any angle and download it in the format they prefer.

Joe Sullivan:
They get the data they need for their design, and you get a fresh lead to add to your marketing pipeline. To get one of your products turned into an online 3D model for free, use the code executive@partsolutions.com/executive. There’s a staggering parallel for me as a guy who’s come up in marketing and sales to … Between lead generation for new business and attracting talent, at least in the way I believe it should be done.

Joe Sullivan:
And we have on our Gorilla site, if you go into the careers section, you’ll see we have a separate blog called to get a job blog. Well, our main blog is focused on helping manufacturers figure out how to do sales and marketing. It’s just purely insightful, resourceful information. But our get a job blog, which is in its infancy, but our objective is to help teach people who are either in college or prior or in the marketing, and trying to break into the marketing industry.

Joe Sullivan:
Help them learn what skill sets they need to acquire, how they can be successful, trying to get into marketing. And as a result of this, we attract a lot of really great young marketing candidates. And so it’s a very similar thing to what you’re doing. You’re becoming the resource, the organization that’s helping people picture for themselves or paint a picture of what a career could look like. Put themselves in that situation, make it tangible.

Joe Sullivan:
The virtual reality thing you just described is such a great idea. The separate website, that’s purely about careers in welding. And I think there’s a lot that even a small or midsize manufacturer can take from this, because you can do the same thing, regardless of whether you’re a CNC machining company or a equipment manufacturer or a contract manufacturer of some kind.

Joe Sullivan:
Think about the type of people that you’re trying to attract that are so hard to attract, and can you be a resource to them, and open up conversations and help them picture what it would be like to have a career not only at where you are in your organization, but in this industry? It’s a really smart thing to do. So I love it.

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. I mean, well we look at what can somebody do at the local level. Right? So I’m a small to medium sized manufacturer anywhere in the US. Right? We always say, get engaged. So get engaged at the local vocational programs. Offer apprenticeship, offered internships. Normally you think of internships in the marketing space, the engineering space, but a welder, a kid going through welding school also needs some real life experience as well. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So look at programs where you … Part time they could come in and be a helper. Right? Oftentimes just like any career progression when somebody that has less experience, they may come in and do the more simple tasks. Right? That then frees up those that are more experienced to work on the more complex tasks. Right?

Gary Konarska:
But getting engaged at that local level, and if you really form a close with those schools, over time what ends up happening is those that do a great job of supporting the program, start to receive the benefits of, “Hey, I’ve got a really good student coming through, if you’re in the market to find a good welder here’s your individual.” It’s a give and take and it’s a mutual beneficial relationship to those schools and to that organization.

Joe Sullivan:
That’s such a good point, Gary. And I see it in my world too. I’m sure this point transcends welding and manufacturing. It’s certainly present in my world. We’re about two miles down the road from Washington University in st. Louis, which is where I went to college. Their program there is, they produce great designers. There’s a visual communications program.

Joe Sullivan:
University of Missouri, Columbia has got one of the best journalism schools in the country and they’re a few hours down the road. And of course, we’re talking about universities there. But the point is we’ve built relationships inside of the journalism school there, inside of Washington University’s visual communications program. And we’re always getting great candidates. A lot of our employees, our best employees over time have come out of those programs because they know that Gorilla’s a place people have enjoyed working.

Joe Sullivan:
They’ve started their careers here, they’ve had … So we have had a lot of interns from these places. And there’s no reason why this same thing can’t be happening in welding or other areas of manufacturing. You can get really great work done too. You said it, if you can delegate, take the things that can be … A process that can be taught that’s … Now you’re delegating work from your full time full salary employees down to more junior people who are using that to learn and gain real hands on experience.

Joe Sullivan:
And there’s just benefits for everybody there. So I’m glad you brought that up. Is there anything you’re seeing from other organizations or companies to things they’re doing to up skill the welding workforce, so people are armed with the right skills to meet demand? Other things outside of what you’ve talked about with AWS?

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. I mean, one thing that we have seen, and it tends to be more than medium to larger size organizations, are doing more focus work on in house training. Right? Actually doing more from a structured standpoint of bringing in an employee without the skills and starting to give them the skills, either on the job or through a structured training program. Right? Just like this may be a live thing in the future for you.

Gary Konarska:
Right now it’s all virtual, but there’s a plethora of great learning tools available now that are online. Right? Whether from us or from other providers and other skilled trades area, there’s a lot of online learning that is really readily available and they’re great programs as well. And so as a small to medium sized manufacturer partner with that have those developed programs. Right? They can help you with learning paths.

Gary Konarska:
Now we’re working with some parts of industry where there’s a need that’s unfulfilled. And so as a small to medium size organization, you might not be able to stand up your own training program. But working with program partners out there, they can look at, well, I have 10 partners, I have 50, or I am an entire industry like for us, that has a need. And as more people understand what that need is, which in this particular example would be in house training, then those needs can be met by various types of organizations. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So I do see that there’s more and more of that that’s happening of people recognizing that, “Okay if I can’t just hire a skillset that I’m looking for…” And right now, even in these times there are still, a hundred thousands, hundreds of thousands of openings across the US for skilled trades at this particular example, welding. Right? I may need to do something to bring in somebody that doesn’t have the exact skillset that I need and help them to develop those skill sets. Right?

Gary Konarska:
When you look at the current generation workforce, one of the things you talk about when people say how much they’re engaged or like the organization, is that investment into the employee. Right? That personal development, that professional development that the organization provides. So that’s one of the number one factors why people would stay at a place like Gorilla. Right? They’re not just staying stagnant. They’re not coming in with a skill, and that’s all they’ve got. Each day and month and year that goes by, they build their skillset.

Gary Konarska:
And when you’re a small to medium sized company, it’s hard to formalize those process. I think that’s one of the things, when you’re looking at skilled trades in particular, you’ve got to look at potentially formalizing some of these processes. Right? But you don’t have to do it alone. There are people out there, there’s organizations that focus primarily on this that can help you to develop those in house programs.

Joe Sullivan:
Well, I know the younger generations are looking for it too. It’s becoming more important for them to … They value advancement in their career and learning and gaining skills more than past generations. There’s enough data out there that represented it.

Joe Sullivan:
It’s not just about having a stable income there’s a … When they feel like they’re learning and growing, it matters a lot. What would you say to incumbent workers? What skills should they continue to build through ongoing training so that they can remain competitive?

Gary Konarska:
I mean, in most the skilled trades, technology is becoming part of whether it’s the equipment itself, how the job is actually done. But there is a technology component that’s already here and will continue grow in proliferation across manufacturing. So of today, and I’ll use welding as an example. If today, I’m a welder. I need to start building my understanding of how to run a CNC equipment. Perhaps I need to learn how to program a robot. Right?

Gary Konarska:
There’s technologies that are being introduced, and even across small to medium sized manufacturers are probably adopting them as fast at this point, as larger scale manufacturers, is to build that technological understanding. Right? And to start that process of learning. So whether you’re learning technology, whether you’re practicing your skill set, but you’ve got to be developing yourself beyond just on the job I’m doing my job, therefore I’m learning.

Gary Konarska:
You’ve got to go a little bit beyond that. That might mean after work, you got to spend 30 minutes or an hour utilizing tools if your employers allows you to do that, to build up your skills. Right? If I use welding as an example, there’s many different processes. The more processes that you’re proficient at, the more valuable you are as a welder. Right? If you’re a machinist, the more types of machines that you can run, the different brands, the more valuable you are to an employer. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So continuing to up skill to expand your knowledge. And the technology piece is the most important probably longterm, because as we talk about things like Industry 4.0, we talk about automation. I mean, the Industry 4.0 is monitoring equipment that it’s either maintained or operated by a human today. Right? At some point in the future, like one of the other podcasts you had talked about, technology is here and humans are here and that interaction is happening.

Gary Konarska:
It’s happening now, it’s going to continue to happen. How do you get on the leading edge of being that robot programmer. Right? Learning how to analyze data today I’m a welder, but if I understand the process, I understand the variables that make me go faster or slower, how could I translate that to a shop wide solution to help my employer to say, “Today, we only weld this much?” If we were to take data around this, we could probably improve our productivity by 5%, 10%.

Gary Konarska:
Small increments like that over the course of time are massive productivity gains for the employer. But that’s all around technology and the application of it. And using robotics, I have direct experience in that. We always used to say, it’s easier to teach a welder how to program a robot and a robot programmer how to weld. Right? When you think about programming, programming is a pretty linear process typically.

Gary Konarska:
You can learn the steps, you could study the steps even, and become proficient at that. At least small base, medium type proficiency. As a welder you can’t learn that in a book, it’s all time actually physically doing that. So when you think about that to learn to program versus to learn to weld, if you don’t spend the time under the hood in this particular case, it’s much more difficult.

Gary Konarska:
So as you think about more robotics, more automation, there’s still typically need a welder to actually operate that equipment.

Joe Sullivan:
Well, Gary, I’m more accustomed to talking sales and marketing. And so this was a really interesting conversation for me. And I think all of your experience brings such a great perspective to this really … Real challenge with closing the skills gap and finding good labor. So I appreciate you coming on the show. Can you tell listeners where they can connect with you online and how they can learn more about what AWS is doing?

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. So the primary website is aws.org. Right? So that’s the best place to learn more about what we’re doing as American Welding Society. My name Gary Konarska you can find me on LinkedIn. I enjoy to grow my network, really enjoy following Gorilla 76 in particular, because Joe is very good about offering tangible insights that you could actually go out and start applying. Right?

Gary Konarska:
So those are probably the two best ways, if you wanted to get more information. And if you want to reach out to me directly to learn more about some of the things I’ve done in the past or something we’re doing in the future, I’m very open to anybody reaching out. If I can help, I would love to do that.

Joe Sullivan:
Beautiful. Well, I would encourage all of you listeners to take Gary up on that offer. Well, before we wrap it up, I want to say thank you again to our sponsor Cadenas Part Solutions for helping make this episode a reality. And Gary, thank you for being on the show today. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to do this. It was a really interesting conversation. I know everybody’s going to get a lot of value out of this.

Gary Konarska:
Yeah. Thank you Joe, for having me.

Joe Sullivan:
Great. Well, for the rest of you, I hope to catch you on the next episode of The Manufacturing Executive.

Speaker 2:
You’ve been listening to The Manufacturing Executive Podcast. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you’d like to learn more about industrial marketing and sales strategy, you’ll find an ever expanding collection of articles, videos, guides, and tools specifically for B2B manufacturers at gorillaseventysix.com/learn. Thank you so much for listening until next time.

 

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