By Ernest Scheyder
SOMERSWORTH, New Hampshire, May 30 (Reuters) - It's not quite fly fishing or hiking, but welding is the latest merit badge Boy Scouts can earn - part of a full-court press to attract fresh talent to the critical occupation.
More than 140,000 new welders will be needed by 2019 to replace retirees and meet rising demand from natural gas drillers, steel producers, automakers and more, according to the American Welding Society (AWS).
The group helped the Boy Scouts of America award its first welding merit badge in March, hoping to offset waning interest in welding due to a cultural focus on four-year liberal arts degrees at the expense of community colleges and trade schools, industry experts say.
"The Scouts start realizing that welding could lead to a viable career," said Sam Gentry of the AWS. "It's not just something to fix a fence."
Among the roughly 450,000 U.S. welders, the average age is 55, and fewer than 20 percent are under the age of 35, according to AWS data.
Starting pay for welders is $45,000 per year. Welding engineers - those with advanced degrees - typically have a starting annual salary of $100,000.
Contrast that with the median U.S. annual household income of $49,445, according to the Census Bureau.
Welding, though, is not the cushiest job.
The roughly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit needed to weld, the sparks, and the painstakingly slow process - it can take hours to weld only a few feet - do little to endear this skilled trade to notoriously impatient youth.
Some older welders have delayed retirement because of the weak economy, prompting concern that when they finally decide to hang up their welding guns, there won't be enough younger welders to replace them, said Kelly Zelesnik, dean of engineering technologies at Lorain County Community College in northeastern Ohio.
"The fear is that we're going to lose a lot of talented welders and welding technicians and not have anyone to back-fill the jobs," she said.
In addition to the Boy Scouts partnership, the AWS has boosted the amount in scholarships it doles out each year.
It also built a $500,000 trailer equipped with "virtual" welding machines with the help of Lincoln Electric Holdings Inc . Last weekend, the machine made a pit stop at the Indianapolis 500 car race to tout the welding profession to young auto fans.
The machines mimic the touch, sight and sound of the welding process - everything except the pungent smell of smoke from molten metal, known as a fume plume.
There are several types of welding, but generally the process involves using a gas-powered heat torch to combine two pieces of metal by melting another piece of metal - usually in wire or stick form - between them.
Automation has been able to replicate part of the process - carmakers, for instance, rely heavily on machine welders - but human precision and the ability to react quickly if circumstances change remain crucial for most welding operations.
Training typically involves a two-year degree to gain practical experience in welding, but students can go on to get a four-year degree and become welding engineers to focus on design and welding theory.
"We don't believe we're graduating enough welders," said Monica Pfarr, a welding industry consultant. "A lot of companies are having trouble finding the skilled employees they need."
While the welding shortage has prompted concern from heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc, automaker General Motors and defense contractor Lockheed Martin , the fracking industry is even more worried.
Even among current welders, there is a stark need for pipeline welders, those who can build the lines that will transport natural gas from America's growing shale fields.
"When you weld pipeline, it's an even more complex process than traditional welding," said Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. "We are trying to train the next generation of welders who know a range of skills."
David Seaton, CEO of engineering firm Fluor Corp, is concerned about labor costs and supply as his company helps build new chemical plants, pipelines, refineries and other large projects needing welders.
"I started in the construction field, and I've always enjoyed that," Seaton said. "But I don't think we in the industry have done a really good job of educating that next wave of talent on the benefits of a long-term career in our market."
There are small signs the industry's efforts are paying off.
The Boy Scouts have already run out of their first printing of 11,000 welding training manuals, which cost about $5 each.
Using the book, which outlines safety procedures, welding techniques and career potential, and through hands-on training in welding, Scouts can earn the badge in as little as 12 hours, the group says.
"Boys like discovering things, exploring things with their hands," said Boy Scouts spokeswoman Renee Fairrer. "Something like welding is of interest to boys because it's not necessarily something they see as part of their everyday existence."
A representative for the Girl Scouts of the USA wasn't available to comment on a potential welding merit badge for the group's members.
Welding can be dangerous: 79 U.S. welders were killed on the job in 2010, more than miners, roofers and electricians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Underwater welding is consistently ranked as one of the most d angerous professions. (It may have something to do with strapping an oxygen tank to your back while using an open flame.)
That being said, many students have job offers even before they graduate.
Zelesnik, the Lorain County Community College dean, advises her students to resist the temptation to drop out after only one or two classes to get a paycheck right away.
"They could be earning a lot more money if they think of welding as a career and not just think about being proficient in a process to get the next raise or job," she said.
Alex Bartels, a high school senior in New Hampshire, tried welding for the first time earlier this year by donning a leather apron and thick metal goggles to help his father repair a trailer frame in his family's New Hampshire driveway.
The long, tedious process did not endear welding to Bartels as a career choice.
That perception is something the industry is going to have to address if it hopes to attract fresh talent.
"Welding would be a great side job," said Bartels, who plans to enlist in the U.S. Army this fall and hopes to join the military police. "But it gets real boring, real fast."