Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric Holdings Inc. (IW 500/301) (LECO) is a 119-year-old manufacturing company that has stood the test of time. Along the way, the business has weathered many challenges, including the economic downturn of 2009, the national recession of the 1980s, and the countless challenges manufacturing firms face every day.

The point is, "there are always going to be challenges for manufacturers," says Christopher Mapes. "We can't let that be our crutch for a lack of success."

Mapes is chairman, president and CEO of Lincoln Electric. He's a relative newcomer to the company, having first joined Lincoln Electric in 2010 as a member of its board of directors. He became COO in 2011 and then was named chief executive in 2012. Prior to that, Mapes was executive vice president at A.O. Smith Corp.

Today Mapes is leading a company that faces a challenge many manufacturers are seeking answers for: the skills gap. In the case of Lincoln Electric, which manufactures welding, cutting, and joining products, it's skilled welding talent.

Here's part of the problem: When people think about welding, they typically don't think high-tech, Mapes says. Instead they picture workers with their heads enveloped in welding helmets.

"That's not what welding is today," Mapes says. At least that's not all it is.

Welding is robotics, he explains. It's metallurgy. It's software engineering.

Lincoln Electrics is not standing still at in the face of the skills gaps. The company is expanding its student co-ops, which link schooling with real-world experience, and it's investing in a record-size incoming engineering class of recruits, Mapes says. Moreover, the Lincoln Electric Welding School dates back to 1917.

Lincoln Electric also is a global sponsor of welding for WorldSkills International, which promotes vocational education and training. SkillsUSA, the national organization, is a member of WorldSkills International.

Mapes says automation also is playing a role in closing the skills gap. The chief executive says that building automation into Lincoln Electric's products not only is allowing manufacturing to expand but "it mitigates the risk to finding skilled welding talent."

"We're not dummying down products," he explains. Instead, the company "is making technologies easier to use." Mapes, in fact, describes automation as a "global catalyst" in the face of the skills gap.

Similarly, Lincoln Electric has taken a high-tech approach, in the form of virtual reality, to training products it develops. The VRTEX Virtual Welding Trainer is a full-featured, scalable welding simulator. It attracted a steady crowd at the recent [M]POWER Manufacturing Assembly in Cleveland, where Mapes gave a keynote address.

One company, Mapes says, uses the virtual trainer to determine whether someone has the capability to learn welding.

Ultimately manufacturers must do their part to encourage and support students' enthusiasm for manufacturing as a career choice.

Asked how to energize students, Mapes says that what is right one manufacturer isn't necessarily right for another. But one constant, he describes, "You have to dedicate time." Absent that, "it won't happen."