Welder Career Information
Welding is a specialized craft that requires refined skill and technical knowledge. This trade is vital to a wide range of industries, including the construction of buildings and bridges, the manufacturing of automobiles and electronics, and the maintenance and repair of pipelines and wind turbines.
Although you may not know it, welding touches nearly every item and service that you rely on in your day-to-day life. It is a key part of everything from building computers to maintaining roads to repairing ships, which is why it can be such a versatile career choice.
According to the American Welding Society, welding is a 34-billion-dollar industry and plays a role in well over 25 different professions. It is an expansive field that overlaps with a broad range of trades such as plumbing, HVAC, and construction.
Welding is generally defined as the process of permanently joining metal pieces through the application of heat. During this process, metal is melted using a torch that produces high levels of heat. Various types of metal filler are often utilized to assist in the bonding of parts.
This valuable technology is used in a wide variety of applications, including heavy industrial manufacturing, delicate electronics production, and even artistic metal sculpting.
There are well over 100 welding processes, which require different techniques, materials, and tools. Plus, each of these processes is employed in different environments and must be learned individually.
The most common types of welding include:
Gas Metal Arc (GMAW)
This common process, often referred to as Metal Inert Gas, or more commonly, MIG welding, is carried out by automatically feeding a consumable metal electrode and shielding gas through the nozzle of a torch. In this process, the electrode is also the filler. When the torch is active, a direct current creates an arc, which melts the electrode, fills the weld joint, and adheres the metal pieces together.
GMAW is generally used in applications that require large quantities of welding to be completed. It is a fairly quick process and is most often found in fields such as automotive repair, construction, and high-production manufacturing.
Gas Tungsten Arc (GTAW)
This process is another fairly common type and is informally called TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas). Unlike GMAW, GTAW is a time-consuming process that requires the use of a non-consumable tungsten electrode and the manual application of filler.
GTAW is considered difficult but can be used to produce exceptionally strong and precise welds. It is a process that requires lower heat, making it suitable to use on thin, delicate materials. For this reason, it is often used in aerospace, nuclear, military, aviation, and other highly technological industries.
Shielded Metal Arc (SMAW)
Shielded metal arc welding, also known as stick welding, is yet another common process. It employs the use of a flux-coated consumable electrode, which is manually applied to create welds. This method is considered easier to perform than many other methods and is inexpensive to carry out. On the downside, SMAW is regarded as one of the "less-clean" methods because it produces large amounts of smoke, "slag" (i.e., burnt flux), and metal splatters. Typically, SMAW is used for construction, repair, and one-off welding jobs.
Flux-cored Arc (FAW/FCAW)
This subset of GMAW uses the same equipment but requires a different type of electrode. The main distinction of FAW welding is that, instead of a shielded gas source, the flux is in the center of the electrode. This allows for welding to be carried out in less-than-ideal environments such as on construction sites or ships, where wind or bad weather may be a factor, or where surfaces are not easily pre-cleaned.
Submerged Arc (SAW)
This type is often done in automated scenarios and requires that the electrical arc be entirely covered by a layer of granular flux (which protects from splatter, sparks, fumes, and other hazards). SAW is completed without the welder being able to actually view the weld, which is why this method is suitable for automated settings. Further to this, it can be used to weld extremely thick pieces of metal and requires minimal skills.
Plasma Arc (PAW)
PAW is similar to GTAW. The difference is that a plasma gas is added to the tungsten electrode and shielding gas in order to generate a very precise plasma arc, which creates a concentrated source of heat. Considered more efficient than GTAW, PAW allows for increased control, and is often used to carry out deep welds. Like GTAW, it is often employed in highly specialized fields such as aircraft and electronics manufacturing.
Soldering and Brazing
These techniques are not typically called welding, but they do use heat and filler in order to join metal pieces. The difference between soldering and brazing is that the temperature used to carry out soldering is lower than brazing. Additionally, the only technical distinction between welding and these two crafts is that soldering and brazing do not actually melt the base pieces of metal. Instead, the filler is what holds the pieces together.
Brazing and soldering have a wide range of applications—from electronics to plumbing to jewelry—and are often selected because they don't have the potential to damage or distort the base metals.
A welder can carry out a broad range of tasks using a variety of tools and technologies to complete a number of project types. These tasks can include some or all of the following:
- Reading and interpreting blueprints, sketches, and other specifications
- Calculating dimensions and measuring materials to be welded
- Explaining designs to clients and working with clients to devise plans
- Choosing the type of weld and calculating the amount of materials needed
- Selecting and preparing appropriate equipment for metals and metal thickness
- Operating automated systems
- Turning on and monitoring gas flow to ensure proper level of flame
- Inspecting and maintaining tools and equipment
- Performing quality control (including weld and structural inspections)
- Repairing existing holes and cracks in preparation for welding
- Cutting and trimming metal materials using saws, shears, torches, and other tools
- Coordinating with other trades professionals in order to complete projects
- Creating invoices and reports charting materials used, time for labor, and more
- Completing a daily log and accident report (when necessary)
Since the profession is so diverse and many trades incorporate welding-related processes, additional tasks can include anything from operating specialized automated machinery to surveying underwater projects.
Typical Job Titles
Not all professionals in this field carry the job title of "welder." Here are some examples of other job titles that involve welding:
- Sheet metal worker
- Materials engineer
- Robotics technician
- Structural ironworker
- Machine operator
How to Get Started in the Field
While there are many dedicated programs offered at technical schools, trade schools, colleges, and even universities, there are also a number of other routes available for following this career path. Not all employers require a formal education. Without one, however, your employment opportunities are likely to be very limited because welding certification—or at least some education—is a common job requirement.
If you are still in high school, you can begin by taking as many shop-type classes as possible, including welding, metal fabrication, and anything else related to the field. You should also focus on math and science. While these courses will not be sufficient for an entry-level position, they can give you the chance to explore the practice and allow you to gain a clearer idea of what's entailed in this vocation.
Many vocational schools, technical schools, and career colleges offer certificate, diploma, and associate degree programs in welding and related areas. Additionally, some universities offer bachelor's degree and even graduate degree programs in metallurgic engineering as well as other disciplines requiring a high level of technical skill and knowledge.
For individuals who want to work in a hands-on position, a general program can provide the welding technology training needed to earn certification in fundamental processes. However, if you want to prepare for a highly specialized career such as underwater welding, you may need to enroll in a program that is designed for that unique field. Otherwise, a combination of general welding training and supplementary courses may be another viable option.
You could also join a local union that offers the option of earning while you learn through an apprenticeship program, which is a combination of hands-on training and classroom-based education that is designed to lead to welder certification.
Regardless of the type of education that you plan to obtain, landing a job often comes down to certification preparation. While many employers require a formal education in addition to certification, the majority of employers will focus on the credentials earned by actual weld testing as well as the qualification tests included as part of a hands-on interview.
Choosing a Program
Choosing the right program for your needs begins with defining your area of interest within the field. To help you narrow down your goals, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a specific sector that I'm driven toward (e.g., transportation, energy, etc.)?
- Are there certain specialty areas that I want to focus on (e.g., pipe welding, structural welding, etc.)?
- How much time am I willing and able to commit to training?
- Which industries that employ welders are most in-demand where I live?
- Do I want a career that will allow me to travel abroad?
In addition to these questions, it's important to look into prospective schools and programs to find out:
- What specific welding classes are included in the curriculum
- Whether or not the school/program is accredited by a recognized body such as Schools Excelling Through National Skill Standards Education (SENSE)
- How long the program will take to complete
- What credential you will graduate with
- How much the program costs
- What the school's job placement rates are
- Whether the school offers American Welding Society (AWS) certification
Length of School
Different jobs have unique education requirements. Therefore, depending on your specific career goals, you can expect to spend anywhere from several weeks to several years obtaining a formal education.
Although certification is not always a requirement for obtaining a position, it is often essential for practicing in certain geographic locations.
Many employers insist on certification through an organization such as the AWS even though they also perform their own qualification testing. Plus, depending on the specific school and its curriculum, many programs include either certification preparation or on-site testing. Certifications can include both general and specialized welding processes such as those that involve various positions and materials.
In addition to meeting the above-mentioned employer preference, certification can:
- Demonstrate a consistent and current level of skill and competence
- Show that you possess a solid understanding of proper codes and techniques
- Allow employers to easily verify your credentials
- Ensure that you have up-to-date safety knowledge
- Help you earn a better wage
- Result in enhanced recognition and respect in the field
Types of Certification
Certification can be obtained through a number of industry-recognized organizations, but the American Welding Society (AWS) is the most prominent body for providing certification credentials to welding professionals. You can opt to earn one or more of the following AWS qualifications:
- Certified Welder
- Certified Welding Inspector
- Certified Welding Supervisor
- Certified Welding Engineer
- Certified Robotic Arc Welder
- Certified Welding Fabricator
To achieve an AWS certification, you may be required to meet a variety of requirements, which could include:
- Obtaining membership in the AWS
- Performing on-site weld tests (including the fit-up, assembly, and positioning of a weld)
- Passing a vision test
- Providing proof of work and education experience
- Successfully passing one or more AWS-administered examinations
In addition to the AWS, other organizations offer specialized certification credentials, such as:
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
- American Petroleum Institute (API)
- American Bureau of Shipping (ABS)
- U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
What Welder Training Can Teach You
Each school offers its own individual curriculum, but some examples of what you might learn include:
- General safety guidelines and protocols
- Flammable and combustible liquid and compressed gas handling
- Protective equipment use and maintenance
- Blueprint reading and drawing
- Welding symbol interpretation
- Weld inspection methods and quality control procedures
- Metallurgy (science of metals)
- Shop mathematics
- Equipment set up and maintenance
- Material selection and use
- Material handling and lifting
- Gas and thermal cutting techniques
- Manual welding processes
- Automated technologies and programming
According to national estimates: *
- The mean (average) wage for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers in May 2015 was $40,970 annually.
- The top ten percent of earners were paid $60,000 or higher.
When looking at this data, it's crucial to realize that it also covers cutters, solderers, and brazers, who generally don't earn as much as welders. And many professionals who perform underwater or other types of highly specialized welding can expect to earn much more. Plus, this data doesn't make a distinction between those who possess industry-recognized certification and those who don't, which is important since certification can lead to increased earning potential.
The top-paying locations for welders in May 2015 were Alaska, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Wyoming, and North Dakota.
The job outlook looks positive according to national estimates, which project that the employment of welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers will increase by 3.6 percent over the period between 2014 and 2024.**
A number of factors are currently having a positive effect on the welding career outlook in the U.S., including:
- Growth of the defense manufacturing industry
- An aging infrastructure that needs rebuilding and repair
- Advances in manufacturing technologies such as automated welding systems
- Increasing need for new types of energy resources and infrastructure
- An existing workforce that contains a high number of individuals nearing retirement
Additionally, outlook is best for those who are willing to relocate to regions where employment prospects are the greatest. Areas that have strong manufacturing, energy, and transportation sectors tend to offer the best opportunities.
And since welding skills can be applied to a number of applications, demand can be seen in a wide range of industries, which means that when one field is experiencing a hiring downturn, you could find work in another area. For example, you could make a transition from shipbuilding to construction without a steep learning curve.
Professionals in this trade are able to work in a broad range of industries, such as:
- Aviation and aerospace
- Building construction
- Bridge building
- Road construction
- Wind, solar, and nuclear energy
- Oil and gas production
- Computer engineering and robotics
Benefits of the Jobs
- Shortage of skilled workers—Because of a number of factors (indicated above), this industry is experiencing a shortage of qualified welders. This means that there is the potential for an abundance of opportunities for skilled welding professionals.
- Wide range of specialties—Since welding is used in a variety of industries, professionals can choose from a number of specializations such as underwater welding, fabrication, and high-tech manufacturing.
- Innovative technologies—With recent advances in technology, industry professionals can benefit from access to virtual tools, automated systems, and more.
- Earning potential—Because of demand and various other contributing factors, the earning potential can be quite impressive, especially given the fact that welding does not require a bachelor's degree (but a degree can substantially increase earning potential for those willing to earn one).
- Green collar appeal—Welders play an important role in the various avenues of the energy sector, which has increasingly focused on the development of renewable energy sources. "Green" careers are available in wind, solar, or other similar type of clean energy.
- Challenge and excitement—Many people enter the field because it's adrenaline inducing. From the heat and sparks to unique work settings to the intricacies of the job, many find the job to be both challenging and exciting.
- Opportunity for travel—Demand for specialized welding services can include opportunities that span the globe. From offshore oil rigs in exotic and remote destinations to coastal ports, welders with the desire to travel can often satisfy their craving by taking on jobs abroad.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last accessed on April 22, 2016.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website last accessed on February 18, 2016.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
American Welding Society (AWS), website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
National Center for Welding Education and Training, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
Employment & Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
United Association (UA) Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, and HVAC Service Techs, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
Take Up the Torch, website last accessed on October 22, 2013.
Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International, The Fabricator, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Labor, website last accessed on July 23, 2015.
Gas and Welding Distributors Association (GAWDA), Welding & Gases Today, website last accessed on October 22, 2013.