Welder and Certification Center Instructor – Mentor, Kenny Eden
This mentor has broad experience in the welding trade including working with research engineers developing new equipment designs at a major oil company, working on the North Slope of Alaska, managing a state welder certification center and working with students in welding apprenticeship programs. In his article, he describes what is involved for a person to complete a four-year welder apprentice program. He also gives you suggestions on how to inexpensively determine if you have the mechanical aptitude to be successful in this trade. This article should be read by anyone considering any type of construction trade and people interesting in learning how apprenticeship programs train people to become journeymen.
I grew up on a ranch where we raised cattle. Being a rancher’s son, I was taught how to work with my hands and repair equipment. After watching me work, my dad encouraged me to take a welding class in summer school before my junior year of high school. That class showed me that I had an aptitude for welding. I went on and took welding courses at the local technical school in the afternoon while I was going to high school. When I graduated, I entered a four-year plumbers and pipefitters apprenticeship program. This is a trade that ties in with welding because you need to do both pipefitting and welding on steam pipes in many kinds of construction projects like chemical plants and refineries. It also gave me a wider variety of skills and helped me find jobs during slower periods in the construction industry.
One of my first jobs out of the program was also one of my favorites. I worked in the research department of a major oil company where we fabricated vessels and did other types of construction using a wide variety of carbon and stainless steel materials building prototypes for equipment being designed by the research engineers. There was always something new and challenging. This is in contrast to some welding assignments such as building a long pipeline where the work can be repetitious. Later I was also able to work on the North Slope of Alaska doing welding on the pipelines and processing stations. In 1989, I went out on my own as a private contractor working on smaller jobs and in fabricating shops. Then in1997, I began working at a welding certification center where I am currently employed. All welders must be certified by the state and my center is one of those that tests students and issues these certification certificates. The union also runs apprenticeship programs for plumbers and pipefitters in addition to the welding apprenticeship program. Here is a link to our school’s website http://www.tulsapipetrades.com where you can learn more about all the trade apprenticeships in our school that cover what are broadly classified as the pipe trades.
The Welding Apprenticeship Program
Our program is a Federally Registered Apprenticeship Program administered by the Employment and Training Administration, a part of the US Department of Labor. We apply for and receive grants from the government under a program initiated by the Obama administration called the American Apprenticeship Initiative. Here is some information from the AAI website talking about one of the main goals of these grants, which is to try and focus on job training in areas where employers are seeking visas to bring in foreigners to fill these jobs because not enough Americans are trained to meet employer demand :
“The AAG funding specifically aims to fund projects that create career pathways that encompass American Apprenticeship and align with other post-secondary educational offerings; and leverage and develop public policies that increase demand for American Apprenticeship and support sustainability. Grant projects under AAG must focus on helping more employers and workers participate in American Apprenticeships within industries and occupations for which employers are using H-1B visas to hire foreign workers.”
Though the government helps fund these programs, it does not run them. Our welding program and our other apprenticeship programs are a collaboration between the union and the construction contractors. A board made up of half union and half contractor representatives design the program and choose apprenticeship candidates through an interview process. People wanting to enter the program only need to be eighteen, be a high school graduate or have a GED and fill out an application. But there are normally more applicants than openings. The number of opening and how often these programs organized fluctuates with the ups and downs of the economy and the level of construction activity.
Our apprenticeship program runs for five years. The apprentices start out at a base hourly rate that is increased every six month as the apprentice progresses. They work during the day and take classes at night. For the first two years, the jobs involve simple things that get them familiar with their work environment and how to work safely in it. This includes doing things like following and helping welders, fire watch, getting parts and clean up. In the third year the apprentice begins to do actual welding on the job. The main topics in the night classes are subjects like safety, use and care of tools, basic electricity, and learning about different types of metals. When the five year program is completed, the apprentices can test for their certificate and become journeymen earning a full wage. But journeymen also must continue their training throughout their career to keep up with the constant advances in welding technology if they are to stay competitive.
The Welding Process
There are two kinds of welds that are usually used to attach two pieces of metal together, fillit welds and groove welds. These are done by melting the metal pieces and adding a filler material to form a pool of molten metal called the weld pool that cools to make a strong joint.
Modern welding has evolved from the process blacksmiths used to join iron and steel by heating and hammering which was later followed by oxyfuel welding and electric arc welding. The most common source of heat today is electricity where an electrode holder holds an electrode that applies heat to the metal parts being joined and the electrode itself slowly melts away to provide the filler material. But there other sources of heat for welding that are used in specialized situations including an electric arc, which is used for welding stainless steel and other non-carbon metals. This kind of welding on these expensive metals requires more skill than carbon metal welding and people who learn how to do this well earn more money. Other heat sources include laser and electron beams that are usually used with robotics in manufacturing situations. But robotic welding where a welder uses a control panel is also used in nuclear reactors where the heat from the uranium rods and the radiation make it impossible for a person to enter the containers or be close to the equipment.
How to Prepare Yourself
- Welding to me is a God given skill that requires good hand/eye coordination. Before you start any program, first make sure you have the natural ability to become a good welder. One way to do this is to take a welding class at a local technical college. These kinds of classes give you enough hands on training to give you a good idea if you are going to be able to develop into a skilled welder.
- There are also some high schools that offer welding courses that can also give you a chance to test your abilities before you enter full training program.
- You have to make a choice between getting your training in a apprenticeship program or going to a tech or private welding school. Here is what I believe you should consider. In a tech-welding program or a program run by a private welding school, the experience you will be getting will be mostly in a welding booth and not on a job site. While we do certify people who take this route, they have a harder time getting hired than people who go through an apprenticeship program. That is because most welding jobs are provided by construction contractors. Contractors have liability for accidents on the job. They want people with on the job experience who they know have been trained to work safely. This gives the Journeyman who went through an apprenticeship an advantage because their actual welding experience was on a work site not in a welding booth. Contractors are also partners in these apprenticeship programs and have the opportunity to observe journeymen while they are in training. They look for people who’s welding skills stand out.
- You should take basic mathematics in high school and at least one geometry course. As a welder you have to know how to read blueprints or cad cam drawings on a computer and this math is something that you need to know.
- You should also understand that getting into an apprenticeship program is competitive. All other things being equal, the committee will take people who have the better grades in high school compared to other candidates.
- It is also important for you try and get training where you are working on a variety of projects so you can expand your marketable skills.
Welding has been a good trade for me and one that I would recommend to anyone with the skill to do it well and the physical strength to work outside in what sometimes can be difficult weather conditions. If you think it is a trade you want to enter, get some experience first by taking an inexpensive or what in my city of Tulsa is a free class at a technical school to make sure you have the talent to become a good welder. I would also recommend a union/contractor sponsored apprentice program where unions and contractors design and run the programs as the best way to get the kind of training that will land you a job once you become a journeyman. I use the word journeyman here, but we are seeing more women entering the trade in the last few years.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Welders, Cutters, Sotterers and Brazers
There were 357,400 people in this job category in 2012, the Bureau’s most recent survey year.
The median annual wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers was $36,300 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,720, and the top 10 percent earned more than $56,130. Wages for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers vary with the worker’s experience and skill level, the industry, and the size of the company. (YPNG has an article on the Apprenticeship page where a welder received special technical training, found a job with an international oil company and is earning over $140,000.)
Job growth is expected to be 6% between 2012 and 2022. This is slower than other occupations. But the Bureau expects the employment prospects for skilled, well trained welders to be excellent.