First of a skilled trades exploration series: welding
America’s “Great Resignation,” in which millions of American workers have left their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of finding something better, continued to accelerate almost 18 months after the pandemic began. More people quit their jobs in November 2021 than in any month in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
This shift created worker shortages across many industries, perhaps none more notable than in skilled trades. An analysis of job postings by the staffing firm PeopleReady found that openings in skilled trades increased 50% from before the pandemic to spring 2021.
What does it take to qualify for these plentiful careers in skilled trades, what is the work like and how much can you get paid? Our series, The Job You Want, helps answer these questions.
What is the job outlook for welders?
Job prospects appear solid for welders and associated careers as cutters, solderers and brazers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) sees 8% growth in employment these fields between 2020 and 2030, in line with growth in all fields. The American Welding Society projects 314,000 new welding professionals will be needed by 2024.
David Girzadas is a dean at Richard J. Daley College, one of the seven colleges in the City Colleges of Chicago network of community colleges. Girzadas said this is a great time to enter skilled trades like welding, not just because of a skills gap among current workers but also because of the number of workers retiring and preparing to retire.
What kind of training will I need?
Beyond a high school diploma, technical and on-the-job training are necessary. According to the BLS, this is available through high school vocational programs, technical and community colleges, private schools and even certain branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Certifications, technical diplomas and associate degrees can be earned.
Daley College has a Welding Engineering Technology Advanced Certification path with 10 courses. It puts students through a program combining hands-on learning and bookwork. There are three welding classes, two inspection/materials classes and some fabrication classes in the program. Additional core courses can turn the certification into an associate degree. C.J. Sikora, a welding professor at Daley College, said the program can be completed in two years, possibly sooner for the most ambitious students.
“It’s not just zapping a piece of metal together,” Sikora said. “You’ll use all the machine tools you might use to make a product.”
An on-the-job welding apprenticeship can last four or five years, Sikora said. His school works with Chicago’s Pipefitters Local 597 to help students apply for apprenticeships.
Do I need a certification or license?
Some states require welders to hold specific certifications or licensure, depending on the work they do. For example, welding contractors in California need a C-60 license that requires at least four years of journey level work and an exam. In Texas, a Steel Structures Welding Certification is required to work on “field splices of beams and girders or other structural steel connections on transportation structures,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Each state will be different so it’s important to check your state’s regulations.
Daley College partners with the National Coalition of Certification Centers to offer 10 different introductory and advanced certifications in specialties such as Flux-Cored Arc Welding, Gas Tungsten Arc Welding and Thermal Cutting.
The American Welding Society (AWS) offers a Certified Welding Program exam. It tests performance with no classes or other pre-requisites required, and the certification is transferrable across locations and jobs. Girzadas believes this is a better route for employers to use to help their welders certify for specific tasks, rather than for individuals to gain their own certification. Other schools and certifications are available depending the skills desired.
What will it cost to become a welder?
A basic certification exam, such as through AWS, may cost only a few hundred dollars. Tuition at a technical school or community college, which provides more in-depth training, will run into the thousands of dollars. For example, Daley College’s Welding Engineering Technology Advanced Certificate lists 30 credit hours of core courses at a published rate of $146/credit hour for city of Chicago residents, as of 2022. Additional credit hours to complete a full associate degree would add more. Many kinds of scholarships and need-based financial aid exist for technical schools and community colleges just as they do for four-year colleges.
In addition to tuition and exam fees, depending on which school you attend you may have to purchase some of your own welding equipment. According to WaterWelders.com, this can include safety equipment like a welding helmet, gloves and jacket, as well as some of the technical equipment such as a ball-pein hammer and a wire brush. Overall equipment expenses run into the hundreds of dollars.
What kind of work will I be able to get?
Sikora emphasized that welding has dramatically changed over the years, with greater technical expectations and more variety.
“You have to like to work with your hands and look at metal, and find out what you’ve got to do,” he said “It’s not simple like it used to be. The machinery is more sophisticated. … You have to understand how heat affects a piece of metal.”
Welders may work in a wide range of environments. Sikora mentioned responsibilities as varied as working on stainless steel tubing in a brewery and an oxygen line in a hospital. Aerospace, defense and even auto racing are among the other fields that have call for welders.
The work still can be filthy and hot, but even that is evolving. Welding robots do some of the work, but Sikora said that you’d be hard-pressed to successfully operate a welding robot if you don’t know what a good weld looks like.
A welder could also follow Sikora’s path and become an instructor. The American Welding Society offers a Certified Welding Educator exam. Girzadas also said students who complete their associate degree can also parlay that into a four-year degree in engineering technology.
What can I expect to earn?
Official BLS data put median wages for welders in 2020 at $44,190. Sikora said hourly wages of work he’s familiar with cover a wide range, as low as $15/hour up to $55/hour, with some individuals earning $100,000 or more.
“The jobs that we’re training young people and middle-aged people for are really good jobs, they’re good careers," Sikora said. "They have insurance, 401(k) plans, pensions. You can make a good living doing a lot of this.”