What to expect from welding school
Welding school examines the process of joining two metals together, which is often done by heating both pieces of metal then applying a "filler" material along the seam, by hand. The time needed to complete formal welding training varies, depending on the school and the complexity of the welding style taught. Programs for welding, cutting, soldering and brazing workers can take from as little as a few weeks for entry-level positions to several years of combined school and work experience for skilled jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov, 2012). Programs at community colleges, vocational schools or private institutions can provide an associate of science degree or a professional certificate. The American Welding Society offers certification of welders. Some welding certification requires years of experience as well as a bachelor's degree (AWS).
Some welding training programs may focus on the types of welding that can be performed, such as shielded metal arc welding, gas tungsten arc welding and oxy-acetylene welding. Other programs can emphasize the techniques of welding and brazing, regardless of the type of welding used. Both approaches can be helpful, as each welding style has its own benefits and limitations. Arc welding, for instance, can be cost-effective and easier to perform. Nickel-steel alloys, however, have a penetration resistance to electricity, which could limit the effectiveness of a weld (Kelly, 2002).
Some programs may also provide training in blueprint reading, mathematics and chemistry as well as metallurgy and mechanical drawing. While these skills may not appear immediately applicable to this field, welders need an understanding of the metal to be welded, as certain welding processes can affect the metal, causing it to harden, crack, lose its heat tolerance or warp (Steel Founders' Society of America, 2004).
What it takes to weld
Modern welders are not just found straddling I-beams in unfinished buildings -- they can work on plumbing with blowtorches or in machine shops with sophisticated laser-welding machines. However, they are all welders and, as the BLS reports, employers may prefer to hire workers with a background in welding even for positions as machine operators (BLS.gov, 2012).
While some welding is performed through the use of machines, robotics or computers, welders and certified inspectors can still be hired to evaluate the weld and operate the machines. Motor vehicle manufacturing, machinery manufacturing, and commercial and industrial equipment welding employ the most welders outside of construction and architecture welding (BLS.gov, 2012). These industries utilize automated or semi-automated welding processes in manufacturing.
In general, all welders could benefit (BLS.gov, 2012) from having good visual acuity and an attention to detail. Some welders may need to have hand-eye coordination and physical strength, as they may make welds by hand. Welders using gas tools such as blowtorches or plasma cutters can also face dangers caused by the extremely high heat and combustibility of the tools they are working with and, as such, an attention to detail can be key.
Different types of welding
The following are some of the types of welding commonly used across multiple industries such as shipbuilding, aerospace, automotive and manufacturing. Not all welding is done by hand, as many processes are automated or performed by a machine.
- Oxy-fuel welding mixes a gas fuel such as butane or acetylene with pure oxygen to create a small, hot flame, which can be used to heat or cut metals for welding or brazing. The use of oxygen with the fuel, rather than with "normal" air, produces a higher-temperature flame and lends the process its name (HowStuffWorks).
- Plasma welding is similar to oxy-fuel welding but creates much higher heat by using plasma, or the fourth state of matter, to quickly make welds in dense metals. As a general rule, the harder the metal, the higher the melting temperature (HowStuffWorks).
- Arc welding involves creating an electrical arc through the metal and the welding filler. The electrical arc produces high heat rather than a burning flame, melting the filler and making a weld. Arc welding can also be called inert-gas welding or shielded welding, as the metal is "shielded" using an inert gas to prevent oxidation of a ferrous metal along the weld (HowStuffWorks).
- Laser welding utilizes powerful lasers to create localized heat zones, as with spot welding, which limits the changes in metal that occur during the heating process. These systems can quickly make deep welds in metals from multiple angles, which spot welding cannot. Some lasers utilize X-rays, rather than visible light lasers, to make welds (HowStuffWorks).
- Friction-stir welding uses a rotating pin pressed against two pieces of metal to generate localized heat and mix the softened metals, creating a weld. Because the heat is localized to each metal, and metals are not melted, this welding process can be used to join otherwise incompatible metals such as steel and aluminum (gizmag, 2012).
- Magnetic-pulse welding makes use of electromagnetism to fuse metal at a molecular level without creating heat. This process allows metals that are difficult to "traditionally" weld to be joined together while also producing seals that are helium tight (IPM, 2010).
- Ultrasonic welding utilizes ultrasonic pulses to soften and mix metals and plastic, creating welds. This process is similar to magnetic-pulse welding. Ultrasonic welding can also be done on nonmetals, such as plastics and clothing, and is common in the aerospace industry and the production of computer circuitry (HowStuffWorks).
Where the jobs are for welders
As of May 2011, the median annual wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers was $35,920, nationally, with the highest 10 percent and lowest 10 percent earning $55,240 and $24,490 per year, respectively (BLS.gov, 2012). The BLS also reports that U.S. welders, cutters, solderers and brazers saw the highest salaries in Alaska, Hawaii and the District of Columbia in 2011, with mean annual wages of up to $52,000 or more. (Wages vary according to factors such as training and experience.)
From 2010 to 2020 welders, cutters, solderers and brazers are projected to experience employment growth of up to 15 percent nationally, according to the BLS (BLS.gov, 2012). The nation's aging infrastructure is expected to require repair, and a versatility of welding skills should allow workers to transition between industries. The BLS suggests that welders gain training in the latest welding technologies to increase job prospects.
The BLS notes that many welding employers have reported difficulty finding welders with the necessary skills (BLS.gov, 2012).
Sources and further reading:
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012 Occupational Outlook Handbook: Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers
- The American Welding Society
- Steel Founders’ Society of America, Steel Castings Handbook Supplement 7: Welding of High Alloy Castings, 2004
- James Kelly, Specialty Alloy Welding, Rolled Alloys, 2002
- TWI, Ultrasonic Welding