Not your grandpa's trade: Welder

By Shannon Dauphin Lee  |  Posted February 27, 2013

There was a time when welding was seen as physical labor that didn't require much in the way of education. Today, welders are highly skilled and carefully trained in a wide variety of metals and techniques, and constantly learning as new technologies change the profession.

Our world is filled with metal. Airplanes, ships, bridges, buildings, automobiles and even the boiler units and radiators that heat our homes make good use of metals. Welders are the professionals who cut, trim and meld the pieces of metal together in order to create the products we rely on every day.

A brief history of welders

The first evidence of welding dates back thousands of years. The Sumerians hand-soldered swords and the Egyptians welded melted iron ore together through hammering as early as 3000 B.C., though the earliest experimentation with metals could have come thousands of years before that. Welding remained a very crude practice until the nineteenth century, when the use of open flame revolutionized the welding process. Advances continued, and in 1919 the first society for welders, the American Welding Society (AWS), was established.

Though welding was essential for production during World War I, the start of World War II saw a surge in welding jobs. Suddenly, welders were on the front lines of production, their expertise absolutely necessary in shipyards around the world. Since then, welders have been integral to the success of many projects, including the creation of tankers, airplanes, skyscrapers and even the Alaska Pipeline.

For many centuries, welders were taught by apprenticeship. They would be taken under the tutelage of an experienced welder, blacksmith or iron maker, and learn the trade through hands-on work. As new techniques arose, welders learned them through trial and error. Many of these welders didn't even complete a high school education, but their skills allowed them to move into well-paying jobs.

Because of the fact that most welding positions began with apprenticeships, welding was often seen as a career that didn't require much in the way of education. However, that is far from the truth. Though welding almost always requires physical labor, it also requires a deep knowledge of metals and how they work together. Welding consists of numerous types of welds, makes use of a wide variety of equipment and requires careful attention to every detail. Welders must know the properties of many different metals, how to use their equipment to achieve safe connections between metal surfaces and which types of welding are appropriate for a particular product.

Welders today

Welders are found in a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, ship-building, automotive industries, defense and construction. Welders might participate in the repair of bridges and buildings, the construction of submarines and ships and even the creation of products meant to be used in space. Welders might work on a construction site, in a welding shop, in high scaffolding or even underwater.

Today, welders can still be taught on the job. But in order to move into highly-skilled positions, welders must understand the science behind welding. To that end, formal training programs are available in high schools, vocational or trade schools and other post-secondary institutions. Since welding is increasingly consider a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career, many welders earn degrees in metallurgy, chemistry, robotics and the like. As automated welding machines and laser welding become more popular, courses in computer science are a good bet.

Most employers want to hire certified welders. Certification and continuing education is available through the AWS. More targeted certifications, such as certification in lead-free soldering, are offered by IPC -- Association Connecting Electronics Industries.

Welders are highly-skilled, and that can translate into highly-paid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, welders, cutters, solderers and brazers nationally made a mean hourly wage of $18.23 per hour in 2011, or a mean annual wage of $37,920. Employment is expected to grow by 15 percent from 2010 through 2020. Welding needs of the defense industry, oil and gas industry and and an aging infrastructure should contribute to this growth.

As new technologies change the profession, welders are constantly learning new techniques, working with new metals and creating new products with their finely honed skills. As welding becomes more complex, the profession has changed its image and become a highly-valued skill that many industries rely on for creation of the products that make our lives safer and easier.

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