How to Become a Welder
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When you think about a welder, you might imagine sparks flying into their face shield as they torch machine parts. Welders do work with their hands in extreme conditions, but they also spend time studying blueprints and learning about various metals' properties and welding techniques.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), welders earned an average salary of $46,690 in 2020. But, welders can increase their pay significantly by expanding their versatility and investing in continued education and training.
What Does a Welder Do?
Welders use torches, drills, electrodes, and even robotic arms to fuse metals, building or repairing structures. They work on construction sites, railways, automobiles, aircraft, and industrial pipelines.
Welding requires expert knowledge of tools, procedures, and safety precautions. Most welders complete formal training through a vocational program and hands-on learning in an apprenticeship.
Steps to Becoming a Welder
Welding wears on your body, and a lucrative welding career will require significant initiative and commitment to ongoing learning and credentialing. Before you commit, make sure it's something you want for the long term. You can:
- Read industry news, such as The Fabricator.
- Listen to podcasts like Weld Wednesday, where real welders share their expertise and experiences.
- Talk to a welding instructor at a community college about their program and paths after graduation.
These activities can help you determine what it's like to be a welder and how to shape your career path in this diverse field.
You can start your welding training as early as high school. Here are some pathways:
- If you're still in high school: See if your school has a welding or manufacturing career training program — or if you can enroll in local community college courses. You can learn to weld and develop analytical, mathematical, and engineering skills necessary in a welding career.
- If you've graduated from high school: Consider getting a welding certificate, diploma, or associate degree. Some employers don't require them, but postsecondary welding programs teach many types of welding, which can help you in your career. You can complete one of these programs in as little as three months and up to two years. They range in cost from around $5,000 to $15,000.
- If you're no longer in school, but you don't have a high school diploma or equivalent: Start studying for your GED credential to show schools and employers your foundational knowledge of math and science, which is helpful in welding. You may need a GED to apply to welding schools. Depending on your state, you can complete the GED tests in a few months for $80 to $140.
You can start an apprenticeship after completing your high school vocational training or to supplement a certificate or diploma program. Welding apprenticeships last four to five years.
During your apprenticeship, your employer-sponsor will pay you for your work — but not much. Welding apprentice salaries averaged $20,000 a year, according to Payscale.com.
The American Welding Society (AWS) oversees the AWS Certified Welder program. You can become certified in many different types of welding. These certifications show employers you know your stuff, and they can qualify you for higher-paid work.
The AWS offers 19 certifications for welders, preparing them for different types of welding like:
- MIG welding
- Automobile welding
- Construction and repair work
- Pipeline welding
- Welding wind-exposed structures
Technically, certified welder tests don't have prerequisites. However, the exams will rigorously test your knowledge of a specified codebook. You will also need to produce a high-quality weld. So, it's best to take the test after completing some education and on-the-job skills training.
To become an AWS-certified welder, you need to pay the $50 application fee. Each certification exam has a testing fee of a couple of hundred dollars, depending on the test.
Welders have options for joining a union, including the United Association or the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Ironworkers. If you're thinking about joining a union, consider the benefits and drawbacks:
- Unions can connect you to an apprenticeship, where you can train with professionals.
- Unions may provide training opportunities for little to no cost.
- You don't have to look for work on your own since the union finds and assigns jobs to you.
- You have certain protected rights, like safe working conditions.
- You can access member benefits, like a pension plan.
- You may need to complete up to five years as an apprentice before earning higher wages.
- You have less choice on your jobs.
- You have less individual control over your working rate and hours.
According to the BLS, 63% of welders work in manufacturing. With additional certifications and by building years of experience, you can land a niche role in welding, such as building bridges, securing gas pipelines, and repairing offshore oil rigs.
Welder Salaries and Job Growth
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Projections Central, a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored website.
Top 5 areas with the highest average welder salary:
- Alaska: $71,860
- Virgin Islands: $65,960
- Hawaii: $65,650
- District of Columbia: $64,270
- Wyoming: $59,800
Top 10 areas with the highest job growth:
- Virgin Islands: 50%
- Utah: 27.5%
- Idaho: 27.2%
- Guam: 26.3%
- Washington, D.C.: 25%
- Nevada: 20.9%
- Colorado: 16.9%
- Georgia: 15.8%
- Arizona: 15.1%
- Oregon: 13.8%
Career Paths for Welders
A career in welding can open opportunities for advancing your education or pursuing a more entrepreneurial path. Below, we've listed some options. You can learn more about the pay for each role in our salary guide for welders.
Like truck drivers, rig welders travel across the country for work. This path allows you to gain incredible income but requires you to relocate for several months at a time. And while you may receive a relocation bonus, you need to provide your own tools, gear, and living arrangements.
If you’re considering contract welding versus shop welding, talk to professionals who have done both.
Welding engineers work with welders, supervisors, and inspectors to create and carry out blueprints according to code. They're also knowledgeable about the math, chemistry, and physics behind welding plans and procedures.
To qualify to take the AWS CWEng test, you need a certain level of education and experience. You can:
- Have a bachelor's degree in engineering with at least one year of welding experience.
- Have an associate degree with at least 10 years of experience.
- Have a high school diploma or GED credential with at least 15 years of experience.
Pro Tips on Becoming a Welder
If you think about it, welding has impacted just about everything you interact with on a daily basis. The bridge you cross to get to work, the vehicle you take to get there, computers, desks, everything in an office building — all these things had to be built initially, and different types of welding were used in that process.
Welding takes physical and mental stamina. Physically, we deal with less-than-desirable working conditions every day. There's extreme heat, heavy-duty equipment, and all the PPE and safety gear we need to wear, which is also cumbersome.
Mentally, it takes a lot of patience and problem-solving. You won't always have the materials you need, so you'll need to modify what you have. You need to read blueprints and understand how to translate a 2D drawing into real life. When reality doesn't match the prints, you need to adjust. You need to plan the sequence of operations and answer: What's the best type of filler for this job? How are you going to keep material from warping in the heat? Overall, welding takes hard work, work ethic, and the ability to adapt to difficult situations.
Really, it depends on what kind of welding you want to do. Some people know right away that they want to be a pipeline welder or to work on automobiles, for instance. If you know the path you want to take, you can find schools that specify in those areas.
Learn every facet of welding that you can. Learn every single process: stick, MIG, TIG, flux-cored. Learn structural welding, learn pipe welding — and never stop. That way, no matter where you go, you will never be out of the job.
The more I learn about welding, the more I realize I don't know anything about welding. For me, it's a constant, ongoing search for knowledge. And that's the coolest thing — there is always something new to research and learn.
If you like the idea of welding but want to evaluate your options, consider these similar occupations:
- Civil engineers plan construction for bridges and other major infrastructure projects.
- Mechanics and auto technicians repair, maintain, and solve electrical problems on cars.
- Contractors and construction managers build on their experience in a trade such as welding to manage construction projects from start to finish.
- Pipefitters share many of the same tasks as pipeline welders. They build and repair pipes carrying liquid or gas.
You can learn about your career options and find the jobs that fit you best by taking the Lantern Career Interest Quiz.
Getting Financial Help with Your Welding Program
Scholarships for Welding Programs
The AWS Foundation Welder Training Scholarship
- Who qualifies: Welding students pursuing a certificate program at a community college or other trade or training school.
- Amount: Up to $1,000
- Deadline: Rolling
AWS Foundation Welding Educator Scholarships
- Who qualifies: Full- and part-time welding educators in pursuit of continued education
- Amount: $2,500-$4,500
- Deadline: April 1, annually
AirProducts Women of Gases and Welding Scholarship
- Who qualifies: Women enrolled in a two- or four-year welding degree program with at least a 2.5 GPA.
- Amount: $2,500
- Deadline: Date TBD for 2022
Federal Grants for Welding Programs
Federal Pell Grant
- Who qualifies: Find out what kind of funding you can receive by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
- Amount: Varies. In the 2021-2022 school year, the maximum amount was $6,495.
- Deadline: June 30, annually
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
- Who qualifies: Determine if you’re eligible by completing the FAFSA.
- Amount: $400-$1000, depending on your financial need
- Deadline: June 30, annually
GI Bill Benefits
- Who qualifies: If you served in the U.S. military, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs website tells you whether you qualify for benefits via the Post-9/11 GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bills.
- Important information: Many career welders began working in the military, joining parts for vehicles and machinery, before completing a two-year or four-year degree.
Welding training varies widely. The shortest training programs last just a couple of months, but it may take years to hone your craft. Certificate programs for welders last about a year, and associate degrees last about two years. In addition, many welders complete four- to five-year apprenticeships.
Most welders either complete a certificate program, associate degree, or at least some coursework to prepare for certification. You can find these programs in:
- High school vocational programs
- Community colleges
- Other career training centers
As a welder, your pay depends on your experience and the type of work the job calls for. Below are some figures to give you a sense of welder salary ranges. You can also consult our welding salary guide.
- The highest-paid welders make six-figure salaries. They use rarer welding techniques and may travel the country, working on special projects.
- Welders fresh out of welding schools may make $15 an hour.
- On average, welders in the U.S. make $22.45 an hour or $46,690 a year, according to the BLS.
By earning welding certifications, you can open more doors for yourself. AWS certifications signal to potential employers that you have learned and demonstrated a specific welding technique. This means that you qualify for more jobs (and more niche, higher-paying ones).
To become an AWS-certified welder, you need to pay a $50 application fee. Then, every six months, you must pay a maintenance fee of $25. Each certified welder test you take also comes with a fee, which may be up to a couple of hundred dollars, depending on the test and your testing facility.
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