For more info, see the Occupational Outlook for Welders, Solderers and Brazers.

Job descriptions found in vacancy announcements vary widely, but typically look something like this recent posting. Don't be deterred by the long wishlist of skills prepared by some human resources departments. Few welders are proficient in every task. However, this kind of detail can indicate that the company takes its workplace seriously, that safety regulations are enforced, and that construction codes are followed.

Even though you may lack experience, be ready to speak knowledgably during your interview about each of the tasks mentioned in the job description. Do your homework and practice your answers.

The sample announcement, for example, asks for three years experience and the ability to supervise less qualified employees. Clearly, this job is not appropriate for new welders. In other cases, the starting salary may give you more insight about your chances of getting hired than the description. Entry level pay nationwide ranges from about $10 to $20 an hour. So if you feel competent about your skills, focus your attention on jobs at the higher end of the scale.

The hiring supervisor will most likely be concerned with your ability to efficiently lay down acceptable welds out of position, rather than the minutia of other taskwork outlined in the announcement. For that reason, keep samples of your best work in a lunch box or other container, and be ready to show them off to your interviewer. With larger employers, you will likely be asked to bring proof of certifications to your interview, and/or be tested in-house.

If you don't feel rock solid about your 3G or 4G welding skills, you can always start small and apply for the lower paying "welder helper" positions. As a helper, you'll have some time to get acclimated to the workplace. You can also watch seasoned veterans and get help from them as you progress in the trade.

Skills to Learn

Welding involves at least a dozen distinct processes. Most date back to "forge" welding by ancient metalsmiths in prehistoric times. Since the 1940's, many new techniques have been patented to handle different types of products used in construction and manufacturing. Even plastic is welded nowadays. While some forms of welding are good for steel and thick-walled pipe, other processes are better for non-ferrous metals and paper-thin sheets. Sometimes a welder has to meet critical load-bearing requirements on a job. Other welds may have to stand up to an extreme environment, like on a space probe or submarine. Welding on containers that hold food, steam or hazardous chemicals requires filler metal with special thermal and anti-corrosion properties.

Here are the main processes most welders use today:

MIG welding

MIG Welding - more formally known as Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW). MIG stands for "metal inert gas", which refers to the shielding gas that emits from the welding gun along with a hot, electric arc and a metal filler wire. Fed by a spool, the wire is deposited into the weld joint. Because molten metal is vulnerable to oxidation, the shielding gas blocks out the oxygen in the air just long enough for the metal to solidify. The MIG process is to welding what a point-and-shoot camera is to photography. That's why it's popular with both do-it-yourselfers and welders who work in the field. Some gases used in GMAW are not inert, incidentally, so in cases MIG welding is actually MAG welding, which stands for "metal active gas".

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Stick Welding - aka Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW). It's called "stick" because electrical current passes through a cellulose-coated metal rod that looks like a stick, as shown in the photo above right. This process is still the most widely used in industry, especially pipelines, since the equipment is relatively lightweight and mobile. Although it's a lot messier than other types of welding, stick welding doesn't require you to lug a tank of shielding gas up to the Alaska North Slope or other remote spot. The sticks (i.e. the electrodes are about a foot long and coated with deoxidizers and other ingredients that serve the same purpose as shielding gas. The actual filler metal is inside the coating. The coatings leave behind a layer of residual slag over the weld, so the welder has to chip, brush or scrape it off completely before making the next pass.

Flux-Cored Arc Welding (FCAW). This process is a cross between MIG and stick. The equipment operates mostly in the same manner as a MIG welder, which is why MIG machines usually double as flux-cored welders. In one type of FCAW, no shielding gas is required, since the filler wire contains many of the same deoxidizers and other ingredients (known as "flux") as in a stick rod. While a stick electrode has its shiedling material on the outside, with flux-cored wire these ingredients are packed in the core, hence the term flux-cored. This is particularly helpful in windy conditions, because the flux stays close to the weld pool. Conversely, shielding gas from a MIG tank is more likely to blow away.

Dual-Shielded Flux Cored Welding adds the tank of shielding gas to the flux-cored operation, hence the term "dual". This is done primarily for more difficult out-of-position welding, or for joining thicker metals, or when working with some alloyed steels that need extra protection as the weld puddle cools. Like stick welding, both flux-cored processes (dual and self-shielding) leave a layer of slag over the weld. That's why mastering the process is more of a challenge than MIG welding, which is nearly slag-free.

TIG Welding - or Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW). TIG stands for "tungsten inert gas". In this welding process, the electrode is made of tungsten, a hard metal that can endure temperatures up to 6200 degrees farenheit without melting. This makes tungsten ideal for directing electric current across a welding arc. The tungsten electrode is far smaller than a stick-welding rod, which allows for more precise welds and the ability to weld on very thin or heat-sensitive metals, like aluminum and stainless steels. TIG welding can also generate good fusion on the initial root pass of a pipe weld.

Depending on the type of welding equipment you use, as well as the polarity setting of the current, the end of the tungsten electrode is either sharpened to a point or balled up before welding begins. Aluminum and magnesium work plates, for instance, generally require a balled tip in order to minimize penetration. TIG welding is also the preferred process for joining dissimilar metals. Any application that involves expensive metals such as titanium may use the TIG process. Good vision and hand-eye coordination are paramount, since you will likely need to feed a filler rod into the joint while avoiding contact with the tungsten. The work plates also typically require more cleaning, fit-up, heat treatment and other preparation prior to welding.

Oxyacetylene Welding (OAW). More commonly known as welding, this process is old-school. Instead of electricity and an arc, the high heat needed to melt the metal is generated by acetylene gas mixed with oxygen. Other gases can be used in place of acetylene -- like propane, propylene, natural gas or MAPP gas -- but acetylene produces a stable flame at a high temperature. To ignite the fuel coming out of the torch, the welder uses a flint striker. He or she then concentrates the flame by adjusting the oxygen knob. As in TIG welding, a hand-fed filler rod is fed into the joint to build a sound weldment. Watch the video above for a demo.

While gas welding is used more often for art pieces than in manufacturing or construction, oxy-fuel cutting is still very common and a must-learn skill for welders. Cutting with a gas torch requires a different tool, as shown above. After heating the metal with tiny flames jetting out through holes around the center of the nozzle, the operator presses a lever that shoots a stream of high-pressure oxygen from a larger hole at the apex. This oxygen jet is directed into the work piece along the cut line. A chemical reaction causes the metal to instantly rust away, cutting (or gouging a hole) straight through the work piece. Naturally, oxy-fuel cutting only works on ferrous (i.e. iron-bearing) metals, since non-ferrous metals don't rust. Plasma cutting, a more expensive process, is nowadays used to cut both steel and non-ferrous metals. View this video for a demo. Air carbon arc cutting is another technique used in many welding shops.

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To weigh the pros and cons of different welding processes, check out the Lincoln Electric power source guide. To learn additional types of welding, see this web page prepared by three Penn State students.

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Besides requiring a variety of welding and oxy-cutting skills, most employers expect a new-hire to understand common metalworking techniques, tasks and tools. You should be able to:

read welding schematics and shop drawings

replace empty tanks of CO2, argon, O2 and other gases

take measurements (both standard and metric) and fabricate simple constructions

accurately bevel both sides of work plates or pipe before welding a groove joint

use hand-held and stationary grinders and sanders

operate a drill press, metal saws and other shop tools

routinely identify common products by type (e.g. tubing, channel, sheet metal), and metal (stainless steel, mild steel, copper, aluminum). You should also learn the classification numbers of common filler rods, electrodes and spooled metal wire

understand various heat treatment processes

communicate/understand welding terminology and welding positions

While none of this information amounts to rocket science, to learn it requires more than the few weeks of training advertised by some fly-by-night welding schools. Community colleges and adult vocational centers generally provide a full-service shop environment, so you can get plenty of exposure to the key materials and equipment in the course of a few semesters. To accelerate your learning curve, consider purchasing a few tools to practice on at home, including a MIG or stick welder, or an oxyacetelene kit, along with a hand-held angle grinder. (Be sure you understand the occupational hazards of any tools before you start using them.)
See also: Schools/Apprenticeship

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Job Outlook for Welders

According to the American Welding Society, the occupation is experiencing a shortage of workers. Like nursing in the nineties, thousands of welders will be retiring soon, since the average age is about 57. In addition:

Employment is spread across several welding sectors, with manufacturing holding the largest share of the workforce pie. Keep in mind that the percentages listed below don't necessarily match the breakdown of job openings annually:

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