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

Skills to Learn

Welding involves at least a dozen distinct processes. We've come a long way from the forge welding of ancient metalsmiths, and 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, like thin aluminum sheets. Sometimes a welder has to meet critical load-bearing requirements on a job. Other welds 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). The MIG process is popular with both do-it-yourselfers and welders who work in the field because it's the simplest to use. MIG stands for "metal inert gas", which refers to the shielding gas that emits from the welding gun. Along with gas, the gun emits a hot, electric arc and a self-feeding metal filler wire fed by a spool loaded on the welding machine. The electrical current melts the wire, depositing the molten metal into the weld joint. Because metal is vulnerable to oxidation, the shielding gas blocks out the oxygen in the air long enough for the metal to solidify. Some gases used in GMAW are not inert, and in this case the process is called 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 metal rod of filler metal that's cellulose-coated. The rod looks like a stick, as shown in the photo above right, hence the term "stick welding". This process is the most widely used in industry, since the equipment is relatively lightweight and mobile. In particular, stick welding doesn't require you to lug a tank of shielding gas up to difficult-to-access places in the field. On the down side, the coatings leave behind a layer of residual slag over the weld, so the welder has to chip, brush or scrape it off completely after each 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 often double as flux-cored welders. In one type of FCAW, no shielding gas is required, since the filler wire used contains many of the same deoxidizers and other ingredients (known as "flux") as a stick electrode. However, while stick electrodes have their shielding material coated on the outside, flux-cored wire place these ingredients inside the filler metal. This is particularly helpful in windy conditions, because the flux remains close to the weld pool. Shielding gas from a MIG tank would naturally be blown away by the wind, which is why MIG welding is limited when it comes to outdoor work.

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 needs to be removed after each pass.

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 fahrenheit 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 that avoids 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 gas welding, this process is old-school. Instead of using electricity to produce 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. Regardless, acetylene produces a stable flame at a high temperature and is the preferred choice. To ignite the gas coming out of the torch, the welder uses a flint striker. He or she then concentrates the flame by adjusting the oxygen knob. An uncoated 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 metal with a gas torch requires a special tool, which is shown above. After heating the metal with tiny flames jetting out through holes around the center of an attached nozzle, the operator presses a lever that shoots a stream of high-pressure oxygen out of a large hole in the center of the nozzle. This oxygen jet is aimed along the cut line, generating a chemical reaction causes the metal to instantly rust away. Keep in mind that oxy-fuel cutting only works on ferrous (i.e. iron-bearing) metals, since non-ferrous metals don't rust. Plasma cutting, is a more convenient, albeit expensive way to cut metal. It's widely used nowadays 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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Applying for Jobs

Job descriptions found in vacancy announcements vary widely, with some companies asking for more experience and certifications than others. Don't be deterred by the long wishlist of skills presented by human resources departments. Few welders are proficient in every task. Moreover, this level of detail may indicate that the company takes its workplace seriously, that safety regulations are enforced, and that construction codes are followed. Consider bookmarking the company website, then check back for new openings regularly.

The starting salary, if listed, may provided more insight about your chances of getting hired than the description. Entry level pay nationwide ranges from about $15 to $25 an hour. Higher salaries than that will likely require several years of experience, a 4G certification and/or training in a more difficult process, such as TIG welding.

Even though you may lack experience, that shouldn't prevent you from speaking knowledgably during interviews about the profession in general, as well as pertinent welding practices required for the job you're applying for. Do your homework, on this website or elsewhere, then practice your answers before going to apply. Since many companies are urgently hiring, they may not be so picky about the particulars and go on their gut if you make a good first impression.

When interviewing with a department supervisor or foreman, that individual will most likely be concerned with your ability to efficiently lay down acceptable welds in multiple positions, rather than the minutia of other taskwork outlined in the job announcement. For that reason, keep samples of your best work in a lunch box or other container, and bring them with you, along with any certs you've received. With some employers, you may be tested in-house, so ask if this is the case when you get your interview date. The bottom line is that you need to friendly, prepared, professional and informed, but also assertive and determined to land the right job at a good company.

On the other hand, if you don't feel rock solid about your welding skills, you can always start small and apply for a lower-paying "welder helper" position. Working as a helper affords you more time to get acclimated to the workplace. You may also be able to find a mentor in one of the seasoned veterans on staff, and get invaluable on-the-job instruction..

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

have basic (but not extensive) proficiency in reading 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

clean and bevel both sides of work plates or pipein preparation for a weld

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 these tasks 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 and Intro to Welding

According to the American Welding Society, the occupation is experiencing a shortage of workers. Like nursing in the 1990's, thousands of welders will be retiring soon, since the average age on last check was over 60. 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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