Would it be a smart move to start schooling for a career in welding?
August 8, 2012 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Would it be a smart move to start schooling for a career in welding?

I've been a freelance IT dude with salaried jobs here and there for a while now. Unfortunately, the market in Portland is heavily saturated and freelance work has been drying up as the summer has progressed. I've been working on some marketing for the business but my interest and dedication has been wavering more and more strongly over the last few weeks as I've come to terms with the fact that I don't really enjoy what I do. I'm a great worker when I have a task that involves mechanical skill and clean, precise, workmanship. When it comes to things like marketing myself, though, I can hardly summon the energy to think about it.

I took welding in high school and really enjoyed it and have jumped at opportunities to learn more in the past but they've never panned out. The local community college offers an Associate of Applied Science degree program that offers comprehensive welding training along with theory and blueprint reading. It makes more and more sense the more I think about it. Because it is offered through the community college the cost is low and federal financial aid would cover the tuition and fees while I supported myself with my IT work until I could land some welding jobs on the side. At least this my hope regarding how it would all play out.

So my questions are actually pretty simple. Is welding a smart move in this economy? Is there high demand for skilled welders in the Pacific Northwest?
posted by tmt to Work & Money (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In short, actually, yes, it is a good idea because companies are trying to bring manufacturing onshore, although it probably won't pay as well as IT does and you may have to relocate. If you are willing to put yourself through enough school to weld aluminum well, you can pretty much find work anywhere. Portland's interesting because there's a lot of small scale manufacturing, so you would probably have to gig it at first but after you built up a rep could probably do it full time without moving.

I'm considering something similar myself as IT is starting to stress me out. Being a 30 year old with high blood pressure and now officially "pre-diabetic" (too many years of mountain dew, I guess...) is not fun.
posted by SpecialK at 3:25 PM on August 8, 2012

I can't speak to your job market but around here there aren't many jobs posted for welders, and those that are are paying under $10/hr. I would watch the employment sites very carefully for a while before you made this move.
posted by workerant at 3:27 PM on August 8, 2012

Hell, yes.
Frankly, any of the specialized skilled trades would be a good move. Welding is near the top of the list.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:31 PM on August 8, 2012

There was a TED talk w/Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs where he talks about the aging-out of skilled blue-collar labor, including an anecdote from a senator (congressman?) from a state where they have the funding to build new power plants but no welders to do the actual work.

Another anecdote, my cousin is a union welder and he makes good money and has tons of work - he's in high demand.

It's especially true if you specialize in one of the high-skill welding techniques, which does require schooling and certification.

If you enjoy it, go for it!
posted by jpeacock at 3:35 PM on August 8, 2012

Thanks for the quick feedback, fellow denizens. I did notice that craigslist had some pretty terrible listings for welding, but none of them were for union jobs. The trick must be to join up and use those connections to get placement. Portland Community College's program has certification training which I think will be very useful.
posted by tmt at 3:47 PM on August 8, 2012

I would say welding, yes, and perhaps look into the machinist path as well? My (now 70-year-old) father has worked for quite a while in various machinist related positions and is still in demand at his place of employment. Although he's trained many folks on the machines, it sounds like they have a hard time finding people who can maintain the high level of precision work these parts require.

As to the area; Precision Castparts is the second largest public corporation headquartered in Oregon. Unfortunately, they're not unionized (yet), which has resulted in some truly crummy hiring practices).
posted by redsparkler at 3:49 PM on August 8, 2012

The info that I got out of that CNN/Forbes article was that yes, you absolutely must get certified, and yes, you absolutely must be able to pass skills examinations at a high level in order to actually get one of the jobs.

There are jobs available, but learning welding from your cousin Joe Bob while you were building a trailer out of scrap rebar you found at the old nuclear dump isn't sufficient to get the jobs that are available. Just like in IT, that kind of experience gets you a job at the helpdesk at $10/hr. Just like in IT, if you have training certificates and a work history that shows you are interested in pursuing this as a career (hence gigging it first), you will be able to get a job as long as your skills are current and polished.
posted by SpecialK at 3:51 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Before you commit yourself, check out the possibility of a connection between welding and Parkinson's disease.

A small study reported in 2011
found that welders had an average 11.7% reduction in a marker of dopamine in one area of the brain on PET scans as compared to people who did not weld. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that helps nerve cells communicate and is decreased in specific brain regions in people with Parkinson's disease. The welders' motor skills test scores also showed mild movement difficulties that were about half of that found in the early Parkinson's disease patients.
posted by jamjam at 4:01 PM on August 8, 2012

That is interesting. I wonder if that can be linked to a lack of respirator use.
posted by tmt at 4:03 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bet it can, but in my experience you will get a lot of macho bullying from your shop's co-workers and supervisors if you're the kind of 'wimp' who dares to insist on supposedly mandatory safety procedures-- and there's no doubt they do typically slow you down and reduce productivity.
posted by jamjam at 4:14 PM on August 8, 2012

My partner got his AA in welding at Portland Community College, and has never been paid more than 12 dollars an hour for back breaking work IN TOWN. Now, if you don't mind leaving home for 2 months at a time and working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, than yeah. Good economic move. (Note: you must also take weld tests for every job you apply for. If you are an entry level welder, finding a job is TOUGH, and many many times you will not pass the test until you have some experience under your belt). I'd stick with IT if you enjoy friends, money, and not feeling like your going to die of exhaustion everyday. Oh, and the wrinkles! WEAR THE GOGGLES.
posted by ohmansocute at 4:22 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and skip community college and go directly for the apprenticeship. Same classes, but you get paid to work and by the time your done you're a journeyman. However, getting on with the union in any field is super tough right now and there are very long waiting lists.
posted by ohmansocute at 4:24 PM on August 8, 2012

If you're halfway smart, you can tell the macho men to F_off, thus proving you're more macho than they are, because you walk your own walk as opposed to following the crowd. Welding is a great thing to get into--what you want is specialized task welding. Google for specialized welding. That's what brings you the $$.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:27 PM on August 8, 2012

Here's the list of health hazards from welding: http://www.osha.gov/doc/outreachtraining/htmlfiles/weldhlth.html

(The reason I was interested in this is I briefly considered learning to weld in a fit of pique over the exorbitant rates I was being charged for frequent minor welding jobs at my local machine shop. This is in a small town in the PNW, in a crappy little Quonset hut on the edge of town where they must have next to no overhead. So that's a business model for you to consider, I guess.)
posted by HotToddy at 4:59 PM on August 8, 2012

Oops, here's a live link.
posted by HotToddy at 4:59 PM on August 8, 2012

From my partner, a certified welding instructor:

Yes, learn welding and definitely get certified. There are at least 300 different kinds of welding you can learn!

JPL and NASA employ people who weld metals like titanium.

My partner has worked in robotics, construction, fabrication, automotive welding and is now an instructor at a community college.

Certified Weld Inspectors can make 6 figures.

Yes, you may have to relocate to find good jobs. The American infrastructure is aging, as is the workforce of welders. Now is a good time to get into welding. Memail me if you want more information.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:00 PM on August 8, 2012

Also, the two best places to get certified are at a college with a reputable welding program or with a welding school (like Lincoln Electric or Hobart) that can also help you get your certifications. The welding schools are faster, but more expensive. Student loans are available for either.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2012

I can't speak to your job market but around here there aren't many jobs posted for welders, and those that are are paying under $10/hr. I would watch the employment sites very carefully for a while before you made this move.

I think this applies to almost every field in the US -- things are really bifurcated, so there are lots of dead-end, $9/hr jobs with few opportunities to advance, and a smaller set of highly-skilled and high-paid jobs that require certifications, certificates, experience, drug testing, and so on. That's true in welding, but also in almost every other field I can name.

I've known people who went through the PCC welding program, learned a lot, got jobs, and then figured out that they either needed to get serious about getting those certifications, or go back to grad school and get a white collar job. The guys I know all went the grad school route but don't regret the welding school at all; my guess is that if they'd gone the certification route they would be richer now, but with more health issues. (It's not just the chemical exposure -- it's the strain and stress of hard work in tight spaces, kneeling on hard surfaces, etc.)
posted by Forktine at 5:11 PM on August 8, 2012

My old lady is a welder, if you can't do aluminum and stainless you'll be second tier, it takes years to be comfortable, but if you can do those two metals, the world opens up.
posted by Max Power at 5:28 PM on August 8, 2012

In Australia at least, welders are always in demand, and can make ridiculously good money, like $120k. If you can't find a job in the US, come to Australia!
posted by inkypinky at 6:55 PM on August 8, 2012

Shit's about to get serious with gas pipeline replacement across the country. This is tough, physical work, with long days, and you will be required to travel, but the expertise will be in demand.
posted by samthemander at 7:30 PM on August 8, 2012

Echoing those that say welding is a good choice, but only is it a great idea if you think you can be good at it. If you show an affinity to it, then by all means go great guns. Something to consider is to try and get aircraft certified for aluminium and Stainless Steel welding. This will make you serious money, as will other unusual metal welding.

Extra qualifications will pay of big time in welding. In my aviation and racing past I have met many welders. The ones that are good earn seriously large amounts of money. There is often a shortage of good aluminium welders (by which I mean small gauge welding, like with water pipes) and with stainless steel welding for aircraft exhausts (for example). I know a guy here in Canada that is able to finance a business he is starting by making aircraft exhausts.

In short, don't stop at steel. Get certified on anything and everything that you can, and the more highly certified you can be the better. This sounds obvious, but if you show any affinity for it, get on it.
posted by Brockles at 7:59 PM on August 8, 2012

My dad's a welder/foreman; most of his work has been on API storage tanks, and he makes a pretty decent living at it. If you are competent there will always be a market for your skills, though one must be willing to go where the work is.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:19 PM on August 8, 2012

(This is Mr Pageturner answering)

I'm currently welding in NSW, Australia. I'm an off again, on again robotics programmer/welder. Some positive notes are true, but there's a tough list of negatives. Salary is highly dependent on demand and location. In Australia, the mining sector attracts high salaries because it is often in sparsely populated areas, far from cities. Away from those areas, welding jobs are more varied, often require a broader skill set and pay less money. I've seen more than one shop on the eastern side of the country paying minimum wages, or just above.

Safety and comfort are often neglected. I've had to squeeze into tight corners, inhale fumes that will certainly shorten my life, suffered burns from hot spatter(sparks) and toasted my eyes a few times from UV.

I've seen workmates break bones, set themselves on fire, cut themselves with equipment and the odd one crushed.

It is rewarding building things. I claim ownership to various items that people ride in and on everyday. At the same time however, I know it is certainly shortening my life. There can be serious negative impact upon your health, relocations, uncertain wages and jobs.

These are considerations when entering welding. Unless you live in the right place already.
posted by woolly pageturner at 3:29 AM on August 9, 2012

Did the welding thing years and years ago in my twenties. Consider the following...

Seldom is a welding job just welding especially with downsized jobs and greater expectations of workers these days. It's nice to think that you can just sit there holding the torch and rod welding along but that's not the reality. Jobs where you just weld are for the very experienced, very certified, very proven weldors (think defense contracts fabricating submarines). For the rest of the jobforce pool you're going to be expected to be a metal fabricator as well to a large or small degree. Grinding, sanding, sandblasting, polishing, chemically treating, etc., the items you are welding. Three-dimensional problem solving and geometry. Welding a seam that's twenty feet long and then finish grinding it. Wearing enough protective clothing to make a normal person pass out from lack of ventilation in under an hour. Contorting yourself to hold the welding gun and rod or grinder into weird positions under and around work surfaces. Breathing through a respirator all day. Getting permanent tinnitus even through earplugs and protective headsets from constant jobsite noise weather you're doing the grinding or not. Nerve damage in your hands from holding grinding tool for days at a time. Lifting heavy (HEAVY) objects all day long. You could do this work for the technical industry field or as a fine art production artist but the work's not going to vary all that much.

I was always proud of my capabilities in this profession but would never, ever go back to doing this grueling work. I've seen acquaintances through the years have the same thoughts as you and follow the welding path only to burn out after a few years. I cannot recommend doing it.
posted by No Shmoobles at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2012

Yep, I'd say go for it, and keep in mind that hexavalent chromium is bad stuff. At the paper mill I worked at there was serious talk of it being the next big "Oh shit this is bad for you and welders have been exposed to it heavily for a long time" thing, like asbestos was. IIRC, OSHA was midway through finalizing safety measures / regs around it such as respirator requirements and engineered solutions so it may be less of a problem now.

I worked around industrial boilermakers a fair bit (think lots of stainless welding in confined spaces/holes) and... it was a weird thing to note how most of them just seemed to wither up around age 60. I admit it's a physically demanding job but not any more so than other jobs like ironworkers or carpenters. Those guys that I befriended talked of shorter life expectancy and some research I did at the time seemed to support it. You just didn't really see older boilermakers. Surreal.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:07 PM on August 9, 2012

Thank you to everyone who has expressed concern or given advice. It does all help!

I've decided to register for the term. I've been a consumer of computer information for a long time and have been wanting to make stuff for quite a while now. I see this as just one small step towards that.
posted by tmt at 9:20 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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