Learn your trade, pay your dues
Advice for new welders
Welding jobs may not be as plentiful as they once were, but welding instructor Marty Rice believes a lot of welding work is "waiting to bust loose once the economy straightens out, and there's always work in welding, if you're willing to pack a suitcase." Rice has some advice for those embarking on a welding journey.
I've paid my dues during my long and crazy welding career. I've had good jobs and bad jobs, good bosses and bad bosses, and I've met good and bad people in the field. In my opinion, one good person makes up for a bunch of lousy people. Which do you want to be?
I began my welding career as a maintenance welder at an oilfield and agricultural machinery repair and rebuild plant. Actually, my title could well have been "gopher boy." There was a bunch of older guys and I, the one young guy. The old hands were mostly World War II vets, and the only thing I had going for me was that I had just gotten out of the Army. Other than that, I was a greenhorn—a newbie, a guy who didn't know squat, and a pain in the butt. So my job was doing the hard, dirty work no one else wanted to do.
Working in this environment brought back memories of my Golden Gloves boxing days. Eloy Benitez was a national contender in a weight class heavier than mine, and the coaches had me spar with him every day. Actually, the sparring consisted pretty much of him beating the hell outta me. One time I came home after he broke my nose, and my mom started crying as soon as she opened the door. A wave of dread and anxiety flowed through me when I heard a coach scream, "Rice! Get over here and do a few rounds with Benitez." One thing about it though, after training with Benitez, I was rough, ready, and rarin' to go!
It's a Dirty Job, but Somebody's Gotta Do It
At my job site, the same dread would come over me when I heard one of the mechanics holler out my name. That meant there was a job waiting that would be hard, crappy, cold or hot, dirty, oily, and probably hazardous to boot. One such task I remember quite well was driving a big D8 bulldozer out to the back 40 to wash so that a cracked weld could be ground and rewelded.
It was about a 40-below chill factor with howling wind and a long way back to where the wash rack was. Once there I struggled with all my might to hold a giant hose blasting out high-pressure water. That job was a bunch of bull crap, and I mean that literally! The bulldozer was from this big cattle feedlot and had about 8 inches of crap packed all up in the sprocket, road wheels, and tracks. So there I was, in the howling, freezing wind, battling the hose, with crap flying all over the place. Believe me, I learned to keep my mouth shut really fast.
I was standing there thinking about how bad my life sucked when I felt something crawling on my neck. I reached back and pulled out a nice little baby rat about the same time I noticed a bunch more of them flying right at me. Seems there was a nest in the crap, and the pressure from my hose was flinging the newborn rodents right at me! I wanted to throw down the hose and run off screaming like a little girl, but I fought the urge and finished the wash. Took about a two-hour shower that night—one hour to thaw out, the other to get every microscopic trace of that little sucker off my neck.
Yep, I've had some hard jobs and I've paid my dues working in heat and cold in a dark and drab black iron shop for very little pay. In the field, I've frozen in 40-below chill factors and sweltered next to a 1,700 degree blast furnace. I drove 100 miles one way to a power house for three years as an apprentice ironworker, and two nights a week drove another 10 miles for apprentice classes from 7 to 11 p.m. A couple of times, I got so dirty and greasy that I threw away all my clothes at the end of the job (tearing down conveyor systems).
A lot of times it sucked. Hearing that alarm at zero dark thirty, knowing I was gonna be freezin' my butt off until 11 that night made for a hard wake-up call! But it all paid off, and I wouldn't trade that time for anything. All the hard work, misery, loneliness, inconvenience, isolation, cold and heat, and everything else paid off when I got my journeyman book and later a couple of degrees. Now I have a great job teaching the next generation of those who will be working in the "last of the great industrial trades."
All those hard times made me tough and taught me to appreciate what I have. Now I'm honored to be passing on a trade that was passed on to me by a lot of great guys out there in the shop and field.
How to Get There
If you are young and getting into the trade, you want to set goals and then work to achieve them. If you have to take a lousy job, that is just fine as long as it is a stepping stone to something better. Sometimes you gotta take what you can get, and these times we're in now are a prime example. One year back in the '80s, I was lucky to get six months of work. Many welders are out of work right now. Less than a year ago everyone was talking about the shortage of welders and abundance of jobs; now a lot of the jobs either have not materialized or are on hold. The good news is I've heard there is a lot of work waiting to bust loose once the economy straightens out, and there's always work in welding, if you're willing to pack a suitcase.
Take every class you can; study every book you can get hold of; watch every video you can find; and burn, burn, burn! The more jobs you work on, the more you learn from the job itself and from the older hands you work with. Something I love about welding is I still learn even after a long time in the trade.
The more you learn about metallurgy, theory, and print reading, the better hand you'll be. Learn all about the codes, weld procedures, and certifications, a great synopsis of which can be found at ESAB's educational site.
I tell my students to never be half-assers, but instead go for the gusto in work and life in general. Give eight hours' work for eight hours' pay, and do it right the first time. Anyone can learn to run a bead; a good welder knows what is happening as the bead is being run—the process being used; the recommended welding temperature; the correct filler metal to use; what's happening in the heat-affected zone; and machining capabilities. A good welder knows how to make the weld and how to do it right.
Learn your trade, practice your trade, go for the gusto, and pay your dues. It's danged sure worth it!
Questions for the author can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org