August 5, 2013
Not everyone involved in welding wields a torch. Welders’ helpers play integral parts in welding projects and sometimes command a higher salary than the welder.
You might say welders are the rock stars of metal fabricating. Theirs is the glamour job full of shock and awe, literally. They help create art, infrastructure, and many products that we use every day.
Some welders can recall the moment they first saw someone welding and were hooked. It’s in their blood, so to speak. Many truly love their jobs, as shown in the article “Welders on welding” published previously on thefabricator.com.
Just as rock stars have their support people—musicians, roadies, managers—on whom they depend to perform well, some welders have their own entourage behind the scenes who are vital to their performance. Known as welding helpers or assistants, these individuals carry out many tasks that enable the welder to lay down a high-quality weld efficiently and help ensure the integrity of the structure being welded. The welder concentrates on welding, and the helper does everything else.
Usually, a high school diploma or GED is all that is required for a welding assistant position. The necessary skills are taught on the job.
Would-be assistants should be able to lift heavy objects repeatedly and to follow both simple and complex instructions with minimal supervision. They also must be aware that welders and those who help often are exposed to dangerous working conditions. They may be required to work in extreme heat or cold and on scaffolding at very high elevations.
As noted on the website mymajors.com, a welding assistant helps the welder by performing duties that require less skill, such as supplying or holding materials or tools and cleaning the work area and equipment. That’s the first task in a list of 35 items on mymajors.com that apply to production helpers in general. It’s a starting point for anyone thinking about pursuing a career as a welding assistant, but it doesn’t really do the job justice. For that, you need to speak with people in the field who have first-hand experience working as or with welding assistants.
When asked about welding assistants, Carlisle Smith, a welder, welding inspector and instructor, and frequent contributor to thefabricator.com, said, “Every pipeline welder has an assistant to clean and grind the weld area. The welder runs a bead, and the assistant removes the slag and runs a grinder or brush all the way around the pipe. The assistant also observes any flaws in the equipment and makes repairs, or brings in a maintenance person to do the work.”
The website e-how.com states that “a welder’s helper salary ranges from $25,000 to $60,000 annually as of 2010. This pay is largely dependent upon the location and years of experience as a welder’s helper.” It also can be dependent on the exact job duties and opportunities for helpers to expand their roles in an organization.
“The welder and assistant are a team, much like a pitcher and catcher or a golfer and caddy,” said Smith. “They must agree on methods of performance, timing, and when to move the cables and tools, etc. In most cases, they have been together for many years, especially in the 798 Pipeliners Union. The helpers on a pipeline usually make more money than a fabricating shop welder.
“In a small to medium-sized fabrication shop, the assistant usually is a fitter too. Sometimes this person actually makes more money than the welder. The fitter is responsible for fitting the weld joint and relaying the drawing information to the welder (symbols, etc.).
“Fitters are required to know more about the drawings and details than the welder. They are able to sequence the welds for the welder and make ‘weld maps’ for the inspectors. Most fab shop welders appreciate the fitters, even if they do make more money.”
Randall Washington, who maintains machinery for a large manufacturing facility, has worked with assistants. He believes there are many reasons that a helper might draw a higher hourly wage than a welder, and not just in the pipeline industry. “Most would involve specialized technical skills and/or social, coordination, and leadership skills. For example, the helper may be a bookworm who loves to research the nuances of a particular weld.
“He could have the memory of an elephant and be able to quote from the welding code books. He might be a grand scavenger with the memory of an elephant and use that ability to remember where a scrap piece of 3/8-in. stainless was three months ago.
“The helper could have managerial/leadership skills and be a working crew foreman. Or he might be that one congenial member of a crew who can negotiate any deal: borrow a spare acetylene tank; burn a 00 torch tip; get a work permit or crane on-site faster.”
Washington also noted that “the helper might be qualified in first aid and CPR. Most crews today must have one designated safety person who conducts a safety meeting each day and reports any near misses, first-aid cases, and other safety issues to management.”
The helper also might take on an accounting role. “Many times a contracted crew must report work hours, per diem, travel miles, and materials cost to the contracting company each day. Not all welders want to do the paperwork or take that extra time at the end of the workday for accounting and reporting. The crew heads off to the motel to take a shower, call home, drink a few beers, and get ready for bed. The accounting fellow is at least an hour behind.”
These extra functions might be possible in a flexible work environment in which a helper might not be required to assist a welder full-time. But in welding-intensive operations, the helper will have more than enough responsibility handling prewelding tasks, making sure that all the equipment is ready and in good working order, and cleaning up the welding area.
Smith said welder helpers are in demand where he is located—Charleston, W.Va. He also said he has never understood “why the assistants have no desire to be welders in most cases. It is rare, but once in a while they do become welders.”
Perhaps assistants like the variety inherent in their jobs and the opportunities that may exist to expand into other areas of the organization. Or maybe they simply like knowing that they played an important yet unsung part in creating or repairing something useful. Not everyone needs to be in the spotlight.