January 15, 2008
Two years ago, welding expert and reader-favorite author Marty Rice took a hiatus from writing for thefabricator.com. Marty has returned, and in this, his first article for 2008, he discusses why he welds and offers insights that may help others decide if welding is a viable career choice.
In the high school welding classes I teach, I try to include craftsmen, college/trade school representatives, and military recruiters as guests. After the recruiters leave, I add a few things they always seem to leave out. Like how in the Army I never seemed to have hot water for showers, never got enough sleep, and usually was too hot or cold, wet, and miserable. Many times I was bored and lonely to the point of despair, and I watched a good man die because of a mistake made by his fellow soldier.
Someone hearing these things might think my military service was the worst time of my life, but it wasn't. I wouldn't trade that time for nothin'! I learned honor, and served with some of the neatest, funniest, and craziest people around. When I got out of the service, I longed for that same down-and-dirty hands-on work, camaraderie, and spirit of adventure. I found it in the welding field, the "last of the great industrial trades."
I've been in the trade now for 30 years, and if you are planning on taking it up, you need to know what you are getting into. I usually begin my articles by sharing some of the many crazy things that have happened to me, but this time I want to talk about my very first job.
There I was—running this stupid little boat ride at an amusement park and making a whopping 50 cents an hour. Pick up the kid, put him in the boat, press the button—over and over and over again. At 15, I couldn't run the big rides, so when they told me I was moving to the merry-go-round, I was really happy.
There was a scary-looking mechanical clown playing an organ right next to the merry-go-round. Three songs played day and night, and I used to go to sleep with those melodies and that clown haunting my dreams. One day a woman got on the merry-go-round, and I had to go tell her she couldn't ride, because of insurance regulations.
"What regulations?" she asked.
"The one that says we can't allow pregnant ladies on the rides," I proudly declared, as the chief operator of my very own ride.
"I'm NOT pregnant!" she pretty much screamed.
In one of my previous articles about MIG weldingI wrote about being so embarrassed I shrank to about an inch. Well, that event actually was the second time I shrank; the incident with the nonpregnant merry-go-round rider was the first.
So after thinking I was getting the best job in the world, I found myself making 50 cents an hour working beside an evil clown and having a nonpregnant woman hate me. Jump into the welding field without knowing what you are getting into, and you may find yourself experiencing that same kicked-in-the-gut feeling.
Welding can be rough, hard, and dangerous work. I've been miserably hot welding next to a 1,700-degree blast furnace and miserably cold in a -40-degree chill factor at a nuclear weapons facility. I've put in 7/12s (working seven days a week, 12 hours a day), and a few times even put in 16- and 18-hour days to get the job done.
I've driven 100 miles one way to a power house, and after declaring I'd never do that again, found myself driving 110 miles to a dam!
I've also been hurt badly, spent a few weeks in the hospital, and missed a year of work. My waking hours are filled with pain, and I go to sleep with ringing in my ears. While up on the steel I've seen several fellows get hurt badly and five fall to their deaths. (A lot of parallels with my Army time, aren't there?)
Yep, I could easily tell you that welding sucks as a career, but I won't. Because just as I'm proud to be a veteran, I'm also proud to be a welder. And just as I did in the service, as a welder I've learned honor and worked with the neatest, funniest, and craziest people around.
Those jobs with 7/12s give you a heckuva' paycheck, and some of them are even paying as much as $150 per diem, which means travel expenses. That's $1,050 a week just to show up!
My ex-students are working in jobs all over the world; one is in China making big money with benefits galore. If you don't want to travel or work in the field, shops and plants provide a guaranteed paycheck, benefits, and a roof over your head.
Good workers can be found in both shops and the field, and you can learn a lot from the old hands. You also will find some wiseasses in welding, and you gotta' make sure you have thick skin. You'll get a lot of ribbin' as a newbie; you've got to learn how to take it, and when to give it back. It's a fine line, and the only way to learn is to walk it. Never let 'em see that it's getting to you; just stay tough, and you'll gain respect. There's usually someone who will take you under his or her wing and help you out.
In real estate the three rules of success are "Location, Location, Location." In choosing a career, it's "Research, Research, Research." Your local library is a good career research source. Some good Web sites that can help you research welding careers are listed at the end of this article.
When it comes to schools, many welding programs have been eliminated. That's because some genius decided computers and other subjects took precedence over the blue-collar trades. As a result, a major welder shortage is occurring as welders my age and older retire. Even the The Wall Street Journal has written about the shortage.
Community college is the cheapest option. If you go to a trade or technical school, make sure it is legitimate. I recommend that my students go to Lincoln Welding School in Cleveland, Ohio, which offers a 15-week, comprehensive, reasonably priced program that allows you to pick and choose courses based on whether you're new to the trade or an old hand. Hobart Institute, in Troy, Ohio, is another school I recommend. Construction trade unions also provide free schooling and on-the-job training.
Work conditions have improved, money is good, and new hands are needed just about everywhere! Once you get into the trade, keep your education going! A few years under your belt and you can start advancing into engineering, instructing, inspecting, and other welding-related fields. Set your goals high, and then go get 'em!