A good welder doesn't necessarily make the best inspector
July 8, 2010
Not many people who enter the welding profession think about their long-term career path. A certified welding inspector may be the next logical step for the right welder.
Sometimes welders get to the point in their careers when they wonder what the next step is. Some want to leave the daily gymnastics required to prep, weld, and clean fabrications. Others want more responsibility and more money. The life of a certified welding inspector may be right for them.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean annual wage of a welder in architectural and structural metals manufacturing, as of May 2009, was $33,330. That manufacturing segment employs the largest number—46,350—of “welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers,” the name the BLS uses to describe the particular job area. If you look closely at a manufacturing segment in which inspection is a key component of production, such as aerospace product and parts manufacturing, you see that the mean annual wage jumps dramatically, to $47,330 for inspectors, when compared to the wage paid to welders. Manufacturers see welding inspection as a much-needed skill for which they are willing to pay.
The jobs are available as well. A quick look at the American Welding Society job board at the time of this writing showed 10 out of 24 job openings were for inspectors or quality control personnel. A search on CareerBuilder.com revealed 55 “welding inspector” jobs. The job locations spanned the U.S.
Good compensation and plenty of opportunities for those interested in becoming a certified welding inspector (CWI) are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. That, however, doesn’t mean that every welder is suitable for the job.
David Tofaute, the executive director of the Knight School of Welding, Louisville, Ky., is candid when talking to students interested in the school’s 80-hour CWI course.
“It’s something that a lot of schools typically don’t do because it’s so intense,” he said.
The course stretches for two weeks, but even when that is done, the instructors might stretch it out a day or two (see Figure 1). “[The students] are like deer in the headlights,” Tofaute said.
So what does a CWI have to know? It helps to know a little bit about everything. Depending on which codes (for example, D1.1:2008 applies to structural steel; API 1104 covers welding pipelines) would-be inspectors are interested in, they need to know exactly what is stated in the code and how to find sections of the code quickly to verify quality welds or substantiate the need for rework. They need to know about welding processes, terminology, and symbols and how different materials react during the welding process. They need to learn about nondestructive testing and visual clues that suggest a weld is acceptable or not.
Paul Cameron, a senior welding engineer for McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing Inc., Dodge Center, Minn., and author of the Arc Welding 101 column in Practical Welding Today, was a welder for 13 years before he decided to take the next step. He knew that climbing up the career ladder would require a lot of extra work, but he didn’t let it deter him from his goal.
“In 1993, as a third-shift welder, I took the AWS CWI seminar. I took what I learned, studied, studied, and studied, and six months later took and passed the exam,” Cameron said.
As Cameron found out, welding experience is helpful. AWS actually stresses some sort of work-related background before taking the CWI exam (see Figure 2).
Those with at least a high school diploma and at least a year’s worth of engineering or technical school coursework need at least four years of work experience. Those who didn‘t graduate high school or have not obtained a general equivalency degree need at least nine years of work experience if they have finished at least the eighth grade and 12 years of work experience if their academic career finished before completion of the eighth grade.
AWS is serious enough about the work experience requirement that it asks for written verification of documented employment when someone submits an application to take the CWI exam. If acquiring the proof of employment experience is not possible, then the applicant has to provide a detailed affidavit that confirms any previous work experience.
Cameron added that a varied work experience—or an “unstable work history” as one human resources representative described it—may help as well. With experience in oil rig fabrication, mining equipment repair, construction, and manufacturing, Cameron said he has worked with just about every welding process imaginable and has learned to weld to multiple codes.
“Many welders will work in a single industry with a limited number of processes their whole life,” he said. “A pipefitter may never pick up a MIG or flux-core gun. An ironworker may never manipulate a TIG torch. A production MIG welder may never pick up a print. Each can be a very successful CWI within their industry, but outside their industry, they may feel like a fish out of water.”
So the would-be CWI needs to know about quality weld joints, welding codes, and testing methodologies, but all that knowledge does no one any good if it can’t be communicated clearly. The information needs to be reported to the welding department in a clear and accurate manner that leaves out the vague language and sticks to the basic facts.
Cameron shared the details of how a report should be written after recently receiving a report that described a set of bend coupons for a welder qualification test. The original report read: “One coupon looked good. The other had a couple of places that didn’t.” Cameron offered this alternative: “Coupon 1, root bend, one discontinuity less than 1⁄32. Acceptable. Coupon 2, root bend, one discontinuity greater than 1⁄32, but less than 1⁄8. One discontinuity greater than 1⁄8. No corner cracks. Unacceptable.”
CWIs also have to step up and deliver news that may not be welcome. That’s why it helps to communicate in respectful tones. No one likes to be told they made a mistake.
Tofaute said the school’s CWI recently certified a weld for a nearby manufacturer, but the quality control inspector for the client company questioned the validity of the inspection because the part failed an internal quality test. The client company sent the part back, and the CWI at the Knight School of Welding discovered that the part was painted. Apparently the manufacturer tested the part after it was painted. The CWI had to place the phone call that notified the quality control inspector that he has to test the part before finishing occurs, not after.
“It’s like talking to a doctor,” Tofaute said. “When you call a certified welding inspector, he’s not always going to give you the answer that you want to hear.”
The ability to communicate clearly can keep a production floor running smoothly, but if the communication isn’t based on an honest assessment of a weld, everything is at risk. Tofaute said that a CWI has to be independent by nature, and that personality trait needs to be evident before taking the CWI exam. Because he will be speaking with other welders, a supervisor, and engineers on a regular basis, and lawyers, scientists, and the company president on a not-so-frequent basis, a CWI needs to be able to speak the truth without feeling pressure to alter the story for the audience.
This can mean that a CWI does not accept gratuities of any kind from customers. That includes even the random invitation to lunch or dinner.
“I still accept these invitations, but I make it clear that I can attend only if I’m paying my own way. Folks find it odd, but it is something that works for me,” Cameron said.
Actually, the AWS code of ethics for welding inspectors clearly states that they shouldn’t accept any compensation and should avoid any type of conflict of interest with the employer or client. This keeps not only the welding inspector clear of potentially dubious practices, but also keeps the public safe. The AWS code of ethics sums it up nicely: Welding inspectors “shall act to preserve the health and well-being of the public by performing duties required of welding inspection in a conscientious and impartial manner to the full extent of the inspector’s moral and civic responsibility and qualification.”
If a welder has the welding knowledge, the commitment to study, the ability to communicate, and a willingness to be honest and independent, a CWI might be a logical career move. Before embarking on a new career path, however, the welder should keep in mind the need to hit the books to attain this certification.
The AWS requires a minimum score of 72 percent in each of the three sections of the test: Part A, a two-hour, 150-question, closed-book test on fundamentals; Part B, a two-hour, hands-on test of 46 questions that requires the test-taker to use visual inspection tools and a sample code book; and Part C, a two-hour, open-book test of 40-60 questions that calls for finding the right code in the right code book. If the test-taker fails any part of the exam, he has to wait a year and also take 40 hours of additional professional training before retaking the exam.
There is one test for which a would-be CWI doesn’t have to study: the vision test. The candidate has to prove near vision acuity, either with or without corrective eyeware, on Jaeger J2 (the eye chart used in most optometrists’ offices) at not less than 12 inches, according to Section 6.1 of AWS B5.1, Specification for the Qualification of Welding Inspectors.
In short, the CWI candidate has to have good vision to see what lies before him and the work that will be required to achieve the official certification.