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Building Experience as a Welder

So with a One Year Structural Welding Certificate,  a year as a maintenance welder, and two years in a Black Iron shop I became an apprentice for the Iron Workers union. For the next fifteen years I worked on factories, shopping centers, high rise office towers, condos, a power house and a dam. I used 7018 almost exclusively, with the exception of running 6010 on a few jobs such as the decking on roofs, or welding joists on a few jobs. (I’ll explain the numbers in the next article.)

Then I “went in the hole”, in other words I fell. Falling is not good any time but especially when you are working on high steel. I got hurt pretty bad a couple of times, both times because of someone else working unsafe. I shattered my ankle when I was knocked off the third floor of a computer plant we were working on, and it looked like my welding career was over.

I went back to college and didn’t expect to do well after dropping out quite a few times in the past. Everyone told me to get a degree in business, and thank God I didn’t listen to them. About the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Occupational Education and Training the economy tanked, and a lot of mid-level managers across the country got laid off. I would’ve been a welder with a Biz degree going out to get a job that thousands were being laid off at!

I got into teaching and that’s when I learned I had a LOT to learn, and just how expansive the field of welding is! I’ve taught high school for almost twenty years now, as well as a few college and adult education classes, and still learn more and more about this great trade. Welding is in many ways the same as far as the fundamentals, but is ever-changing with new processes and techniques. New standards and codes have changed to keep track with the great diversity of work situations out there.

So that’s a very brief bio of me and I left out many details of being a dumb new guy, my wild bar-fighting days and many screw ups. One thing I can say is I learned from my mistakes and always tried to be the best hand I could be. I always gave ONE HUNDRED percent on the job and always loved the fact that in my Local you either worked hard or got run off. It oughta be that way in every job.

Take Pride In Your Work

Slackers are thieves stealing from the companies that hire them. I am proud to say I was one of the first hired and last laid off, and people requested me because they knew they could rely on me being a good welder. If you’re new to welding you oughta be “gettin after it” EVERY MINUTE on the job and asking the boss “What now, what do you need me to do now?” Along with that you should seek out the good, old hands and learn everything from them that you can!

And if you’re an old hand reading this you ought to be setting the example for the young ones. And all welders should remember there is ALWAYS something else you can learn about our great trade.  Anyone can say they are a welder, but few can say they are a great welder. The only way to be a great welder is to study metallurgy, know your blueprints, and BURN baby BURN!!!

Any welder who “knows it all” is full of crap and you need to take anything they say very lightly. In my thirty-five years in the trade I have seen a lot of fake-assed punks who talk big but can’t back up their talk with action. I learned the hard way not to take a man for his word unless you know who they are! 

Just because someone tells you they have been in the trade a long time sure as hell doesn’t mean they are a good welder. They may have bounced around from job after job barely getting by, or getting run off. Unfortunately, when there is a big demand for welders, some companies will hire unqualified hands to either fulfill their contract obligations, or just hoping they will perform well even though they weren’t worth squat on other jobs.

I learned that the hard way. This guy was about ten years older than me and I just “figured” he knew what he was talking about. I was a greenhorn, newbie, apprentice and didn’t want to make waves so I didn’t really question him. We were welding Stainless Mig, which is fairly difficult and I look over and see his welds look like crap. You have to run Stainless Mig a LOT faster when running uphill vertical (3G) than compared to mild steel and he didn’t have a clue about how to do so.

So he asks if he can see my Mig gun and I hand it to him. About that time the Pusher of our Welding Gang (foreman of our crew) walks by and this sorry-ass sez “Hey boss, is this what you’re looking for?” as he points out the joint I had just welded up. I seriously thought he was joking as the pusher tells him what a great job he had done and walks off. That’s how I found out in construction you need to only trust the guy who shaves you! (YOURSELF!)

The good news is these people usually get found out and run off of the job but they can do a LOT of damage before that happens. We had to go in and GOUGE (another term I will cover) out EACH and EVERY one of his welds and re-do them! That’s when I learned to call out someone if they weren’t doing the job right whether they had more years than I did or not! Not only can these shoddy wanna-be welders screw over the company they are working for, they can get someone hurt or killed if they are making critical welds!

Anyways, back to me teaching. I’ve been doing so for some twenty years now and it has been the most rewarding time of my life. Passing on the “last of the great industrial trades” has rewards far more valuable than any money I could have ever made doing anything else. There is nothing like seeing that moment when the student “gets it” and it is always so cool to hear how someone has used welding to advance their lives!

There is no other job in the world that I know of that gives one the freedom that comes with being a Structural Welder. Does it have it’s down times and bad times? Hell YEAH! You can get hurt, work can be slow, you may have to travel where the jobs are, you have to work in the heat and cold, if it rains or snows…you don’t get paid, and you are always working yourself out of a job when the project is finished. But to me, the freedom of going ANYWHERE in the world you want to, taking a vacation ANY time you want to, DRAGGING UP (quitting) ANY time you don’t like the job/don’t like your boss/for the hell of it, means freedom that no job I’ve ever heard of provides!

On the other hand working at a shop or factory has its benefits also. Have a year like I had one time when I worked four months out of the year and you will not think welding is so good!  And that wasn’t a steady four months; it was a few weeks here, a month there, a few days here, etc. THAT makes a STEADY forty (or more) hour paycheck look REAL good!

And that brings me to overtime in the welding trade, and how you can be so happy to have it, yet so sad at the same time whether in the shop, or the field. I used to pray to God for a job with overtime. Then it would come along and I would pray to God to make the overtime STOP! The worst/best overtime is 7/12’s, or SEVEN DAYS a WEEK / TWELVE HOURS a DAY. When you do this your life basically sucks. Your alarm goes off and you realize you are going to be at work for twelve hours. You work those twelve hours, plus the commute it takes you to get there and get back home. Then you go to bed, and the alarm rings for you to do it all over again!

Now, in the Iron Workers union when I did that my life pretty much sucked every day EXCEPT Sunday and payday. Why you might ask? Because on Sunday I knew I was making DOUBLE TIME!!! And on payday I knew I was making BIG BUCKS! Payday was like a battery charger to a dead battery. Just when you think you can’t do it anymore…you get that big, fat paycheck!

Also see Building Welding Experience on the Job.


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