How to Choose a School
Signing up for a welding program usually means finding the nearest school to home. However, some students are willing to travel across the country to attend one of several prominent programs run privately. While that sounds like the ideal choice, adult vocational centers and local community and junior colleges offer similar training and access to equipment for a fraction of the cost.
Be sure to peruse a school’s website in order to find out about, degrees and certificates available, as well as the curriculum offered. The course descriptions should also be listed online.If you don’t have an A.S. or A.A. degree already, you may decide to earn a certificate in welding instead. That will save you the time of having to complete the extra 30 units of general ed requirements. Remember, employers are more interested in your welding skills than your academic pedigree, so the certificate – and more importantly, a 3 or 4-G certification by a certified welding inspector – should be enough to get hired.
A significant advantage of a junior college over a trade school is that you can take classes outside of the welding department that will be useful in the profession. This includes Autocad drafting, metal arts, automotive technology, chemistry and agricultural mechanics. You can also use any course credits you earn towards an advanced degree, should you decide to become a welding engineer in the years ahead. In the short term, earning an A.S. degree may give you an edge when it comes time for a promotion at work.
Despite these advantages, there’s also a downside to attending a junior or community college. Since an emphasis is placed on class lectures, lab time may be limited to a few hours per week for each class. The quality of the teaching also varies from school to school, and one-to-one assistance in the welding booth may be limited. At a private trade school or publicly funded adult vocational center, you’re likely to get more help and practice developing hands-on skills.
Whichever school you decide to attend, the welding program should ideally includethese core classes:
- Intro to Stick Welding (SMAW)
- Oxy-Acetylene Welding (OAW) and Cutting
- MIG and Flux-Cored Arc Welding (GMAW/FCAW)
- Advanced Stick Welding (especially pipe welding)
- TIG Welding (GTAW)
- Welding Schematics and Shop Drawings (or Technical Drafting)
- Metal Fabrication (i.e. an introductory shop course)
- Metallurgy for Welding
If it’s worth its salt, any welding school should also provide a free certification service administered by a certified welding inspector. This is essential, because getting certified privately can cost several hundred dollars.
When enrolling at community colleges, keep in mind that even if a class closes during the early registration period, you may still get in by showing up on the first day, since there are often many show-shows. (You should likewise monitor your school registration website to see if a seat opens up prior to the start of the semester.) There’s no guarantee if you wait till the last minute, however, so sign up for classes as early as you can. And don’t forget to pay your fees. If you’re a low-income student, check with the school’s financial aid department about a tuition waiver (easily available at most junior colleges), or scholarship/loan programs (at private schools). Always be wary of assuming a large loan obligation; it should be your last resort.
Apprenticeship programs for pipefitters, boilermakers, plumbers, iron workers, sheetmetal and steelworkers, or other related occupations are (in most cases) jointly administered by labor unions and employers. While apprentices learn on the job and get paid, federal and state government agencies provide funding for classroom training, typically one night each week. (The only costs incurred by apprentices are union membership dues and a modest amount for work wear and tools.) After completing the coursework and putting in the requisite hours on the job, the employee becomes certified as a journeyman in four to five years.
To sign up for or learn more about apprenticeship, contact the nearest local chapter of the union that operates the program you’d like to join. Some programs invite you to take a test (covering basic math and hand tool use), and after passing it, your name will be placed on a waiting list for the next apprenticeship opening. Other unions hold in-person interviews with prospective apprentices. Generally, only applicants between the ages of 18 and 35 are considered.
If you can’t wait for your name to be called, employment within the U.S. Armed Forces provides additional get-paid-while-you-learn options. All three branches – Army, Navy and AirForce – offer career paths for anyone aged 18-35 interested in pursuing welding, fabricating and steelwork.