Welders, Cutters, & Welding Machine Operators

Significant Points

  • Training for welders can range from a few weeks of school or on-the-job training for low skilled positions to several years of combined school and on-the-job training for high skilled jobs.
  • Job prospects should be excellent, as employers report a shortage of qualified applicants.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Welding is the most common way of permanently joining metal parts. In this process, heat is applied to metal pieces, melting and fusing them to form a permanent bond. Because of its strength, welding is used in shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing and repair, aerospace applications, and thousands of other manufactured products. Welding is also used to join beams when constructing buildings, bridges, and other structures, and to join pipes in pipelines, power plants, and refineries.

Welders and welding machine operators use many types of welding equipment in a variety of positions, such as flat, vertical, horizontal, and overhead. They may perform manual welding, in which the work is entirely controlled by the welder, or semi-automatic welding, in which the welder uses machinery, such as a wire feeder, to help perform welding tasks. Skilled welders generally plan work from drawings or specifications or by using their knowledge of welding and metals to analyze damaged metal parts. These workers then select and set up welding equipment and examine welds, to insure they meet standards or specifications. Some welders have more limited duties, however. They perform routine jobs that have already been planned and laid out and do not require extensive knowledge of welding techniques.

Automated welding is used in an increasing number of production processes. In these instances, a machine or robot performs the welding tasks, while monitored by a welding machine operator. Welding machine operators set up and operate welding machines, as specified by layouts, work orders, or blueprints. Operators must load parts correctly and constantly monitor the machine to ensure that it produces the desired weld.

The work of arc, plasma, and flame cutters is closely related to that of welders. However, instead of joining metals, cutters use the heat from burning gases or an electric arc to cut and trim metal objects to specific dimensions. Cutters also dismantle large objects, such as ships, railroad cars, automobiles, or aircraft. Some operate and monitor cutting machines similar to those used by welding machine operators.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Welders and cutters are often exposed to a number of potential hazards, including the intense light created by the arc, hazardous fumes, and burns. To protect themselves, they wear safety shoes, goggles, hoods with protective lenses, and other devices designed to prevent burns and eye injuries and for protection from falling objects. Automated welding machine operators are not exposed to as many dangers, however, and a face shield or goggles usually provides adequate protection for these workers.

Welders and cutters may work outdoors in inclement weather or indoors, sometimes in a confining area designed to contain sparks and glare. When outdoors, they may work on a scaffold or platform high off the ground. In addition, they may be required to lift heavy objects and work in a variety of awkward positions, having to make welds while bending, stooping, or working overhead.

Although the majority of welders work a 40-hour week, overtime is common, and some welders work up to 70 hours per week. Welders may also work in shifts as long as 12 hours.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Welders, cutters, and welding machine operators held about 477,000 jobs in 1998. Of these jobs, 3 of every 4 were held by welders and cutters, who worked mostly in manufacturing and services. The majority of those in manufacturing were employed in the transportation equipment, industrial machinery and equipment, or fabricated metal products industries. Those employed in the service sector worked mainly in repair shops and for personnel supply agencies. All welding machine operators were employed in manufacturing industries, primarily fabricated metal products, machinery, and motor vehicles.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Training for welders can range from a few weeks of school or on-the-job training for low skilled positions to several years of combined school and on-the-job training for highly skilled jobs. Formal training is available in high schools, vocational schools, and post secondary institutions, such as vocational-technical institutes, community colleges, and private welding schools. The Armed Forces operate welding schools as well. Some employers provide training to help welders improve their skills. Courses in blueprint reading, shop mathematics, mechanical drawing, physics, chemistry, and metallurgy are helpful. Knowledge of computers is gaining importance, especially for welding machine operators, as some welders are becoming responsible for the programming of computer-controlled welding machines, including robots.

Some welders become certified, a process whereby the employer sends a worker to an institution, such as an independent testing lab or technical school, to weld a test specimen to specific codes and standards required by the employer. Testing procedures are based on the standards and codes set by one of several industry associations with which the employer may be affiliated. If the welding inspector at the examining institution determines that the worker has performed according to the employer’s guidelines, the inspector will then certify the welder being tested as able to work with a particular welding procedure.

Welders and cutters need good eyesight, hand-eye coordination, and manual dexterity. They should be able to concentrate on detailed work for long periods and be able to bend, stoop, and work in awkward positions. In addition, welders increasingly need to be willing to receive training and perform tasks in other production jobs.

Welders can advance to more skilled welding jobs with additional training and experience. For example, they may become welding technicians, supervisors, inspectors, or instructors. Some experienced welders open their own repair shops.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Despite projected slower-than-average employment growth, job prospects should be excellent for welders with the right skills, as many employers report difficulties in finding qualified applicants. In addition, openings will arise as workers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

Employment of welders, cutters, and welding machine operators is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008, reflecting rising automation and productivity in many of the industries that employ these workers. The major factor affecting employment of welders is the health of the industries in which they work. Because almost every manufacturing industry uses welding at some stage of manufacturing or in the repair and maintenance of equipment, a strong economy will keep demand for welders high. A downturn affecting such industries as auto manufacturing, construction, or petroleum, however, would have a negative impact on the employment of welders in those areas and could cause some layoffs. Government funding levels for infrastructure repairs and improvements is also expected to be an important determinant of future welding jobs.

Regardless of the state of the economy, the shortage of welders and drive to increase productivity and cut costs is leading many companies to invest more in automation, especially computer-controlled and robotically-controlled welding machinery. This may affect the demand for low-skilled manual welders, as the jobs that are currently being automated are the simple, repetitive ones. The growing use of automation, however, should increase demand for welding machine operators. Welders working on construction projects or in equipment repair will not be as affected, because their jobs are not as easily automated.

Technology is helping to improve welding and create more uses for welding in the workplace. For example, new ways are being developed to weld dissimilar materials and nonmetallic materials, such as plastics, composites, and new alloys. Also, laser beam welding and other techniques are improving the results of welding and making it applicable to a wider assortment of jobs. The effect of technological innovation on the overall use of welding is unclear, however, because other processes designed to replace welding and make welders more productive, such as new adhesive technologies and high-speed machining, will contribute to decreasing demand for these workers.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of welders and cutters were $25,810 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $21,440 and $32,020. The lowest 10 percent had earnings of less than $17,550, while the top 10 percent earned over $39,650. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of welders and cutters in 1997 were:

Ship and boat building and repairing $27,200
Construction and related machinery 25,300
Motor vehicles and equipment 24,700
Fabricated structural metal products 23,800
Miscellaneous repair shops 22,600

Median annual earnings of welding machine operators were $25,010 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $20,820 and $31,270. The lowest 10 percent had earnings of less than $16,870, while the top 10 percent earned over $39,710. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of welding machine operators in 1997 were:

Construction and related machinery $26,100
Metal forgings and stampings 24,100
Motor vehicles and equipment 23,700
Fabricated structural metal products 22,400
Miscellaneous fabricated metal products 20,500

More than one-fourth of welders belong to unions. Among these are the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada; and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Welders and cutters are skilled metal workers. Other metal workers include blacksmiths, forge shop workers, machinists, machine-tool operators, tool and die makers, millwrights, sheet-metal workers, boilermakers, and metal sculptors.

Welding machine operators run machines that weld metal parts. Others who run metalworking machines include lathe and turning, milling and planing, punching and stamping press, and rolling machine operators.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For information on training opportunities and jobs for welders, cutters, and welding machine operators, contact local employers, the local office of the State employment service, or schools providing welding training.

Information on careers in welding is available from:

  • American Welding Society, 550 N.W. Lejeune Rd., Miami, FL 33126-5699. Internet: http://www.aws.org
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