The online recruiting firm Indeed.com lists 66 available jobs. Monster.com shows 545 opportunities. ZipRecruiter.com is the most optimistic, suggesting that U.S. manufacturers have 4,321 open positions, with pay ranging from $15 to $34 per hour with full benefits and overtime for those who want it. Perhaps best of all for those of us who prefer working with our hands versus a job in a cubicle with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree hanging on the wall, most of these openings require nothing more than a GED and a mechanically oriented mind.
Of course, you should also be a competent welder, one who’s willing to learn new techniques and pass rigorous qualification criteria once you’ve mastered them.
The job? Aerospace welding. Technically, it’s not all that different than automotive welding or the welding used to make everything from tractors to trapeze bars, except the materials are more challenging, the requirements more strict, and the cost of failure exceedingly higher. Fortunately, the specifications for such critical welding operations are well-defined, and the companies performing such work are not only highly adept but willing to help others become equally skilled.
Specifying for success
Mario Diaz, program manager for standards development at the American Welding Society (AWS) in Miami, Fla., describes the three primary specifications used by the aerospace industry to certify weld quality, although he notes that each aircraft manufacturer or service center may have its own set of standards on top of or in lieu of these.
Perhaps the most important of these is AWS D17.1, titled Specification for Fusion Welding for Aerospace Applications. Beyond this is AWS D17.2, Specification for Resistance Welding for Aerospace Applications, and AWS D17.3, Specification for Friction Stir Welding of Aluminum Alloys for Aerospace Applications.
“They’re all important, but D17.1 is especially relevant,” says Diaz. “That’s the one that was originally known as military specification MIL-STD-2219, which D17.1 replaced in the early 1990s. It’s a big deal in the aviation industry, and all of our AWS members have an interest in ensuring that it keeps up with the current technologies and needs for the industry.”
One of these members is Andrew Pfaller, segment manager at Miller Electric Mfg. LLC, Appleton, Wis., who also serves as vice-chairperson for the AWS D17K Subcommittee on Fusion Welding in the Aircraft and Aerospace Industries. He agrees that most manufacturers welding aerospace components do so according to the D17 standards, even though it is a voluntary compliance standard.
Back to school
So what does all this mean to the welders considering a career in this demanding industry? Being familiar with the specifications is an excellent place to start, followed by studying for and earning the appropriate qualification(s). This isn’t as easy as it might sound, however.
Diaz points to the extensive list of educational resources and online classes available through the AWS website, including a D17 boot camp, all of which support their students’ qualification efforts. Miller offers similar online resources, as do many vocational institutions—for example, a Google search for “aerospace welding school” brings up the Southern California Welding Training & Testing Center, as well as various community colleges and other educational organizations.
That said, such training is expensive. Without a corporate sponsor or educational grant, the cost might be prohibitive for many potential students. Furthermore, a D17 qualification doesn’t guarantee that a job applicant will meet an aerospace manufacturer’s internal requirements, or that additional qualifications won’t be needed. What then?
“Organizations like the California Welding Institute and Pro-Weld Services near Atlanta are great at training people the science of welding and giving them the hand-eye coordination required to be a welder,” says Pfaller. “That way, when they go to a company like Delta Airlines, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Rolls Royce, they’re able to pass the prerequisite proficiency test, which tells the company that further employee investment is warranted.”
That investment is often extensive. For example, someone welding aluminum ductwork on a passenger aircraft will need to pass one test, while those welding engine components require another. And welders tasked with repairing jet bridges and other support equipment might need a D17 qualification together with one that adheres to AWS D1.1 Structural Welding for Steel guidelines.
Each of these typically requires X-ray, penetrant inspection, or even destructive testing, and can cost the company thousands of dollars to administer. And if that specific skill is not used within a set time period, the employee must requalify before performing it again. Another consideration is the fact that the company holds these qualifications, not the employee—if journeyman TIG welder Martha Smith decides to leave her job at one airline and move to another, her various qualification records stay behind, and she must requalify under the new employer.
“A typical aircraft contains hundreds upon hundreds of components, materials, and weld joint combinations, each of which might require its own proficiency test,” Pfaller said. “But considering the consequences of a weld failure in flight, the need for stringent requirements and demanding skill sets are quite understandable.”
Anyone interested in a welding career might be asking, “Aren’t robots taking over the manufacturing industry? Why bother all this qualification hassle and expense for a job that will be gone in five years?”
Not so fast, says Pfaller. A big chunk of the qualification process is learning skills like part preparation, amperage settings, joint and filler material selection, metallurgical considerations, and countless other factors that impact weld quality. That knowledge applies equally well to automated welding processes.
“Contrary to what many might think, robotic welding isn’t just a matter of loading a part program and hitting the go button,” he says. “Granted, a welding engineer will be the one responsible for developing the parameters for each application, but the person operating the robot is still a very skilled individual and must pass the same proficiency tests as a manual welder. What’s more, there are opportunities for these people to work their way up into higher positions, if that’s what they’re interested in.”
Qualification is also necessary for the Tier suppliers that make parts and subassemblies for these aircraft, not only for their employees in the welding department but for the companies themselves. Bryan Worley, special process technology leader for the Joining and Heat Treat Group at GE Aviation, Cincinnati, Ohio (also part of the D17K Subcommittee on Resistance Welding) notes that strict guidelines exist for subcontractors. Again, the welding requirements generally follow the D17 standards, but often include customer-specific criteria as well.
“If a manufacturer requests to do work for GE, they must first become approved of course, and if welded parts are involved, that means they must also certify their welders and possibly their welding equipment,” Worley says. “Probably 99 percent of our prime contractors leverage D17.1 or D17.2 for this requirement, which also outlines how welds must be inspected.”
There’s also accreditation from the National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP), which goes well beyond welding to cover all of a supplier’s manufacturing process and related quality standards. Worley sits on this task group as well, and notes that the D17 and NADCAP bars are high for a reason.
“There’s a lot of upfront expense for the supplier, unfortunately, but it’s critical to certify that they have a sound quality system in place, and also ensure they have the proper training and qualification of their people,” he says. “You can’t hire just anybody to weld hardware for use on an aircraft. The stakes are simply too high.”