Every time you step into a building or drive across a bridge, you can thank the skills of a team of structural welders for having built the framework that keeps that structure secure. Structural welders create the metal framework for everything from skyscrapers and apartment buildings to bridges and overpasses. Anything that involves girders, columns and beams relies on structural welders to cut, erect and join them to form complete structures.
According to the American Welding Society’s (AWS) WeldLink, a program that specializes in career planning and management systems for welders, structural welders utilize “a wide range of welding equipment, power tools and hand tools to manipulate metal components as specified by welding procedure specifications (WPS), work orders, blueprints, technical drawings or other specifications.”
On the job
For anyone interested in large infrastructure or construction work, a career in structural welding can be incredibly rewarding. Responsibilities are broadly summarized as job preparation, welding and post-welding.
Before actual work begins on a construction site, a structural welder performs a variety of job preparation duties, including looking over their equipment to ensure it’s in good shape and ready for the job. This includes any safety equipment, such as harnesses if they’re working at heights. They calibrate their tools in accordance with the WPS and analyze the AWS D1.1 Structural Welding Code for Steel, among others, depending on the type of material with which they’re working.
To fabricate structural components and erect structures, structural welders have quite a few tools in their toolbox to execute on a range of welding techniques. In addition to the actual welder, they use hand tools, jigs, torches, drill presses, grinders, rollers and straightening presses, just to name a few. When working with extremely large materials, specialized machinery is brought in, often requiring the welder to utilize ropes, braces, clamps and bolt straps.
In the post-welding environment, welders apply specific treatments to their work, which might include polishing, applying heat treatments, and removing slag and dross.
While these welders are often on-site, working in extreme situations in some cases (think dizzyingly tall buildings or bridges high above the ground or water), they also work off-site, fabricating the components in a more controlled environment to be taken later to the construction site and joined.
While there is no set-in-stone path to becoming a structural welder, some employers prefer those with formal training. This training can include courses on how to read blueprints, mathematics that relate to manufacturing, chemistry, metallurgy and mechanical drawing, among others.
Formal classroom work, however, doesn’t always happen post-high school. In fact, some structural welders start their training while they’re still in their teens with metalworking, welding and fabrication courses in high school. Basically, getting hands-on experience with any type of welding, even if it is focused on auto repair, is a good first step on the path to a career in structural welding.
According to AWS, many structural welders exit high school seeking out apprenticeships or additional training at community colleges and technical schools (which includes dedicated welding schools).
“Most employers and apprenticeship programs require candidates to have a high school diploma and pass a drug and alcohol screening,” AWS states. “However, previous welding experience or the completion of a welding training program will certainly make the transition from novice welder to apprentice an easier one.”
To land a job that involves more complexities, there is a high likelihood that the employer will require credentials. For structural welders, the AWS’s Certified Welder credential is among the most commonly sought after.
According to the AWS, “this program allows welders to test to processes and positions that are used in industries such as construction, pipelines, chemical refinement, aerospace, pressure vessels and more. AWS Welder Certification is transferrable, recognized worldwide and required by many employers.”
To gain this credential, copies of the AWS QC7 Standard and supplements are available for download:
- AWS QC7 Standard for AWS Certified Welders
- Supplement C – Welder Performance Qualification Sheet Metal Test
- Supplement G – AWS Performance Qualification Test
- Supplement F – Chemical Plant and Petroleum Refinery Piping
The documents offer a thorough explanation of what’s required in testing, including terms outlining maintaining and renewing a certification. Next, you’ll need to contact an accredited test facility representative near you to take the test. Assistance in finding one in your area can be found here.
The job outlook
The nature of structural work is actually quite broad, which means it’s not uncommon for welders to find employment opportunities in a variety of industries. Jobs for structural welders are readily available, given the economy, in oil and gas, aerospace, marine and shipbuilding, steel fabrication, mining and nuclear equipment repair, among others. Depending on the level of experience, a structural welder can transition into a number of other roles, including foreman, engineer, instructor, inspector or supervisor.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 2016 there were 404,800 jobs for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers. The median income is $40,240 per year, or $19.35 an hour. The job outlook is on par with other industries – six percent growth by 2026.
Also according to the BLS, “the nation’s aging infrastructure will require the expertise of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers to help rebuild bridges, highways and buildings.”