When Jason Hill took his first welding class in high school, he was just looking for a few "easy credits" from a "laid-back instructor." Instead, at welding school, he “bonded” with a skill that quickly became not only a path to a welding job, but a lifelong passion — and a career.
“Welding came easily to me, so I took to it and ran with it,” says Hill. “It was like breathing. I had to do it all the time.”
Throughout high school and college, Hill's natural ability saw him win welding competitions at state and national levels before graduating with an associate degree in welding technology. Over the next 24 years, Hill followed his talent for welding, initially in industry, before moving into education. He currently serves as the welding program instructor at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado.
The move back into the classroom came just as naturally to Hill as his welding skills.
“I had my first taste of teaching when I was a student at welding school,” says Hill. “I was working as a lab tech, working on the equipment in the afternoons when I wasn't in class. One of the instructors asked me if I could help him with one of his welding classes. I was excited because I'd never done that before.”
After this initial experience of teaching, Hill was hooked.
“The first time that I sat down and showed somebody how to make a weld, and then they turned around and did it — just as well as I could, or even better — was great," says Hill. "That feeling got into my blood, and I knew that I had to have it again.”
What Do Welders Do?
Welding uses heat and pressure to produce a covalent bond (a chemical bond) between two or more pieces of material, usually metals or thermoplastics.
“In plain English, welding is a process that creates enough heat to cause things to stay together permanently,” says Hill. “There are many different welding processes and techniques to achieve that, but essentially, that's what you are always going for as a welder.”
Welders and welding jobs are found in many different industries and environments.
“You’ll find welders working everywhere,” says Hill. “They are at welding jobs in garages and workshops working on vehicles, machinery, and agricultural equipment. They work in manufacturing and production industries, in aerospace — working on airplanes and helicopters — in the military, on gas and oil pipelines, and even underwater on offshore installations. They are even welding in outer space now. In the last couple of years, they had to make their first weld in zero gravity, so that’s pretty exciting.”
What do You Need to Become a Welder?
Part art and part science, welding relies on using many senses and takes practice to perfect.
“You have to be able to see, to feel, to hear, and understand what’s happening when you are welding," says Hill. "It's challenging for people to comprehend that particular aspect of the job without first experiencing it. That’s what we do in welding school. We give students the experience and the knowledge so that they can understand what are the different types of welding, how they can use those various techniques and develop their skills to find their place in the workplace.”
Welding Classes for Beginners
Hill believes he can teach anyone to be a welder.
“If you show up every day, do what I ask you to do, and can answer the question, 'What color was George Washington's white horse?’ I can make you a welder,” says Hill. “Putting the jokes aside, this job requires a lot of common sense. If it’s too hot, make it colder. If it’s too cold, make it hotter. It's the common sense thought process that you try to get people to understand and stop overthinking it.”
Although the curriculum is a good fit for welders who want to gain new skills or improve skills they already have, you don’t need any previous welding experience to join the program. On the contrary. Hill believes that, often, having no experience might be an advantage.
“It can be easier to have somebody come in with zero experience because then they are not coming in with what I would consider bad work habits,” says Hill. “Sometimes, you have to correct those bad habits to get people on the right path.”
What Types of Welding Are There?
Northeastern’s program provides several different routes into the welding industry, starting with individual certificate options covering five different welding processes: Oxy-fuel welding (OAW), shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), flux core welding (FCAW), gas tungsten welding (GTAW), and gas metal arc welding (GMAW).
These five basic welding techniques provide the foundation to develop more specialist skills in the workplace.
“There are upwards of 200 different welding processes out there and not just the five main ones that I teach,” says Hill. “It would be impossible for me to be able to teach them all. Some are very specific to highly niche industries. Most community colleges will teach these five basic processes, and then from there, it's really up to the individual to get that on-the-job training. With education comes that ability to understand the process; it becomes a lot easier if you have the foundation of a college education.”
While each welding process requires students to learn how to set up and operate specific equipment, Hill believes that every weld is essentially the same.
“Whether you are using oxy-acetylene or gas metal arc welding equipment, once the helmet is down and you see that puddle [basically the molten filler material that welds two things together], it's exactly the same,” says Hill. “That puddle doesn't change very much from one process to the next. It's just the fundamental understanding of how to set the equipment up that does change.”
Developing Welding Skills to Build a Successful Career
While Hill suggests that it is possible to land a welding job after taking just one welding class, the students who find the top-paying welding jobs are the ones who choose to make a real commitment to their education at Northeastern Junior College.
“You could take one MIG welding class (a subset of GMAW) and go get a job working in manufacturing and just MIG weld for the rest of your life,” says Hill. “You could probably start at $14-$16 an hour and just continue working at that one company for the next 30 to 40 years, maybe ending up at $40-$50 an hour and eventually moving into a management position — but it's not going to happen fast.”
With a little more education, students can find themselves in better paid and potentially more fulfilling roles.
“Sometimes you have to have that hard conversation with students and remind them that the more education you get, the faster you are going to be able to climb that totem pole,” says Hill. “With the right qualifications, you're not going to have to start out at the bottom, you're going to be able to start midway, and you are going to be able to move up that much faster.”
One-Year Certificate Program in Welding
The next step at welding school is a one-year certificate program that covers the five different welding processes. The one-year program also provides students with some general education classes and other options designed to develop the skills required for welding in the specific industries that interest them.
“The one-year certificate is designed for students who are really focused on getting the welding job they want to do, perhaps for the rest of their working lives,” says Hill.
Two-Year Degree in Welding Program
Hill believes that Northeastern’s two-year associate degree program in welding technology creates the best possible route into employment for students looking for wider opportunities and a potentially more fulfilling career.
“Being an educator, I will always be a proponent of the most education possible,” says Hill. “When I speak with potential students, I always lead with the two-year degree program.”
The degree program goes beyond the practical skills required to be a welder and develops the knowledge that will set them apart in an employer's eyes.
“There's a lot of science involved when it comes to welding," says Hill. "The metallurgy class is going to give you a scientific understanding of how different metals react to different weld processes, what to watch for, what to do, and what not to do. A lot of that comes from the science of metallurgy and understanding why it does what it does and not just the application of how to do it.”
Students also learn the essential business skills required in the welding industry.
“In the fabrication class, I teach students how to write a job order, how to come up with a parts list, draw their own drawings, and put together their own work order,” says Hill. “There is very little involvement from me. The students have to make the phone calls, hunt down the materials, estimate how long it’s going to take to cut it, weld it, move it, and any kind of finishing work they need to do. They feel like they are running their own business.”
Top-Paying Welding Jobs
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a skilled welder can expect to earn a median annual wage of $42,490 per year, with the highest 10% of welders earning more than $64,240.
However, opportunities for skilled welders don’t begin and end in the welding bay.
“For students with the right learning attitude and who have ambition, welding can open so many doors to different career opportunities,” says Hill. “They could work in inspection-type jobs, move into engineering, sales, or robot operation. They might even want to become an educator like me.”
With such a breadth of opportunity available, Hill encourages his welding students to try lots of different things, taking their time to understand fully what they are passionate about.
“Someone who is serious about what they do shouldn't be in a job longer than five years,” says Hill. “They need to move from one job to the next and learn the different aspects of their trade until they figure out what it is that they want to do with the rest of their life.”
Developing those long term career goals is essential.
“I always tell my welding students that they are not here taking classes just to be a welder,” says Hill. “They are here because they want the job after the welder. They want the job that's going to do things for them and their families. Having the freedom to explore these varied and exciting career options starts with a solid foundation built at welding school.”
Rolling Five-Week Enrollment
To make it as easy as possible for students from all walks of life to enroll in Northeastern’s welding program, the college has developed a unique rolling five-week admission system.
“When I first came to this institution, you had to start in the fall, and you ended in the spring," says Hill. "There was nothing in between. I felt that wasn't right and that we needed to try and be more accommodating to students who perhaps missed the start of the fall semester by two weeks. What was that person supposed to do? Were they supposed to wait an entire year before they could come back and take classes? I hate to think how many students we turned away because they missed the start of the program by two weeks.”
Hill re-wrote the curriculum, breaking large four-credit classes into smaller two-credit courses that can be completed in just five weeks.
“I can actually get more done in a smaller class,” says Hill. “I had these giant four-credit classes that took up an entire semester because there was so much content that had to be covered. Instead of cramming everything into one class, I was able to break it down by welding process and position. This gave me the ability to bring more things back into my grade book and enabled us to open enrollment every five weeks.”
Flexible enrollment, combined with small classes and the community college system’s affordable tuition fees, makes Northeastern the perfect place for students to take their first step towards a career in the welding industry.
“The community college level is incredibly personable,” says Hill. “The smaller class sizes and one-on-one teaching time really makes a big difference, helping us to help our students become the best they can be."
To learn more about how Northeastern’s certificate and degree programs in welding technology can help you find the spark to ignite a red hot career in welding, visit the welding technology program page on our website.