If you value the satisfaction that comes with doing high-quality, high-precision work and not taking shortcuts, you might be cut out for a career as a pipeline welder. Not only does this job offer an attractive salary and lucrative perks like ample overtime, it affords workers the opportunity to travel all over the world, be part of an exclusive group of tradesmen, and build a skill set that can be parlayed into a number of other interesting jobs.
Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about pipe welders, including what they do, how much one can make in the field and some of the main arguments in favor of pursuing pipe welding as a career path.
A pipe welder, also called a pipeline welder, uses specialized techniques to join pieces of metal to build and repair pipes. Metal inert gas (MIG) welding, tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding and stick metal arc welding (SMAW) are among the most common welding techniques used by pipeline welders.
Pipeline welders can be found in the oil industry, working for utilities like water and sewer companies, in construction jobs and in manufacturing. They work domestically, but are also in high demand abroad and the job often involves frequent travel.
A pipe welder’s work carries a lot of weight. The integrity of the material being carried by the pipeline, like fuel or drinking water, depends heavily on the quality of their welds. This is why a pipe welder needs an acute attention to detail and can’t settle for cutting corners in their work.
A pipeline welder’s job comes with some inherent hazards. They work around heavy machinery and tools that can be potentially dangerous and even life-threatening. They also work in challenging conditions, braving the elements as well as extreme heat and cold on job sites. These hazards are one of the contributing factors that drives high salaries in the pipe welding field.
The average salary for a pipe welder in the United States is just under $70,000 a year, with the majority of pipe welders earning somewhere between $44,000 and $83,000. The highest tier of earners in this profession make above $100,000 a year. These high earners typically have a long resume of successful jobs under their belt and have built a reputation as a reliable and diligent worker.
Pipe welding is a unique field in that you can’t take the base hourly pay at face value as an indicator of how much you’ll make. This is because so much of a pipeline welder’s earnings come from additional sources like overtime, pay for travel time, pay for the use of your truck and other equipment, and per diem allowances while on a job.
Overtime pay covers any time worked over 40 hours in a week and is usually paid at one-and-a-half times your hourly rate. Depending on the job, some pipe welders who travel are paid per mile or per hour for their time spent on the road, the wear and tear on their vehicle, and fuel. This is called truck pay.
Finally, if you’re working a job that keeps you away from home for several days or weeks at a time, you’ll receive a per diem allowance, which is a flat daily rate meant to cover things like food and incidentals.
When these different categories of pay are tallied up, they can amount to a much higher salary than the advertised hourly rate for a given job. Note that each job and company operate a little differently when it comes to how pay is handled.
With a full-time job as an in-house welder, for example, you’ll be more likely to have a regularly bi-weekly paycheck for a consistent amount than if you’re working a contract job. Though contract jobs offer less stability, they can make it possible to earn several months’ worth of pay in a much shorter time frame, which expands your earning potential over the course of the year.
As we mentioned earlier, the high salaries in the pipeline welding field are bolstered by the dangers you’ll face on the job. The eyes are the body part most commonly injured on the job for all professions, accounting for about 5% of workplace injuries.
In welding, however, that proportion jumps to 25%. Other hazards include working with molten metal and being in close proximity to sparks, high electric voltage, sharp surfaces and loud noise.
Weather conditions are also a factor that contributes to the profession’s elevated salaries. It’s not uncommon to find yourself working on a pipeline in the daily rainstorms of the tropics, whipping winds on oil platforms or in several feet of snow in cold climates. While the conditions are rarely perfect, if you’re willing to brave them you can be rewarded handsomely in the form of a hefty paycheck.
Becoming a pipeline welder takes a mix of classroom learning and on-the-job experience. For starters, you’ll need a high school diploma or its equivalent. A college degree isn’t a mandatory requirement, but it can help fast-track your mastery of the skills and knowledge needed for pipeline welding.
Courses in metallurgy, for example, will prepare you to select the right welding techniques depending on the type of metals being joined and the environmental circumstances. Classes on welding techniques like MIG welding or TIG welding will help you build valuable hands-on experience.
Unless you know a pipeline welder who’s willing to take you under their wing and show you the ropes, this kind of experience can be hard to come by outside of a formal setting. Some colleges and trade schools offer programs specifically for pipeline welding that can be completed in under a year.
After you’ve built up some knowledge and basic welding experience, the next step is to become certified. Most employers require, at a minimum, welder certification from an organization like the American Welding Society. This certification doesn’t have any specific prerequisites, but it does require you to pass an exam testing your knowledge of procedures used in the structural steel, petroleum pipeline, sheet metal, and chemical refinery welding industries.
Once you’ve obtained this certification, you can qualify to apply for additional endorsements, like structural steel and pipeline welding, which can further increase your job prospects.
Perhaps the biggest component of becoming a well-paid pipeline welder is building a track record of successful work experience. As in many fields, landing a coveted position often comes down to who you know, so your performance on every job you work matters. Invest the time to do a good job and make strong connections starting with your very first welding job and it will pay off over time in the form of positive references and job tips that will advance your career.
We’ve already covered the financial benefits of becoming a pipe welder, but there’s more to the career than just a nice paycheck.
Few jobs offer you as many opportunities to travel as pipeline welding. In fact, it’s just as easy to find pipeline welding jobs that will take you on the road than ones that will keep you in one place. A pipe welder might find themself installing a water line in downtown Manhattan, making repairs on an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, or working on a natural gas pipeline in the European countryside. If you want to see the world, pipeline welding can take you just about anywhere civilization exists (and some places where it doesn’t!).
It’s hard to put into words the sense of community you’ll find among longtime welders. Working closely together to complete a challenging and important project builds bonds that can range from the mutual respect of esteemed colleagues to lifelong friendship.
Many welders find it particularly rewarding to be part of locally based welding groups that hold technical meetings, educational seminars and social events for members.
Though becoming a pipe welder can be a great career move in and of itself, the opportunities don’t have to end there. Having expertise in pipeline welding can open all sorts of doors in the industry, from taking your skills beneath the surface as an underwater welder to tackling quality issues as a welding inspector.
If you crave a job where there’s always room to learn something new, you’ll enjoy the many paths pipeline welding can lay out for you.
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