When you turn on the faucet in the kitchen sink, you’re greeted with a cool stream of water to fill your glass. When you push the ignition on your gas stove, the burner catches flame to heat up whatever you’re making for dinner. We take these everyday conveniences for granted, but none of them would be possible without the complex network of pipelines carrying water, oil, gas and other substances beneath our homes, cities and even bodies of water.
Pipeline welders, also called pipefitters, build, maintain and repair these pipelines, which are essential to modern life. Here, we’ll outline a pipeline welder’s job description and salary and tell you what it’ll take if you want to get into this diverse and exciting field.
Pipeline welders construct and maintain the various components associated with piping systems. These systems commonly carry water, oil, and gas, as mentioned above, but they can also carry various other gases and combustibles. Because the pipelines will carry such potentially hazardous substances, the precision of their work is of the utmost importance.
A pipeline welder must be proficient in many different welding techniques and be familiar with the properties of various types and grades of metals to determine the best type of weld for the job. This includes knowing properties like a metal’s chemical makeup, hardness, ductility and resistance to heat. Some commonly used pipeline welding tools include torches, saws, wrenches and drills.
A pipeline welder may work indoors or outdoors and commonly is exposed to the elements, like heat and cold. Pipeline welders can be employed pretty much anywhere there are pipelines, which is to say anywhere civilization exists. Yet some of the most common job sites for this job include oil fields, energy plants, construction sites, manufacturing facilities, and aerospace factories. The government is also a big employer of pipeline welders.
The work of a pipeline welder has direct and urgent safety implications, not just for the people on a job site, but for the public at large. In light of this, professionals in this field must have an acute attention to detail and a strong adherence to safety precautions. You must be able to read and follow pipeline blueprints, as well as welding procedures, to the letter. If the inspector on a job finds too many discontinuities in your work, you may quickly find yourself out of a job.
Being a pipeline welder isn’t easy; the hours can be long and the job physically demanding. But it’s also a rewarding career that offers a strong sense of purpose, establishes financial security, affords the opportunity to travel, and initiates you into a global community of highly skilled tradespeople.
Pipeline welding is one of the most lucrative jobs in the welding field. A pipeline welder can make in a week what a standard machine shop welder would make in a month. The average salary for a pipeline welder in the United States is just under $70,000 a year, with some job listings advertising salaries upwards of $130,000.
A pipeline welder might work on contract, i.e. a set amount of pay for a specified job, or on what’s known as a ‘split check’, where pay is broken up into different categories. In a split check situation, the welder makes a flat hourly rate for time spent on the job, truck pay, which is pay for the use of the welder’s own truck and tools.
The welder also gets a per diem, which is a daily allowance meant to be used toward living expenses like food or lodging. (You can find average per diem rates in your area via the U.S. General Services Administration.) Any hours over 40 hours worked in a one-week period are paid at an overtime rate.
With this breakdown, it’s easy to see how one might earn several thousand dollars per week in a pipeline welding job. However, it’s also typical for workers in this field to pay for their own gear, like a truck and machinery. It’s important to factor in these expenses when figuring your actual take-home pay as a pipeline welder.
While many pipeline welders are self-employed, others work full-time for a company. Though these in-house jobs don’t offer as much flexibility as contact positions, they come with greater job security and potentially lucrative benefits. Some of these may include:
If you have an employer that prioritizes professional development, this can be especially compelling because they may help cover some or all of the costs of pursuing additional industry certifications and other credentials, which will in turn help you further advance your earning potential and career opportunities.
Because pipeline welding is a highly technical skill that requires the knowledge of many different techniques, it’s a great idea to begin with training at a vocational school or community college.
While not absolutely necessary, this type of training will give you a strong foundation of fundamental welding processes like shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) that are commonly used in the pipeline field. Vocational schools also typically offer coursework in safety and industry standards, which will serve you well in the field.
If you’re planning on going the four-year degree route, look for a school that offers a program for welding technology, welding engineering or a related field.
Pipeline welding is not an entry level position. Typical jobs in this field require a minimum of one to three years of related experience, with the higher-paying jobs requiring five years of experience or more. Many pipeline welders begin by working in some other welding capacity first while they build up their experience, then work their way into a pipefitting role.
Welding is an industry built on its credentialing system. While not mandatory, it’s highly recommended that anyone interested in becoming a pipeline welder pursue the Certified Welder (CW) credential from the American Welding Society (AWS).
This credential is a performance-based program that tests welders on the procedures used in the structural steel, petroleum pipeline, sheet metal, and chemical refinery welding industries.
Once you obtain CW certification, you can then pursue additional certifications and endorsements to fit your desired career path. For example, AWS offers a Pipeline Welding endorsement meant to help certified welding inspectors (CWIs) expand their pipeline-specific expertise.
Professionals who hold these high-level certifications enjoy even higher earning potential and can move into the upper rungs of responsibility within the field.
Finally, some states, like New York, require welders to be licensed. To obtain a welding license, you’ll need to be certified through an organization like AWS and then apply for the license through the state. Likewise, some municipalities, like Los Angeles, require a city-specific license if you want to work on government welding jobs.
There are about 440,000 pipefitters employed across the United States, but it’s easier to get a job in some places than others.
In terms of per capita numbers, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Ohio lead the nation in welder employment. However, we see the highest concentration of pipeline welding jobs in states known for their oil and gas activity, like Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and Colorado.
In terms of the places where pipeline welders can earn the most money, Illinois leads the nation with an average annual pipefitter salary of $86,120. Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey and Massachusetts round out the top five of best paying states for pipeline welders. The top five metro areas in the nation by salary are New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas.
If you’re looking to work overseas, you’ll find ample international job opportunities for pipeline welders. As with domestic work, the areas with the highest concentration of jobs are typically those with booming oil and gas industries. Outside of the U.S., these include Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and China.
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