In honor of National Welding Month, we connected with Greg Harle, Training Director of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 23, and one of our excellent Board of Directors members, to interview him on the work of welding and why individuals should get connected with this career pathway.

What is welding?
“In our world, the pipe welding world, welding is joining 2 different connection methods by joining 2 metals together through fusion. In the piping industry, we use it for steam, hot water, hydronics, food process, anything that’s natural gases.

There’s all the different types of metals that all bond at different molecular levels. So the science is based off of what type of materials are you joining, what type of material are you can going to use to join those two types together. Are the two types of materials you’re joining the same type of metal? Are they different types of metal so the bonding agent, the welding rod, has to be compatible with both of them.”

How much do you make starting as an apprentice?
“Entry-level apprentices, now, receive $20.18 in wages and $25.33 in benefits. So it’s $90k entry level if you work full time.”

What are the necessary skills?
“On the welding side, a lot of people that are successful at it have an artistic skill to them, meaning people that are good at writing and drawing, and visually being able to see what they’re going to do ahead of time, what are gonna be looking for, having a perspective. Those are the people are normally successful at welding.”

Who are qualified or ideal candidates?
“Education and experience is of course going to be at the top. When we take applications, it’s not you versus the intake system; it is you versus the intake system versus all the other applicants. So there might be a year where our top applicant might not have much experience as the top 15 in previous years. What stands out to us is education and experience. I can tell ya all the soft skills: work ethic and all that, but that’s very hard to identify in an interview or even on an aptitude test. When they’re doing the interviews, and they ask why did you apply, they’re looking for some kind of passion instead of cookie cutter answers. You have to sound like you have some passion to do this, especially for the next 30 years.”

What kind of education is required or beneficial to have prior to coming in?
“Required is just a high school diploma with a year high school algebra or a high school equivalency exam. However, beneficial, any kind of technical vocational training you can get prior is going to add to that scale of you versus other applicants. Most of our applicants took a class at Highland or Rock Valley or Kishwaukee or Sauk Valley or Blackhawk. They took vocational training at one of those schools. It might not be just in welding, a lot of times it might be blueprint reading, fabricating readings, anything vocational in addition.”

Why is it difficult to capture women in the trades in general?
“So right now if you went to any public high school, just pick one, and you went into vocational classes, how many women are you gonna see in there percentage-wise? Probably less than 10%, right? So then you take that 10% that are taking those kind of classes prior to graduating high school, how many do you end up with after that, that are going to apply? So that’s why we struggle getting women into the industry. It’s by assigning gender role in grade school, junior high school, and high school, prevents women from realizing these opportunities are for them as well. There is physical parts to it that you need to do to perform the duties of the job but we have women that have no issue doing that.”

What are the difficulties of welding?
“Their body’s articulation, that’s one of biggest things. So if you’re a young man or woman that’s 19, 20, 21, 22, 27, doesn’t matter, it’s a lot easier. Because you’re rotating your shoulder, your hips, your knees, and your elbow all at the same time because that rod’s getting smaller as you moving across whatever element you’re welding. So you’re moving all of these body parts all at the same time, as you get older and you’ve been through different things in life – maybe a couple sports injuries, work injuries, shoulder gets little wore out, it makes it difficult. Losing vision is a big thing, you’re staring at a bright light, you need to be able to see it. One of the things that we find with apprentices not being successful at times with their welding is they need glasses. How many people go to the eye doctor every year? So they’re not even aware they can’t see stuff.”

What are the four types of welding you use?
“There are more than four types of welding, but in our industry there is four. There is stick which is shielded metal arc welding (SMAW) that’s when you have an electrode. Then there’s gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) – also known as TIG. There’s gas metal arc welding (GMAW) referred to as MIG, which you see with the gun and the wire that feeds out. And then there’s orbital where you program a robot or a machine to make the weld.”

How can you physically observe and experience?
While you can’t just walk in, because otherwise that’s all they’d be doing, UA Local 23 does plan on holding more observation events, and making more videos and virtual experiences.

How has COVID affected your industry?
Work opportunities have been affected the most. Harle says that “a lot of people don’t want you in their building right now”, which limits the employment opportunities. “With the type of welding we do, it’s impossible to keep social distancing when you’re setting everything up, a lot of is two people. Not welding at the same time, but one person is actually the fitter, handing them the welding rod and the grinder, those materials. So that made it a little bit more difficult.”

Steps for Applying
“The first one would be to apply on the dates they’re available. We’re starting apprentices next week month, these are the ones that applied prior to COVID that were put on hold. So when we take applications, that’s for next year. We’ll start in May and these will be to place for next construction year.

You come in and apply and you’re given a personal experience form. That personal experience form is gonna say, okay what classes did you take related to the trade, what vocational training did you have after high school, did you do team sports, team activities or hobbies. And all of these add up to 20 percent of the acceptance. So they do the aptitude test and the personal experience form.”

UA Local 23 Plumbers & Pipefitters is accepted applications beginning May 17, 2021 through January 7, 2022 at the Local 23 Training Office at 4525 Boeing Drive, Rockford, IL 61109. To learn more, including requirements before and day of, visit their website.

How to prepare for test
“First of all, there’s a study guide here. Second of all, I tell everybody Khan Academy. That’s what I recommend, if you don’t know how to prepare, use Khan Academy to do so. It’s a little over 2 hours and it’s portions. So one of the things people will do is get behind and then not complete it at all. Well, then you don’t answer 20 questions, you have a 100% chance of not getting any points for those 20 questions.”

Process of evaluation
“If they get above the minimum cut score, which last year was 65, they get an interview. And then the interview is going to be conducted by one of the people from the Labor Union and one of the contractors. So what they do is everybody has the same questions.

So when they ask you what your hobbies are, tell them what your hobbies are and you better talk about it with some passion. Otherwise that’s the kind of effort you’re going to put into your employment. If someone asks you what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever accomplished, have an answer. All of these interview questions are the same, you just gotta be prepared for them.”

What about you? What got you interested?
“So I was working at McDonald’s and there was an ad for a part-turner for a mechanical contractor, and I applied for that ad. I took a pay cut from McDonalds to work for this mechanical contractor delivering materials to job sites and go to see what the people were doing, and found it rewarding and found that the wages were very good, and I thought it was cool being able to get to go to different places and locations and not have to go to the same places every day and see the same faces, you get to meet new people.”

Greg’s message in closing: don’t give up and show your enthusiasm. “It took me two times, I didn’t get accepted at 18.”

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