Skilled Trades College Acces Welding Apprenticeship

The myth of six-figure welders

We first wrote about welders in 2013. Its a topic we keep coming back to, most recently in a 2018 post entitled What skilled trades job actually pay.

The reason why we keep writing about welders is they have become Exhibit One for the case why others’ kids don’t need to get a four-year degree to have a good-paying career. We are told over and over again that there are many job openings for welders making more than $100,000.

One problem: there is no evidence anywhere that there are many welders who make six figures. In Michigan the median wage for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers is $36,750. Below the national median for all occupations. You read that right, welding is an occupation that has a median wage below the national median for all jobs! At the 90th percentile Michigan welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers make $53,900.

This is all part of a larger story that the so-called skilled trades pay less than conventional wisdom has it and that there are far fewer jobs in above national median wage skilled trades occupations than conventional wisdom has it.

In his new book The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough does a deep dive into the myth and reality of welders. Tough traces the history of the myth of welding as a six figure occupation to a 2014 Wall Street Journal op ed written by then Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel entitled Welders Make $150,00? Bring Back Shop Class. Tough writes:

…its premise was that in rural Ohio there was such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that employers were regularly hiring welders at salaries of $150,000 a year and up. Some Ohio welders, Mandel said, were earning more than $200,000. In the column, Mandel contrasted the bountiful opportunities available to blue-collar workers without college degrees with the dismal prospects he said many college graduates faced.

This story, of course, has been repeated over and over again by way too many business leaders and elected officials of both parties. Once again, it isn’t accurate. As we have explored many times, most recently here, the preponderance of high-wage jobs are in occupations requiring a four-year degree or more. Yes there are good-paying jobs and careers that don’t require a four-year degree; some in the trades, some in non-trades occupations. But the data are clear: the most reliable path to a middle class career is getting a four-year degree.

Tough demonstrates the reality of those preparing to become welders through the story of Orry who in his mid twenties enrolled in a community college to pursue a degree in welding. Tough writes:

Orry was no longer feeling all that optimistic about the welding profession. … the real life welding jobs that Orry was able to find in western North Carolina were paying experienced welders between $12 and $15 an hour, which was less than he was making at the door factory. Orry knew that better paying welding jobs existed, but they were all far away, in Colorado or Arizona or working on a pipeline in Alaska. Those jobs were generally short-term and physically arduous, and if Orry went out and chased one, he’d have to leave his kids behind. Now that he was back together with Katie, and they had what felt like a genuine family, he wanted to stay close to home and be a real father, the kind of steady male presence that he himself had never had growing up. Besides, even those good-paying welding didn’t pay that well––maybe $30 or $40 an hour, if he got lucky.

Add to those labor market realities that Orry had wracked up $19,000 in student loans and still hadn’t finished his two-year degree. I have no idea how typical Orry is of those who set out to become a welder. It is possible that many can get into welding without a two-year degree and without student loans. But to become a skilled welder does require some post- secondary training and there is a cost to that training. And whatever the cost and however it is paid for the labor market reality of welding is that it is at best a median-paying, not a six-figure-paying, occupation.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Join a trade union, a 6 figure salary is very attainable. You can weld if you so desire. And most importantly the education costs zero dollars.

  2. I call bullshit bc I make 120 thousand a year but I also work on the road so I get travel pay and predium who ever wrote this article should probably get their research right and no I’m not working in oil fields or pipeline just convayor installations and second if this state is paying people 15 an hour to weld either the company is trash or the people they hire to weld just can’t weld worth a shit but what more can you expect from a democratic ran state

  3. Best year I’ve had was 218,000
    Average year is 120,000
    You totally over looked pipeline welders, refinery welders, bookmakers
    Yeah your not gonna make that right out of high school or trade school
    It takes skill and making a name for yourself. If your welding brackets at a factory for 10$ hr well yeah your not gonna make much.

    1. The post doesn’t say that there are no highly paid welders. What it says is that in Michigan the median wage (1/2 make more, 1/2 make less) as reported by employers is less than $37,000. By the way this year’s data is that the median is now $38,770. And at the 90th percentile it is $57,360. So those making six figures are few and far between.

      1. But that isn’t what you were claiming. Consodering spme welder male more than some of our government officials, it seems kind of asinine to even comment on here trying to argue your point further. Michigan is a terrible example to use for welder pay, as it doesn’t even reflect rhe reality of the situation. In Washington i know a handful of welders in one neighborhood who male enough to own several suburban households of more than 400k each home and are only 40

        1. The national data on median wages is in the same ballpark as Michigan.The story in the post from the book The Years That Matter Most is about a welder from North Carolina. The data come from employers. It is what they report as the wages they pay welders on a full time year round basis. Employer reports are far more reliable source of what all workers in an occupation earn than what we hear about or from individual workers.

  4. Welding is a field where you will only get out of it what you are willing to put into it. If you’re expectation is to work in a factory production setting 40 hrs a week than you’re going to have a hard time with making good wages. Those aren’t the jobs that the highly skilled and high paid welders are doing. $100k a year is very attainable but you will have to work hard for it and you’re not going to get there without solid work ethic. I also have a problem with “ Besides, even those good-paying welding didn’t pay that well––maybe $30 or $40 an hour, if he got lucky.” $40/hr is $83,200 a year and that’s a damn fine job for most people! We probably need to add a disclaimer that 6 figure salaries come with lots of hard work no matter what career field your in. One other comment is that as a person who went to welding school, and then a 4 year apprenticeship, if you’ve spent $19,000 and still haven’t complete a 2 year degree in welding, you need to either find a different career field or find a different welding school because something is seriously wrong with your plan.

  5. As a Welding Instructor with 18 years of experience, you are doing a massive disservice to this Trade. Going to school for welding is actually quite affordable, with the bulk of students recieving grants and aid. I, self taught until the 6 year mark, went from $8.50/hr to over $25/hr in three years, and that was over a decade ago. These were basic shop jobs at that time. Keep in mind, the small town I started in, much like I would assume the guy you wrote about, paid squat for ANY profession. These welders that you are claiming make nothing, are on a scale that is typical for their area. A shop that pays $15/hr is most likely only paying their engineer 18-20/hr. It’s all relative. If you are in an area with very little manufacturing competition, you will have low prevailing wages. The last shop I was in, as Weld Engineering Supervisor, saw top wages rise from $27/hr to $35/hr in a year and a half, due to competition. The six figure mark was attainable, in a shop, with OT. Now, show me ANY job with a four year degree that makes six figures, without exceeding 40hrs per week. I’ve played both ends of this game. yea, the white collar gives the 100k+ salary with bonuses, and the “prestige”. However, your work/life balance is no better, and often worse. You are, more often than not, required to pull 50+hr weeks, long nights, weekends away, etc… I’ll gladly keep my jeans and tee, enjoy my beer after work, and earn the bread when I want. You are perpetuating the myth that one needs a degree to be successful. This is why our manufacturing and quality of products have suffered. Keep the suit and tie, we will keep this country alive. Without the Trades, everyones way of life is not possible. BTW, over 50% of the products produced are welded and in the modern world you never more than six feet from something welded. Enjoy flushing your toilet, driving your car, and eating your food. We helped make that possible.

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