In the era of social media and fractured politics, there is at least one thing we can all agree on: When military service members return home, they deserve our utmost respect, gratitude and support and – perhaps even more important – they deserve happy, stable and lucrative lives as working veterans.
Finding the path back into civilian life isn’t always easy. Navigating career choices and educational opportunities, not to mention the ins and outs of the G.I. Bill, can be dizzying. For those interested in pursuing a career in welding, however, there is a clear starting point: Set all sights on gaining American Welding Society (AWS) certification.
Benefits of AWS certification include higher desirability amongst potential employers and – after landing a job – increased salary potential and job stability. Employers see job applicants with AWS certification as a safe bet and consider current employees with AWS certification as the best candidates for promotions and special assignments.
There are a myriad of ways for people from all walks of life to become certified, but veterans have even more resources to explore. In terms of achieving certification while attending school, various community colleges and vocational institutions accept the G.I. Bill, and there are non-profit educational programs that offer free tuition to veterans. Additionally, scholarships are available dedicated to military service members as well as charitable organizations around the nation that are focused on helping veterans obtain stable, good-paying jobs.
Millions of military service members have taken advantage of the G.I. Bill since it was enacted in 1944. In 2018, more than 700,000 military service members used it to attend private and public colleges and universities as well as vocational and other non-college-degree institutions around the nation.
For veterans interested in pursuing a career in welding while also attaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, first things first: It’s important to determine whether the G.I. Bill will cover the cost of tuition and what additional expenses will be covered, such as housing and textbooks.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, payment amounts vary depending on the G.I. Bill program that is being utilized as well as the type of school that is being considered. To learn more about the G.I. Bill, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can be contacted via email or through the department’s toll-free helpline.
Once those initial questions are answered, the next step is to ensure that an AWS certification can be attained through the school. The best way to do that is to determine whether the school is an AWS accredited testing facility or if it is recognized as an official AWS educational institution.
Jonathan Medellin, a veteran of the Army airborne infantry, is in his third semester at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas. Hill is an official AWS SENSE school, which stands for schools excelling through national skills education. To achieve SENSE status, a school must meet a set of minimum standards and guidelines. Although Hill College is 40 min. from home, Medellin considers the school’s designation worth the extra drive.
“Hill College gives students a leg up when it comes to getting a job after graduation,” he explains. “In my area, there are a couple of big manufacturing plants and plenty of other metalworking companies, and our instructors are in contact with those companies. They’re up to date on what’s going on in the welding industry overall and specifically, what’s going on in our local area.
“On top of that, every welding professor has a ridiculous amount of experience,” he adds. “That was another reason I chose Hill College. I don’t care how good they say their program is or how new their equipment is, none of that matters if they aren’t accredited and don’t have experienced instructors. You really can’t compete with that.”
As Medellin works toward his associate’s degree in applied science in welding, he is also earning his Level 1 – Entry Welder AWS certification, which will be invaluable as he begins applying for work after graduation. His certification card will list the endorsements he has received for each arc welding process that he successfully completed during school. To date, Medellin has earned endorsements for stick, MIG and metal-cored processes.
Understandably, there are plenty of reasons that veterans might want to pursue AWS certification without attending school. They might want to enter the workforce in a quicker fashion or might already have a degree.
For veterans taking this route, there are several ways to become certified. The straightforward approach is simply taking an AWS certification test. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a benefit that pays the testing fees for a license or certification, including several offered by AWS. After taking the test, veterans can apply for reimbursement from the VA office.
Numerous non-profit programs and schools can also help these veterans attain and hone their welding skills while also delivering AWS certification. In Lincoln Park, Mich., just outside of Detroit, Ford has partnered with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Wounded Warriors organization to prepare veterans for a career in welding.
The intensive, six-week program offers training in welding, including MIG, TIG and stick. Upon course completion, participants are awarded a UAW-Ford Welding Course certificate and have the opportunity to take the AWS Certified Welder test in the 1G through 4G positions.
In San Diego, Calif., Workshops for Warriors (WFW) also provides veterans the opportunity to earn AWS certification while training them in the trades and helping to place them in good-paying jobs. Hernán Luis y Prado, the founder and CEO of the non-profit school, places major importance on the institution’s ability to provide students with nationally recognized certification.
“AWS certifications are crucial because every course and instruction taught at Workshops for Warriors leads to a nationally recognized credential, and there are no better certifications than those offered through AWS,” he says. “It was crucial for us to become America’s No. 1 welding school, and to do that, we needed and wanted AWS’s support. And thanks to them, we’re well on our way to becoming the preeminent welding school in America. We’re looking forward to developing and continuing our welding programs with the support of AWS.”
Luis y Prado says that WFW is able to provide AWS certifications to students at no cost to them through the generous support of individual, corporate and foundational scholarships.
Abraham Aldama, a full-time welding teacher’s assistant at WFW and former graduate, can attest to the opportunities available through the school. Although WFW is primarily focused on veterans, Aldama entered the program during his last six months of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corp. using the U.S. Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which relieves service members of their military responsibilities to allow them to concentrate on their training and transition back into civilian life.
Aldama’s experiences as a student at WFW were incredibly positive, but he wants to remind potential students that there is a lot of hard work involved. He punctuates that statement, however, by saying that the hard work doesn’t go unrewarded.
“One hundred percent of my time was spent studying and practicing processes to gain welding qualifications,” he says. “Sure, it was pretty rigorous – you’re on your feet welding for seven and a half hours a day. You’re sweaty and dirty, but you kind of love it at the same time. Besides, you’re with 17 other students that are in the same shoes as you, and there are instructors that were also once in the same shoes that now have a lot of knowledge to pass on. As long as you apply yourself and ask questions, anybody can succeed here.”
Aldama is certified in stick, MIG and flux-cored arc welding in all positions and through WFW, he requalifies his AWS certifications every year. At WFW, there are instructors that are certified AWS inspectors as well as certified AWS educators, which means they are eligible to teach and qualify other personnel, like Aldama.
To pursue certification through WFW, the first step involves filling out an online application. Once the application has been submitted, applicants can expect an email detailing next steps in the enrollment process.
In regard to tuition, WFW is a G.I. Bill eligible school that is also able to provide scholarship opportunities thanks to the generosity of private donors. The personal protective equipment required for the welding program costs approximately $300. It’s advised, however, that interested parties first consult with the local VA office to determine what expenses are covered for books and supplies.
Due to ever-increasing demand from prospective students, WFW is expanding. The development involves building a 148,000-sq.-ft. facility to graduate more than 10 times the number of veterans the school serves annually. WFW recently kicked-off a capital campaign to raise funds for the $163 million expansion.
In addition to the G.I. Bill and scholarships that are available through schools like WFW, there are a slew of other financial benefits to pursue, including scholarships issued by the AWS Foundation. Every year, the AWS Foundation awards more than $1 million dollars in scholarships with more than 100 scholarships in which to apply.
No matter the path toward certification, there is a scholarship available – for folks heading to a trade school and for those looking to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Among those scholarships is the Nancy and Barry Carlson Scholarship for veterans pursuing careers in welding, which Medellin relies on for supplemental financial support during his time at Hill College.
“The G.I. Bill pays for classes and up to $500 for books for the year, but I’m fortunate to also have the AWS scholarship to help pay for my welding tools and things like my laptop,” he says. “It also helped me pay for some of the books that the G.I. Bill didn’t cover.”
After graduation, Medellin will graduate with a handful of AWS endorsements as well as certification. He plans to move to Washington to find work in maritime welding, which is incredibly prevalent in that part of the country. While in school, he’s getting tons of great advice for post-graduation as a student member of AWS. Topics at his student chapter meetings run the gamut – including additional scholarships that may be available, new technologies coming into the industry and tips for landing a job.
Like Medellin, Aldama has also benefitted from attending AWS meetings.
“The meetings are informative, but they’re also a lot of fun,” he says. “Sometimes they bring in equipment that I’ve never seen or used before – cutting-edge stuff. Overall, the meetings aren’t what you would expect where everybody has a pen and paper and is taking notes while someone else does all of the talking. We’re eating, sharing knowledge, and just mingling and learning from one another. It’s a great place to network.”
Clearly, the future looks bright for both Medellin and Aldama. With AWS certifications under their belt, the sky is the limit in terms of employment. For Aldama, however, he is content in his current job.
“I see myself staying at WFW for the long run,” he says. “I love what I do and the training doesn’t stop just because I’m employed. I have to keep up with whatever they throw at me, like new class offerings focused on different types of metalworking.
“More than anything else,” he concludes, “I feel honored that they asked me to stay and that I get to help my military brothers and sisters attain the same core skills that I did.”