Flying the friendly skies takes a village. There are pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, TSA agents, baggage handlers and more. And that list doesn’t even begin to discuss the people and companies that produce the airplanes themselves. From designers and engineers to machine operators and assembly staff, that village is probably more like a small city.
Welders also make up a healthy chunk of the collection of individuals that help get travelers off the ground and cruising at 40,000 ft. But how does one become a welder in the aerospace industry, one of the most exciting, dynamic and fastest-growing industries today? To find out, the team at Welding Productivity talked to Jay Kapur, vice president of operations at Aimtek Inc.
“We’re not always looking for someone with a lot of specific aerospace experience, but we also can’t teach someone how to weld from the ground up,” Kapur says. “We’re willing to train an entry-level welder or someone just graduating from a trade school because even if someone comes in with experience, they don’t have specific experience doing the things we do. No matter the hire, there’s always a certain amount of training that has to take place.”
Most of the work that Kapur is referencing requires TIG welding experience, which he says applicants have to have. And the bulk of that work is for thin sheet metal components, with material ranging between 0.02 in. and 0.05 in. thick. Ultimately, those components are used to repair and service a multitude of Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines and other critical aircraft parts.
When Aimtek Inc. opened its doors in 1973 under the name American Industrial & Medical Products Inc., it hadn’t yet broached the world of aerospace manufacturing. It was supplying medical gases and respiratory and anesthesia supplies to hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. Expanding on its experience in gas distribution, however, Aimtek acquired Bay State Oxygen, a welding supply and industrial gas distributor, in 1977. A year later, the company took on the name Aimtek Inc.
In the 1990s, Aimtek began offering specialty welding and brazing alloys to customers in the aerospace industry. In 1998, Aimtek was named Region I Small Business Subcontractor of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration – based on a nomination submitted by one of its customers, Pratt & Whitney.
Its relationship with Pratt & Whitney continued, in particular in 2003, when Aimtek acquired Atech Turbine Components Inc., an overhaul and repair facility for Pratt & Whitney Canada turbine engine components. This is primarily where Kapur is looking to place welders.
Cleared for takeoff
Like most welding companies, Atech adheres to American Welding Society (AWS) standards, of which there are three specifically designated for the aerospace industry: D17.1 (Specification for Fusion Welding for Aerospace Applications), D17.2 (Specification for Resistance Welding for Aerospace Applications) and D17.3 (Specification for Friction Stir Welding of Aluminum Alloys for Aerospace Applications).
Because of the safety requirements for aerospace manufacturing and repair, the company must also adhere to additional standards dictated by the FAA and by its customers.
“There are standards and procedures that we have to follow, which means that our employees have to earn internal training qualifications before being leveraged for production work,” Kapur explains. “They have to weld parts and then we have to send them to an independent lab for testing. That’s just the nature of aerospace.”
On-the-job training at Atech typically starts by working on repetitive parts under the supervision of an experienced, long-term employee. From there, a quality manager ensures that the new welder can do a certain number of jobs repetitively and successfully without failure.
Unlike other welding positions around the country, once a new hire earns his qualifications to weld at Atech, the work environment is incredibly clean. The work is also less physically intensive than a traditional MIG welding job.
“It’s clean work that’s not physically taxing, so those are major benefits to our type of work,” he says. “The shop is basically spotless, and because the parts they’re welding are typically small, all of it is bench work.”
It’s no wonder that a young welder may have aspirations to land a job in the aerospace industry. Kapur adds that there are fewer hazards and risks in positions like the ones he’s offering and that the high precision nature of the work can be very rewarding.
Landing a job
While Kapur admits that a job candidate might not need specific aerospace experience, those that do have some under their belt will have a much easier time landing a job. So where can a young welder gain experience when most positions require experience in the first place?
Kapur says it starts by developing strong skills in TIG welding. Trade schools teach a variety of welding processes, but when students graduate, they might not be proficient in any one process. Therefore, many recent grads begin their careers by specifically looking for entry-level positions that include a certain degree of TIG welding.
Welders – regardless of the number of years they’ve been on the job – may find AWS certifications, such as the certified welding inspector (CWI), certified welding supervisor (CWS) and certified welding engineer (CWEng), helpful in advancing their careers in aerospace industry companies like Kapur’s. CWIs also have an option to supplement their AWS certification with the D17.1 Aerospace Welding Applications Endorsement credential.
When Atech has a job opening, the company typically posts its opportunities on employment search engines, such as Indeed.com. The company also works with local trade schools to find promising talent, specifically asking for a school’s best TIG welders.
“TIG welding requires a different skillset,” Kapur explains. “And actually, reaching out to local trade school instructors worked well with one of our new hires. We brought him in as an intern working part time while he was in school. After he graduated, we hired him for a full-time position, and he’s been one of our best welding hires to date.”
In terms of apprenticeship opportunities at Atech, Kapur says he would appreciate a student having the initiative to reach out to him while still in school. This would give aspiring aerospace welders the chance to determine what specific skills they should focus on while attending classes.
In addition to seeking out star students, Kapur says Atech looks for candidates that are reliable and dependable. A resume that relays stability in previous positions is also desirable.
“We follow basic hiring practices in terms of seeking out candidates that can accept teaching and instruction and be able to work cooperatively,” Kapur says. “Attention to detail is also key, considering the precision required to produce aircraft parts.
“New hires also need to be self-motivated,” he continues. “There’s not a lot of standing over the shoulder here. Once they’ve been trained, they’ll basically be working independently. The parts will, of course, go through an inspection process, but there’s not a lot of micromanagement here.”
Beyond the hiring requirements that Kapur laid out, there is also mandatory pre-employment screening required. Because Atech is FAA certified, there is a strict drug-testing program in place. For most new hires, however, it’s not surprising to learn that the standards are high in regard to working on safety-critical parts. And as technology advances, those standards will continue to rise.
“More and more, technology is becoming an important part of the industry,” Kapur says. “Productivity improvements in terms of automation and robotics are becoming the norm, so moving forward, the job will expand beyond manual welding. Today, having math skills and being able to read prints help candidates get noticed, but at some point, those skills will be a requirement.”
Aerospace is an exciting industry, but its future will demand a new generation of welders that isn’t intimidated by computer controls, automation or high-tech equipment. Not only is Kapur confident that his new welding hires will step up to the plate, he has faith in the next wave of welders entering the trade overall.