How to Hire the Welding Engineer You Really Need

—  Warning —
If your company makes welded assemblies this information is worth
hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year in profits.

Searching for a welding engineer or welding engineering manager isn’t an easy task for an HR staffer or professional recruiter. For many reasons, there aren’t many of us Welding Engineers out here. And 70% of job-titled “Welding Engineers” have little or no training in the welding physics and sciences and so are largely or completely unqualified – knowing enough to enable the welding processes, but often carrying enough influence and ignorance to drive companies right out of business. But to complicate the picture, all three recognized Welding Engineering programs have very different approaches and very different ideas as to what a Welding Engineer really is and should be doing.

Caution:  Welding Engineering training and experience is mainly process-specific and/or material-specific, not industry-specific. This has broader implications, but it’s critical to understand that their skills and expertise easily transfer across completely unrelated industries. Your search can easily turn up dry if you think your competion for a welding engineer is your competitors, because it’s not.  You’re looking for process expertise, and your search competition is all industries that weld similar materials and thicknesses.

Formal education is just the beginning of the story because once they’re out in the workforce, degreed welding engineers tend to lean into different areas.  A W.E. might lean toward heavy-wall welding, meaning it’s either piping, structural, off-road heavy equipment, or pressure-vessel, and normally includes a lot of manual welding management, welder training and certifications. Or a W.E. might lean toward the thin “gauge-thickness” materials. In terms of experience, those two worlds (thick or thin) are probably the greatest differences.  Beyond that, they might have a strong affinity for manual hand-welding environments, or for welding automation, or for metallurgy, “exotic” materials, testing, training, process optimization/control or R&D work.

As a personal example, over the years I have been compelled to conclude that I have some world-class skills in an environment of welding automation on gauge-thickness materials.  In that arena, I can excel to a level that makes most welding engineers and welding equipment manufacturers seem rather incompetent – I always find myself trying to figure out who is trainable that I can develop as a welding engineer or equipment supplier.  Can I handle an exclusively manual welding environment of heavy-wall code work that can’t or doesn’t want to move any of it into welding automation?  I’ve been trained, I’ve had exposure, but exclusively manual heavy-wall code welding is not my thing.  I could eventually grow into it, but many W.E.’s are better suited and it might be a waste of my individual talents.  Why not hire the right guy and support him?

A recruiter friend of mine, Kirk Abraham, recently said or quoted “Robots are fast, accurate & stupid. Humans are slow, sloppy & brilliant.”  Too many companies either can’t see the value in having brilliant humans teach robots to be fast and accurate, or they sense wisdom in the idea but just don’t know how to get there.

Then there’s the company or client side of the picture, which frankly can be structured to make the task of filling a WE opening… impossible. There are many pitfalls. After years of watching and participating in this sometimes painful dance either personally or by proxy of fellow welding engineers, I hope my perspectives may be a dramatic help to you as you work to fill your welding engineering position. Along the way I’ll discuss experience, job title, job description, responsibilities, compensation, training skills, strategic issues, and much more.  Here we go!

Hiring your first Welding Engineer?

The first question is whether your company has ever had a degreed Welding Engineer. If not, there are several hurdles to leap – in fact, it can be a formidable obstacle course. Management naturally expects the welding engineering pay range to fit in mid-line with the rest of their staffing portfolio. It does not. And for many frugal companies this is the biggest hurdle in the race for profitable welding excellence.

A great welding engineer who works for an excellent company is not merely an engineer. They may not be titled a manager, but their payscale should be viewed as playing the role of a vital technical manager.  They are the manager of the present and future profitability of your company’s most complex processes, the central hub of your greatest need for expertise and training.  By viewing them in this way, and picking a title and paygrade to match, it is no longer difficult to pay market value for the welding expertise that can catapult your company’s future into profitable and formidable excellence.

Salary Compensation for Degreed Welding Engineers

The U.S. Department of Labor isn’t much help here because they don’t list Welding Engineering separately. They lump Welding Engineering together as part of Materials Science Engineering – which is fine if exotic materials and metallurgy is the focus. But that just doesn’t describe most Welding Engineering. So where do you start?

In the majority of cases I’ve observed, the #1 reason that welding engineering positions remain vacant for 6 to 24 months and beyond is because the compensation level is unrealistically low, completely ignoring market value. Yes, it’s true that pay is not the primary motivator with technical professionals. However, it’s equally true that pay which is too far below market value is a strong de-motivator. And that’s often what I see.  HR advertises a salary “up to” their mid-range, which was picked based on the rest of their staffing – not on W.E. market value.  Welding Engineers will often joke together about such job postings, and comment on the real market value being $10-50k higher, but most will never apply for those positions.

[See the sidebar links to welding career information
including welding engineering job descriptions and training.]

The 2008 graduates in Welding Engineering / Materials Joining Engineering accepted an average starting salary of $60k about 3-4 months before graduation, and our niche has a unique “3 year bump” where average compensation goes up to about $70k for B.S. degreed welding engineers with 2-4 years of experience. The base salary levels range up to $120k+ for top candidates with some experience, not merely on market scarcity, but on the huge business value of welding process talent. It’s not the newbie companies that pay so much, but the ones who’ve been around and know the millions of dollars in profits that hinge on serious welding expertise… and a serious shot at building a competitive edge that can’t be matched.

One very talented welding engineer that I know, who was rightly near the top of his class, took a low-paying position for the potential it offered through experience and mentoring.  He grew so tired of the pay embarrassment and justifying why he was working for 25% below his market value that he stopped answering colleague and recruiter questions about his pay. Oh, he’s going to leave the company alright, but in his timing and for the right opportunity. Problem is, the company will lose hundreds of thousands after he’s gone – because no-one can step in and do his job.

On the other hand, high pay can be strongly beneficial for both the employee and the company. The employee gets a big boost in confidence that the company recognizes and values his expertise and will enable him to do his job well, and the company has to give him a title/position/level of more appropriate process and technology authority in order to justify the higher salary – which enables him to grasp more command of the company’s welding and make more rapid and more profitable changes. That’s a combination for high performance and high retention.  So for truely valuable welding engineering expertise, big salaries and/or bonuses can often be a win-win.

Where do you find salary data for Welding Engineers with experience? Ouch. The only decent compilation I’ve seen so far is with ThinkEnergy’s online database, but they lump all job-titled welding engineers together regardless of education.  To make successful use of the data, you have to be aware that only the upper 30% are the qualified (degreed) W.E.’s, and the upper 15th percentile is the top 50% of the degreed performers.  Carefully consider the implications.

Worth the money?  Yes, they are. The National Center for Welding Education and Training – www.weld-ed.org – summarized W.E. knowledge and skills in their 2007 job description (as of this writing they have pulled it, perhaps pending an update): “Strong mechanical aptitude, thorough understanding of mechanical design; knowledge of manufacturing operations; materials science, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and electricity / electronics”.  The complexities and interactions of these skills and sciences help explain not only why there is so much untapped potential in your company’s welding operations, but also why there are so few accredited welding engineering programs, and so few who graduate from them. They also help explain the Center’s researched median Welding Engineering salary of $81,660 and the 90th percentile at $120,610.

Job Description, Title, Authority, Function

Next, what is in the Welding Engineering job description? Most companies need help there. Don’t be afraid to get creative with job descriptions and titles to set the right stage for serious success in your operations. That should be, after all, the entire point of hiring a welding engineer or assembling a welding engineering team.  Just as in aeronautics, welding success comes through faithfully serving the many laws of physics that govern reality. So ultimately, competitive profitability demands that a degreed welding engineer must be calling all the welding process shots.  In turn, the job description needs to embody that responsibility and authority.  That’s what a LeTourneau or Ohio State or Ferris B.S. degree trained him/her to do, so please don’t hire them with the intention of allowing unqualified people to override their expertise. It’s not just frustrating and insulting for him – it will also choke your progress in welding quality and profitability, while artificially inflating the egos of the tribal-knowledge welding elders.  If you frustrate and professionally “dis” him too much, he’ll leave you to the mercy of your tribal welding.

So if you need to make your candidate a Welding Manager, a Welding Engineering Manager, a Manufacturing Welding Manager, a Senior Technical Manager… or even a Director of Welding Technology, Director of Manufacturing Welding, or Director of Advanced Manufacturing, do it.  Set the title/pay-grade to be able to accomplish excellence, or, sometimes even better, bring him in at a more basic title with the understanding that as he comes up to speed and puts together the strategies, you want to promote him within 6 to 9 months to a position that affords him the authority and the executive-level access he needs to succeed in your structure.  If you focus on enabling a qualified candidate to make the welding process and technology decisions, you shouldn’t have a problem fitting him into the salary structure.  And in three years you’ll be stunned at what’s been accomplished.

Welding Engineers Don’t Stay?

If you’ve already had a welding engineer, the obstacles are uniquely different. Why did the last W.E. leave and how long did he stay? Better pay attention and address any issues, because word travels in the W.E. community. Was his role really controlling the whole welding process arena, or something much less? W.E.’s are trained for that role, and the more skilled they are, the more quickly they can be discouraged if unqualified people (whether technicians, managers or executive staff) are repeatedly allowed to make wrong welding decisions that are a detriment to the company and cause more work for the welding engineer.

What did your company like/dislike about him, and are the expectations/needs similar or different to his skills or assigned duties?  That’s a mouthful.  There is a lot of room there for a disconnect, and if you focus on identifying the major categories of manual/automation, thick/gauge, high/low volume, process-control/metallurgy-testing, consultant/decision-maker, and welding training needs/expectations, that will take you a long way toward finding a good match.

Damage-control caution:  in welding engineering, you do not have the luxury of making repeated mistakes.  A welding engineer’s loyalty is to the arc, or the welding processes, and we are a small world.  It only takes one bad experience for a W.E. to generate caution in the profession, and two times can turn your job search into a desolate wasteland.  So figure out the problems, fix them, and dare to address them in the interview process.

How Much Experience?

With 2-3 years under their belts, most solid WE’s can hit the ground running hard.  With about 7-10 years experience or more, you start to find some engineers who can not only make rapid improvements but are starting to develop some strategic capabilities – perfect for roles that can take leaps in millions of dollars of profits. With 10-15 years experience or more, some WE’s are ready to lead toward world-class welding that can secure a company’s leadership for a generation.

More than just experience is the type of experience.  Not just as it applies to your needs, but any welding engineering team they were a part of.  Did they have a mentor?  Collegues?  What were the most valuable things they learned and accomplished?  Time in a welding engineering team with a mentor can be worth double the experience in solo environments.

Training

I recommend a careful assessment of the power of welding training, and of what your training needs really are in light of your strategic goals.  For those companies whose welding engineering search represents another pivotal step in their commitment to excellence, you want maximum impact from high-performance welding training.

With many people and in many companies, respect is a show-me-by-doing-my-job-well.  In other words, let’s see how good you can weld, or how fast you are on the robot’s teach pendant.  I understand that, but personally I don’t much care to do for others what they can already do – I want to teach or lead or encourage them to accomplish what very few think is possible, and then build on those skills even further.  How good are the candidates’ training skills, and how well are they suited for your environment and needs?  Some of the welding engineers I’ve hired are gifted at hands-on welding training.  Others choke at the idea of training.  It takes experience, talent, and deep welding understanding to chart bold strategic improvements. For example, many WE’s get a deer-in-the-headlights look if you ask them how they’re going to take robot cell welding rework from 120,000 ppm to 20,000 ppm.

I’m more of a welding automation optimization guru.   I have targeted my technical training to develop skills in three crucial areas: how to troubleshoot the welding process, how to optimize the welding process for maximum balanced performance, and how to continually improve the welding process as a team. (Yet I’m often amazed that manufacturing people don’t realize these skills require extensive experience and understanding to teach and accomplish – they cannot be “faked”.)  Again, consider your needs.  Interviewing seasoned candidates can be invaluable in assessing what your training needs are and which candidates can really help you.  Ask them, “what kinds of welding training and content do you think we need in order to accomplish our goals?  What do you think an ideal training system would look like for us when it’s fully developed and implemented?”  Then shut up, listen hard, and take notes.

Strategic Power Requires Thoughtful Consideration

Finally, what strategic roles are expected in your company? What strategic roles are actually needed? There’s usually a large gap between those two, and the irony is that you’ll need a seasoned and accomplished W.E. to identify the real needs for you. If your company is essentially selling their expertise at designing and/or manufacturing assemblies that are welded together, then you have some strategic welding technology needs that are pivotal for your company’s future performance and marketshare. Giddy levels of profitability are reserved for manufacturing that got the application of welding expertise early on in the product and process design stages.  How are you going to fill your strategic needs, and in light of that question, what will this particular W.E. position (or another, more seasoned position) need to contribute?

If this sounds a bit daunting for your culture or executive staff, consider an old saying:
to get the results that others will never have,
you must be willing to do what others will never do.

Next, carefully consider these million-dollar questions:  How well could your competitors, or you, stand against a company whose entire welding operations culture, quality and profitability went through the roof over a three-year span?  How rosy would your future look if you found out your competitor was getting all the best jobs by underbidding you and still landing double or triple your profit margins?  How easy would it be to play “catch-up”?  That’s not theoretical – that’s the heritage of welding expertise that’s empowered to build a world-class team.

The best world-class team leader is not merely an experienced hands-on expert, but someone who looks to hire and develop superb welding engineers – people with potential to be even better than them.  If they understand the true power of a diverse team of blended strengths, only failure will be impossible.

Parting Tips and Cautions

If your strategic welding process/technology needs are a recognized part of the mix, consider what the total workload picture is like. One opening I considered was with an enviable employer with a long track-record of innovative international leadership and large marketshare in their welded products. Yet I shied away, and the position was still open nearly 3 years later, because they wanted one single welding engineer to train the robotic techs, run the weld quality testing, do all the corporate welding R&D work and failure analysis, and work with the integrators and tooling designers to launch new product, while supporting production welding automation process needs on multiple shifts. Everyone who interviewed for the position saw it was too much for too little: they wanted to pay mediocre wages for a high-performance high-skills individual who would need to work endless 70-80 hour weeks just hoping to cover it all.

How did they finally fill the position? On two occasions through two different recruiters, I gave them feedback that they weren’t offering enough, they were expecting a Superman workaholic, and they needed a different plan on the staffing and responsibilities. Then when an excellent candidate that I knew called me about the position, I coached him about what their needs were and why they hadn’t filled the position, and suggested a strategy on how he approach things. They finally turned it into a smart job with maximum benefits for the company at reasonable pay, he took the position, he’s a great fit, and they’re probably going to have a long and profitable relationship. But it’s worth noting that their 3-year delay may have cost them over a million dollars in lost profits.

Finally, if you can manage it, here’s how to hit a home run with a seasoned and experienced Welding Engineer who is in the final running for a position: broker a special meeting between your top candidate and the top company executives, with an agenda to assess the company’s strategic welding needs and discuss potential approaches and pitfalls. By putting them together and encouraging them to pick each other’s brains, positive sparks will fly in the form of great Q&A that can lay the groundwork for new directions and stellar progress that can trounce competitors.  (And you’ll be congratulated for a long time on what a brilliant hire you made.)

Yeh, it can be a delicate dance. But oh, I love it when preparedness meets opportunity – the end results can be so exciting that you can almost smell the world-class growth.  Here’s to your triumphant, resounding success, and to the bewilderment of your fading competitors !!!

Brian Dobben

p.s.  I’ve jump-started some great content, but I’m only one perspective.  Please contribute your thoughts, suggestions, comments!

p.p.s. If this lands you a lot more profitability or helps you place a candidate, and you want to send me a performance bonus check, e-mail me for PalPal account information  ;>)

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10 Responses to How to Hire the Welding Engineer You Really Need

  1. Ned Funnell says:

    Good article. It highlights, though, just how much responsibility I will have to the company when I get into full-time employment.

    • Brian Dobben says:

      Ned, thank you. To be more accurate, I would say it highlights “just how much responsibility I SHOULD OR COULD have to the company…” if the company were being run by engineers who set high standards for performance and profitability. Sadly, in too many manufacturing environments, a welding engineer is just an optional emergency consultant whose advice can be ignored or thwarted by any unqualified manager or maintenance person who has some “seniority” or more authority. Most companies fall somewhere in the middle.

  2. Stephanie Liu says:

    Brian,

    This is a good article shows the in-depth of a really welding engineer’s thought with the real industry’s experience and understanding.

    Stephanie

  3. Yoni Adonyi says:

    Brian,

    Good job, thanks for taking the time to explain such a complex topic. Just wanted to make you and your readers aware that Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA will launch a new, high-quality MJE/WE program in Fall 2010.

    Another comment I had was related to the not-so-good student retention in WE/MJE programs. While our enrollment at LeToueneau U is at all-times high (56), retention hovers around 40-50%. From my Ohio State years, I remember this percentage being about the same. One main reason is the unexpected academic rigor, but the second is financial need. Here is where your readers can help with scholarships aimed a the ‘tender’ group transitioning between Freshmen and Sophomore status.

    Yoni

  4. Angel Jaramillo says:

    It was so interesting this article it make me think about welding engineering and the crucial importance of the industry, considering as a master, I would like to get or information where I can study, any comment will be helpfull. thanks..

    • Brian Dobben says:

      Angel, check out some of the other articles on my blog, as well as the permanent links in the righthand sidebar. Assuming you are in the United States, those will give you some places to start.

    • Boris Shneyder says:

      A wonderful option for a masters is at The Ohio State University. I should say through OSU. They are offering a MS in WE as a distance learning program in addition to the traditional, on-campus approach. I plan on continuing my education after I get placed professionally.

      Boris Shneyder
      The Ohio State University
      Class of 2011

  5. […] at all possible, start the process to hire a really good, sharp welding engineer. Study How to Hire the Welding Engineer You Really Need and Welding Engineer Salary Compensation Data to get the ball rolling. Why? Because your core […]

  6. Boris Shneyder says:

    Fantastic,

    What a great effort on your part to educate employers on the importance of a good joining expert. I gained a sence of reinforcement in my career choice. Can’t wait to get out there.

    Regards…

    ps. The Ohio State University Engineering Career Services has salary data for all of their engineerng grads.career.eng.ohio-state.edu

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