The art of the weld — spotlight on a welding career
Of all the skilled trades we work with, welders inhabit a unique domain, where their work is equal parts art, skill and practiced technique. We recently caught up with one of the most seasoned and skilled welders we know, Lonnie Miles, to get his take on the current state of the art, the industry and working in welding.
A journeyman’s tale
Always curious how people end up in the trade they become expert in, we asked Lonnie about his early path. “When I was fifteen I was riding and working on minibikes and starting trouble. But when I graduated high school, my first job was in healthcare, following in my mom’s footsteps. I was medical technician at an adult mental health facility. That didn’t work out so I picked up welding, my dad’s trade.”
“My dad was a welder and I used to go out in the field with him. I learned from him something I applied early on — listening to the older guys. That’s the key to early learning, just watching and listening, getting pointers. It’s an important lesson, not acting like you’re a total know-it-all. You got to be humble in the beginning if you ever want to be proud of your work eventually.”
All in the family
Lonnie talked about his strategies for paying it forward. “I’m not afraid of losing my job to someone I trained. That’s one thing you learn coming up; it always comes back to you when you help other guys on the job. The job I’m in now is one Aerotek placed me in. They hired me as a welder and in less than three months the company made me pipe foreman. I’d have to say it’s my favorite job — take the blueprints, run the crew, oversee the work — get the job done.”
Lonnie’s resume includes jobs ranging across more states than most Americans have even visited. “Yes, I’ve worked in over ten states. I don’t mind moving for work, I never did. Back when my kids were young, we’d pack them up and the whole family would move if I found great work in another state. The money is pretty good when you are on the road.”
Like father, like son, and son again, Lonnie’s twenty-five year old son became a welder and was recently placed by Aerotek as well. Lonnie told us a story about how much pride the Miles men take in each other and their welding skills.
“One time, my son and I were looking for work at the same time and we walked into an iron workers union hall in Tennessee. They told us if I passed the welding test we both could start work Monday. As we left the hall my son shouted back to the guy, ‘See you Monday’. I didn’t disappoint him, and we had ourselves a couple of jobs — the next Monday.”
The art of the weld
We know a lot of welders spend considerable time and effort posting, sharing and comparing their welds on social media and welding forums. Was Lonnie one of these social media welders? “No, I really don’t spend much time doing that. Although there was this flux-cored welder who challenged me one time. It wasn’t much of a competition but I did end up posting it up online.”
We wondered if Lonnie felt there truly was an art to welding. He was pretty quick and certain in his response. “If you ask me, It’s really all about technique. You spend years perfecting your technique, and then, well as I like to say ‘you are your weld’. If you can distinguish where your puddle is apart from your slag, you can weld. Getting expert takes time. It’s all in the technique.”
When asked Lonnie how he felt about the benefits of learning on the job versus in formal education. “I’d suggest to anyone who wants to learn this trade and get really good at it, they go to trade school. Even if it’s just a six-month course, that’s the place to get the basics and fundamentals down. That’s where you learn what welding’s all about.”
One of the strategies Lonnie talked about that drove his successful career was simple — do it all.
“I never wanted to limit myself to one type of welding. MIG, TIG, arc, flat welding and pipe welding — I can do it all. In the very beginning, I was a pipe fitter apprentice. After that, I got my certification and moved on to do my apprenticeship in iron work. Next I got my welding certification. I realized early that the best way to ensure I always had work in welding was to become a master at all types of welding, and that’s the path I took. It got me to where I am today and I’m pretty confident I’ll always be able to find work if I need it.”
We asked Lonnie if he felt his craft was in danger of being replaced by automation.
“Not too sure that’s going to happen for welders. Not in a big way, anyway. For pipe welding, they already have what’s called orbital welders which are basically welding robots. But they still take a human to set up and press the buttons. And, of course, to be there to fix and redo welds when the machines make a mistake. But when it comes to structural welding, flat welding, I can’t see that ever being successfully automated.”
Words to work by
We asked Lonnie if he had any advice for the up-and-coming tradespeople entering the welding trade today. “I think the key to putting together a successful career is pretty simple. It’s about the power of self-motivation. I’d also add a second piece of advice — be yourself. Be true to who you really are. Don’t ever try to be someone you’re not. I’ve lived and worked all over these United States and I’ve worked with every kind of person on almost every top of job when it comes to welding, construction and pipe-fitting. If there are two big lessons I learned and can pass on it’s to self-motivate and be yourself.”