Courses added to help sheet metal workers pass challenging exam, earn distinction

FAIRFAX, Va.  – The uptick in industrial welding in the nation’s Southeast corner has created a ripple effect across the country. While most of the action is taking place in Georgia and South Carolina, sheet metal fabrication shops nationwide stocking the projects are feeling the increase in production.

While it’s a happy problem, companies are experiencing a high demand for Certified Welding Inspectors (CWI), who ensure the quality and safety of the welds before they leave the shop, as well as test and certify welders on the local level.

The internationally and nationally recognized, highly sought-after distinction is dwindling in members as sheet metal workers retire or take higher-level positions, minimizing the number of CWIs on job sites. Inspections are critical, and there are simply not enough CWIs to go around, said Mike Harris, program administrator and CWI for the International Training Institute, the education side of the unionized sheet metal and welding industry.

“There’s no working fast. The weld has to be 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” said Greg Andrist, business representative and training coordinator for Local No. 10 in Southern Minnesota. “Otherwise, it goes in the garbage, and you have to start over. They’ve got to do quality work, or they’ll refuse the weld and send it back.”

To help steadily increase the numbers, the ITI is offering three classes this year to help potential CWIs prepare for the test. The 40-hour, one-week classes prepare them throughout the week, which builds to the test, administered by the American Welding Society. Typically offered once annually, the three 2016 classes have already filled.

“A CWI is even a harder animal to find than a certified welder,” Harris said. “We also have a lot of people who are CWIs at schools who are older and getting ready to retire. Some of the training centers are trying to get younger members involved in weld inspection, so they’re not left without a CWI.”

According to the American Welding Society, to earn the CWI, you must pass a vision test and have a combination of qualifying work experience and education. That’s the easy part.

From there, a candidate must complete a two-hour, 150-question closed-book test, which covers all facets of welding processes and examination. To follow, the candidate must also pass a two-hour, hands-on practical test, answering 46 questions using visual inspection tools, plastic replicas of welds and a sample codebook. The third portion of the test is a two-hour, open-book test with 46 to 60 questions. This section is to establish the welder’s comprehension of the information in his/her choice of five welding codes. All three sections must be passed with a minimum score of 72 percent on each part.

Sound difficult? It’s meant to be, even for the most seasoned welder, but it’s a distinction worth earning, Andrist said.

“It’s a stressful week trying to get that certification, but if you’re a CWI, you’ll always be gainfully employed,” he added. “The benefits are there.”

Although Local No. 10 is in Minnesota, the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station project, located more than 1,000 miles away near the South Carolina/Georgia border, has a direct effect on its members. Harris Companies out of St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, sends nuclear power plant fabrication work straight to V.C. Summer, Andrist said.

One million pounds of galvanized duct work, and 400,000 pounds of structural steel to complement the duct work, will be sent to V.C. Summer from Minnesota. To date, 100,000 pounds have been completed, and all will be sent to the site by June 2017.

“If they do well on this project at V.C. Summer, there’ll be another to follow,” Andrist said. “This job could last three to four years. We don’t want to stub our toe on this go-around, or we will lose our chance to bid again.”

Because of the demand, CWIs are being pulled from all industries. The ITI added classes in hopes of helping more sheet metal workers become CWIs and put them to work on sheet metal, and more importantly, union, job sites.

“You’re not grooming CWIs to come back to the school and teach. You’re grooming CWIs to inspect the welds and sign off on them. It’s a different animal altogether,” Andrist said. “We’re going outside our industry to get CWIs on the job right now, and that’s not right. As a union guy, I want Local No. 10 CWIs out there.”

More than 14,000 apprentices are registered at more than 150 other training facilities across the United State and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), welding and industrial, architectural and ornamental, and service and testing, adjusting and balancing industry throughout the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, the ITI develops and produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI and its available training curriculum for members covering sheet metal trade work, visit their website or call 703-739-7200.