Experience doesn’t equal skills when it comes to certification exams

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – To operate a vehicle legally on a U.S. roadway, a driver’s license is required, and it has to be earned with time logged on the road, a written test and a live skills test. In the sheet metal industry, welding is under similar scrutiny, with skills tests and certifications necessary for a welder to be qualified to work most jobs.

“Just because you’re a good welder doesn’t mean you’re a good code welder,” said Mike Harris, program administrator for the International Training Institute (ITI), which provides training for the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry. “We have a lot of people in the industry who weld and think they can pass the test. Sheet metal welding is different from welding to a specific code. It’s a different animal, so to speak, and we want to let our people know they have to prepare.”

Just as a veteran driver could easily fail the driving test he/she passed at age 16, a sheet metal welder with years of experience can fail a skills test. Although confidence is positive, it lets down workers who rely on it solely to pass the test. Members, who often travel long distances to work on projects, are typically sent home when they fail the on-the-job skills test.

“They think they can just do it without preparing because they have experience,” he said. “Even the best, most experienced welders can fail the test if they don’t prepare.”

In the Southeast United States, contractors are beginning to hire for large-scale projects. The Savannah River site, located in Georgia, hosts six employers who expect full operation by spring 2011. Once completed, the site will decommission nuclear war heads, so the plutonium can be used to create energy. The site is estimated at tens of thousands of acres and approximately 400 certified welders would be needed at the peak of the project which is expected to last from seven to 10 years.

Also in Georgia, the Vogtle nuclear power plant is set to begin construction in 2012, putting 300 to 400 welders to work by 2014.

To prepare for the hiring needs, ITI will venture south to help local unions with the Southeast Regional Concentrated Welding Program in Atlanta in January. Through the program, welders will be certified to work on specialized jobs in the area. In addition to welders, a two-day seminar will be held for certified welding inspectors (CWI) to learn how to prepare their welders for those jobs.

“(The CWIs) aren’t sending the workers with the appropriate certification,” said Steve Kowats, welding quality assurance manager and industrial specialist for ITI. “They have the skills, but they don’t have the certifications. With this seminar, they can go back to their workers and model what they saw and prepare them correctly for the task at hand.”

Even if there isn’t a large-scale project like Savannah River or Vogtle, welders need to be consistently honing their skills to stay current, Kowats added. Otherwise, much-needed jobs could be lost to other workers.

“They should be practicing regardless of their certification status,” he said. “They don’t need to just prepare. They need to prepare properly.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The International Training Institute (best known as ITI) is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI offers apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Alexandria, Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free-of-charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

Sheet metal workers interested in positions for certified welders can visit the job bank on the SMWIA website at www.smwia.org or call 800-251-7045.

Those interested in training to earn welding certification can visit their local Joint Apprenticeship Training Center (JATC). Additional information on ITI, and JATC locations, can be found by visiting www.sheetmetal-iti.org or calling 703-739-7200.