Welding skills useful even in recession

When the mask comes down, a welder is in another world, a place of thick darkness broken almost immediately by the spark of a torch that quickly heats up like a tiny star to about 10,000 degrees.

With experience, the welder can read, interpret and control the interplay of that glow and the shadows below it to seal two pieces of metal.

Cajun Seeger learned the craft when he was about 20.

"I had a friend in welding, a guy I respected, " he said. "And I knew he made good money and I knew he used his head more than his back. I saw a guy making $65,000 and back in 1987, that was a good lick. I said, ‘I wouldn't mind doing that.'"

Now he's director of the Welding Technology Center in Lithia Springs, where several hundred new welders each year learn their trade and scores of others come in to hone skills or earn certification. The center is owned and operated by Local 72 of the Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians union.

The welder's torch shines a light on the economy: In good times, there is the need for new office and industrial buildings, as well as the power plants to heat, cool and light them. That construction requires the melding of pipes -- a welder's handiwork.

Even during a recession, welding skills boost the chances for having a job -- although it might mean leaving town to find a paycheck. Seeger, who still sparks the odd arc now and then, spoke to the AJC about his trade:

Q: The recession has been pretty harsh for a lot of blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and building. How tough has it been for welders?

A: I would say about 30 percent of the membership has traveled to seek employment. I think we are less vulnerable because we network with one another, because we have a central database and we can travel.

Q: So you don't worry that people are being trained and will emerge into an awful job market?

A: We are preparing for the work that will be coming to Atlanta. There will be work on power generation . . . hospital work, airport work. There will be more demand for certified highly skilled welders.

Q: With so much work not being done -- buildings not being built -- how can you still be so optimistic?

A: The work hasn't gone away. It's just been delayed. And when the boom hits, it will be commercial and industrial. There is going to be maintenance. There is going to be expansion. The power generation has to expand to keep pace with the population. The hospitals have to grow. New schools will have to be built.

Q: The average age in a lot of trades is high, which means a lot of skilled people are going to be retiring. Would you tell young people that's true in welding?

A: There is crazy opportunity. A kid could walk into this out of high school, learn welding and if he can stay out of trouble he'd be ready to retire when he's 45.

Q: Is it really a career? Is the pay good?

A: Union scale is $28.90 an hour, that's what you see on the check. Plus $12.91 an hour in benefits, insurance, pension. Entry level you get about $12 an hour plus $7.50 in benefits and within five years you reach scale. It is manual labor, but it is not a dead-end job. You are not taking a welding course to weld on an assembly line, or to weld washing machines together in a plant somewhere. You get out into the field and maybe you become a foreman and then maybe you can be a project manager. You can start your own business, take it to any level you want.

Q: Before you became an instructor and director, did you have a range of experiences yourself? What kind of things did you do?

A: I worked with Lin Emery, the kinetic sculptor. The piece I welded for her sold for $700,000 and it's standing in front of Nieman-Marcus in Short Hills, N.J.

In about 2000, I did some ... welding at General Mills to make Cocoa Puffs.

They wanted to calibrate the (machinery) that injected the vitamins into the cereal.

The most interesting place I ever welded was Cape Canaveral. We were working on a launch pad for the Titan they launched to Mars. We ran the ammonium coolant up and down the launch pad. That whole experience was unbelievable.

Q: Listening to that sculpture story, I wonder if you think welding is an art?

A: I think it is. That is why women welders are so good at it. They just take more time and care.

Q: Is welding hard to learn?

A: You've got to maintain an eighth-inch arc to keep it going. But you're inside the mask in the dark, and you hit the spark and there's a bright, bright flash and a crack of electricity, and the sound shakes your concentration. When I first started, I really struggled with welding. It was hard for me to read the puddle. Then all of a sudden, one day it just snapped and I understood it.

Q: Is it different to be a kind of executive, running a program, rather than a welder?

A: I like my job, but I miss welding. The beauty of the job is that, as soon as you leave, if I want to, I can go out there in the back and weld.

Cajun Seeger file

Age: 44

Home: Loganville

Family: wife, Melna; children Jamie, 18; Alex, 16; and Samantha, 11.

If I weren't a welder: "I'd be in the commercial seafood business."

Default music: Zydeco, The Radiators

Favorite movies: "The Matrix, " "Silence of the Lambs"

Given name: Milton. "I was in Tampa for five years and they looked at me and said, ‘This guy loves to cook and he loves to weld and he's from New Orleans -- no way he's Milton. His name is going to be Cajun from now on.' "