Things are heating up at the plumbers and pipefitters' union local in Augusta, Ga., and it isn't just the members' welding tools. The union is running full tilt to train welders now in short supply to fuel the region's industrial and energy-sector construction boom.

Apprenticeship training at Local 150—a key labor supplier to the multi-billion-dollar Plant Vogtle nuclear powerplant expansion project 28 miles away in Waynesboro—is a six-day-a-week operation, extending to 13 hours some days.

The local also will convene in March its eighth accelerated welding class to boost apprentice numbers, at an estimated cost of $110,000 per 18-week class, says training director Jeffery Rice. "We're burning 600 pounds of rod per week," he adds. "Those guys are in here running the tight weld procedures they need on that job."

The demand is not just in nuclear. Even as the oil price slide raises uncertainties for some oil-and-gas projects, others underway in that sector and in other areas of construction also are very short on welders.

"Currently, skilled welders represent the most critical resource demand in our industry, especially along the U.S. Gulf Coast, says Jim Hanna, executive directof of human resources for Fluor Corp., which has several megaprojects in the region.

The craft is the "first or second most in demand" in most regions, says Daniel Groves, operations director at the Construction Users Roundtable, a group of mostly industrial owners and heavy-construction contractors.

CURT projects a peak industry need of more than 202,000 welders by mid-2017. Where you are in the country and timing of projects impact the severity," Groves adds.

Competition for welders from within the oil-and-gas and manufacturing industries themselves adds to the crunch, exacerbated by industry concern over the skill levels needed for more complex and exacting work. "We are having owners tell us about significantly increased weld failure rates—in [the] double digits," says Groves.

NCCER, the Florida-based group that develops craft training programs primarily for non-union contractors, schools and training providers that it also accredits to deliver them, says construction loses 25% of experienced welders each year to retirement.

More automation and modularized work has not improved the situation, says Steve Greene, NCCER vice president of workforce development. Technology advances—such as new ways to bond dissimilar materials and non-metals, advances in electron-beam welding and new fluxes—have raised training stakes. Greene says more than half of NCCER's 8,000 accredited sites are training welders.

The Industrial Co., a Colorado-based heavy-construction unit of Kiewit Corp., touts its model non-union craft training—including welding—on Facebook and NCCER's website. In posts, TIC says it trains about 600 employees per year, a number it says could double when a 64,000-sq-ft "multimillion-dollar" facility in Denver finishes in early 2016. TIC declined comment on this article.

Fast Money?

With the demand, pay is escalating. A new NCCER craft compensation survey cites an average welder base salary of $65,000. "Coupled with bonuses paid to retain workers and other benefits and non-taxable per diem, welders are making six-figure salaries," claims NCCER President Don Whyte.

"If you're certified and you can weld X-ray, you can get a job just about wherever you want," says Ironworker trainer Rice, adding that one area contractor is luring welders to its jobs by paying $12 above the contract's current hourly wage, to almost $40 an hour, plus $14 an hour in benefits.

Contractors leading the Vogtle project also have boosted welder pay. "Welding is by far our most popular program," adds Matt Campbell, workforce development director for the Associated Builders and Contractors in Baton Rouge.

While a Bloomberg News article last year noted a four-hour, middle-of-the-night welding class at one Texas community college, whose program has attracted some 435 students, industry experts also caution against perceptions of welding as a short-term, fast-money endeavor.

They emphasize today's broader and deeper skill needs and a long-term career- investment focus. "A welder needs to be able to communicate in welding terminology—materials, symbols, mathematics, etc.," says John Gaylor, associate vice president of the American Welding Society (AWS), which sets skill standards in the craft and certifies trainers, training sites and weld inspectors.

"The number of certifications a welder can have is endless. We want people to think of welding as a career route, not the dark, dirty, smoky job most people think of. We want people to grow into inspectors, supervisors or engineers," he says.

Evan Vokes, an independent materials engineer and pipeline safety consultant in Calgary, Alberta, says theoretical training in areas such as arc physics, metallurgy and heat transfer is more critical to welding productivity and safety.

"In the 1970s, nobody welded titanium or duplex stainless steel, so there are all these extreme high-tech materials out there, and if you don't understand welding fundamentals, you can't weld them," he says. He adds that, with some new pipeline materials, "micro-structures are crack-sensitive, and they do a lot of bad things if you don't know what you're doing."