Isaac, 21, from Cullman, AL, graduated from the Professional Welder program at Tulsa Welding School, Jacksonville campus in December 2014.
Thanks for sharing your story Isaac. Tell us how you came to Tulsa Welding School.
I graduated high school in May and, I was at the welding school that July. I took a month off to relax for a minute. Then went right back to work.
To welding school straight out of high school – had you done any welding before?
The first time I welded was in a regular shop class in middle school. It was an agriculture class but part of the curriculum was welding. At the time we didn’t have much more than just a small wire welder and a set of cutting torches, but we got to play with them, and I enjoyed it.
The next year, when I moved on to high school, I took a welding class and found that I enjoyed it a little more than I thought I would. From there I went to a local trade school two periods a day. I did my basic classes in my high school. Then to the trade school for welding classes the last two periods of the day.
You won a scholarship I believe? Talk to us about that.
That’s correct. A representative came to the trade school to talk about Tulsa. He told us they’d be offering competitions to win scholarships. Obviously, I was interested! We ended up having a competition and lo and behold, I was the winner! Winning that competition earned me a full-ride scholarship to Tulsa Welding School!
What did you enjoy most about the Professional Welder program?
The instructors are very knowledgeable. If you have a problem, they are more than willing to help you out and point you in the right direction. But, they can’t hold your hand the whole time, so it really comes down to your drive and ability. When the instructors see you trying, they’ll help you hone your skills and get you where you want to be. The fact that you can go into the school when you want is also great. If you get bored at night, you can go in and weld. You have all the supplies you need; you can’t beat that!
Being able to skip phases that I already knew helped shorten the program. Instead of seven months, I did it in about five because of the transcripts I had from the trade school. But, you can also take a weld test just as you would for a job. You make the welds for whatever phase, and the instructors can tell if you can skip it. I didn’t want to take classes on things I already knew, so I started in the third phase. I could have skipped that too, but there was a little bit of blueprinting in the classroom that I wanted to take.
Did you feel like you were on your way to becoming a specialist when you left Tulsa Welding School?
Undoubtedly. When I went in to Tulsa I’d done some open root welds, but nothing on pipe. I’d done T-plates and flat plates, but I’d never welded a piece of pipe before Tulsa. When I graduated I could weld pipe. But as I said, it has a lot to do with the drive of the individual. I saw a lot of guys that without a doubt were better welders than me. But they didn’t do as well as me because they didn’t have the drive.
Where did you start work after graduation?
I’m the only welder in my family, and the only one that travels for work, so there was a little hurdle trying make connections and contacts in the industry. Just to be working, I took a small shop job in my home town with a company called Apel Steel. They do pre-fab structure for commercial buildings. While I was working there, I got to build the Dick’s Sporting Goods building in my home town, so that was pretty neat! It didn’t pay as well, and I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to stay, but you have to work somewhere.
I worked for them for about three months. Then, I got in touch with a friend who also went to Tulsa. He was working for a company, and I ended up getting hired on there. It snowballed from there – talking to different people, getting better job offers all over.
So where are you working now?
At the moment I’m working on a water treatment plant in West Virginia for Inco Services. I got here in January and their startup date is the end of May, so I have another couple of months here.
Are you an employee or sub-contractor?
I’m not a sub-contractor on this job. Since they supply all the tools, you’re not considered a sub-contractor. I guess I’m considered part-time, even though I’m working 70 hours a week! It’s a little different in welding. They have very few what you’d call full-time employees. When we get done with this project, I may go to another job with Inco. I’ve already been asked to stay with this company but we’ll see. If I get a better offer, I may go somewhere else.
What kind of stuff are you welding?
There’s a lot of pipe welding. I’ve welded pipe ranging from one inch to five or six feet in diameter. Sometimes you have to go back behind yourself and weld in the structural supports to keep the pipe in the air. I’ve done a little bit of everything here – from exotic metals to regular mild steel. It’s an industrial job site, so everything is outside. I’ve done a lot of commercial jobs and most commercial work is indoors. In an industrial setting, very rarely are you indoors so you have to deal with the elements and heights! I’m not going to say that you can’t be a welder if you’re scared of heights, but you better get used to it! Recently, I was 120 feet up in a boom lift welding on stuff.
It sounds like you really enjoy what you do!
It’s fun! Knowing that you’ve got thousands of degrees at your fingertips, melting pieces of pipe together making them one and seamless, it’s interesting and intriguing to me.
Do you do any welding at home outside of work?
Definitely. I have a welding rig so it seems like almost every time I come home for vacation, my dad and grandpa have something lined up for me to fix at the house! It seems like I’m almost always welding whether I’m working or not! My dad and I are building a little log cabin behind our house, and I actually built what they call a truss boom from an old bobcat bucket. We cut the front off the bucket. Dad got some steel, and we built a truss boom to hang the rafters for the cabin. That’s a cool little thing we did.
So when you’re not on the road, you still live at home with family?
That’s right. I just pull my camper up to the house. But once Megan and I get married next year, I’m sure we’ll get an apartment or buy a house – one or the other.
What did you do with your first decent welding paycheck?
That’s when I bought my truck. I got a Ram 3500, a good used truck. Then, about a year later I bought my camper. Having a camper is a little cheaper to stay on the road and a little more ‘homey’ than a hotel.
You get a ‘per diem’ too right?
Yes, you do. The only job I didn’t get one was the home town shop job. All my other jobs have been traveling so you get the per diem. I’ve been as far west as Colorado, as far east as North Carolina. There are all sorts of opportunities. I save money on hotels, food, and I get to sleep in my own bed every night!
Have you treated yourself to anything else?
I’m saving money as I’m getting married next year. But, I do have a custom welding machine that I had built by a guy who’s pretty well known on Instagram, so I splurged a little there. I also do a fair amount of mission work with my church back home, so I’ve been to Belize a couple of times since I graduated, and I plan on going to India in February next year.
Where would you like to be in three years?
I’d like to be able to run my own truck more, my rig, getting more sub-contracting business. I’d like to be able to do plant maintenance, repair equipment, and have a little shop. I’d like to have a small business at the house so I can be home every night. After we get married I’d like to be home more, not out on the road all the time. But if that doesn’t work out, my fiancée is going to be a nurse, so there’s plenty of opportunities for traveling nurses as well. We’ll work something out with that if need be!
What’s your favorite part of being a welder?
Just being able to see the end product of what you build. Right now, with Inco, I’m building a water treatment plant to reprocess the water they use in fracking. When this project is complete, the plant will handle 600 truckloads of brine water a day from the oil wells, purifying it into clean water. It’s just a massive plant. Being here from almost the start, seeing everything come together, knowing your welds are what holds that plant together, is pretty neat. Not too many people take their hands and make a paycheck the way welders can these days.
What advice would you give to new students considering TWS?
Go in to school as a sponge. Don’t only learn from your instructors. You can learn from your classmates as well. Watch people, watch the instructors, and then go into the booth and do it. That’s the main thing. You can watch somebody weld all day long, but if you don’t have the drive to get in there and get it done and improve yourself every day, chances are you’re not going to be as successful as you want to be.
The main thing in this industry is drive and work ethic. You’ve got to get in there, give it your best, and never stop. I stayed after class almost every day and practiced. That’s one of the great advantages of Tulsa. You don’t have to stop welding just because the bell has rung. Put in 12 hours day just as you would at a job and weld, weld, weld.
Another thing I’d like to say to guys coming in is “know your value.” You’re in a skilled trade, and it’s called “skilled” for a reason. So, when you start working, you can’t let a company run you over and under pay you. If a company is trying to bring in a bunch of cheap labor, you’ve got to be willing to stand your ground. Know your value and find something else. I guarantee you that if that company needs the job done, they’ll pay you the wages you deserve to be paid.
What do you do for fun?
I’m an outdoors guy. I love offroading and riding the trails. I have a Polaris RZR back at the house. I also enjoy hunting and rock crawling. I had a Toyota that I just sold a while back because I didn’t have enough time to use it and to justify keeping it. I love to turkey hunt. I’m actually going home for Easter weekend. Me and my dad are going to Kentucky for two days of turkey hunting.
If you were a millionaire for a day, what would you do?
That’s a hard decision. Without a doubt I’d pay off every bill I owe. I’d buy a nice camper, a nice spot of land, and a nice house, and probably keep working. Then one day when I’m at retirement age, I’ll have a little extra nest egg to retire on.