An Unconventional Journey in Welding

Written by: Farah Yamini
Written by: Farah Yamini

Not many 21st century youths dream of becoming blacksmiths, but Eric Brownstein did. Even less likely was his return to dreaming of metalwork after he received his Bachelor’s in Psychology from Wheaton College in 2009. However, Eric has never led a conventional life. In the spring of 2016, after only just completing his level one training, Eric also found himself completing a welding project to transport a tiger for the New Orleans Zoo. This week, AWS is shining a spotlight on Eric Brownstein to find out more about his unconventional journey as a welder.

Q: How did you conceive of the idea of welding as an alternative career option after your degree in Psychology?
A: I grew up around craftsmen and artisans, so I was one of those strange kids that wanted to be a blacksmith. But I lost sight of that because I wanted to help people who were having a rough moment. When I went to Wheaton, I had the idea of helping troubled teens. I was working with this age group after graduation, and my vision was to develop a wilderness education program for these teens. But when you have a Bachelor’s in Psychology, it’s not enough. There is no way you can have a vision and pursue it. You have little power to start anything innovative on your own unless you decide to go to graduate school. I wasn’t ready to commit more of my time, so after tromping around doing odd jobs for 7 years, I decided to revisit my metalworking dreams. My aunt Trudy knew a brilliant master welder, Joe Feliciano, at the zoo where she worked. He’s been around since 1981, she said, so working with him could teach me quite a bit.

Eric Brownstein and Joe Feliciano
Eric Brownstein and Joe Feliciano at the New Orleans Zoo

Q: How did you find yourself working on a project to move a Malayan tiger?
While working towards my level one certification this year, I connected with welding master Joe Feliciano. Joe is a genius who has done really well for himself. He went to trade school and has been a master welder for 34 years. He’s always coming up with projects to improve the zoo grounds. This time the zoo wanted to move the Malayan tiger to a bigger enclosure. He heard the anxiety in everyone’s voice when they explained how big cats in captivity become easily stressed and destructive by any change. A move would be a big change for a tiger. Together, we designed the walkway. It’s pretty much like a tiger foyer, or a bridge, which stresses the tiger less. We built our own plates, fabricated all the parts, and welded the posts. And then we used high-grade chicken wire to wrap it around in a semi-circle. The tiger walked through and has been in the other enclosure since the end of March. There have been no reports of a tiger on the loose in New Orleans, so I would say it worked. In fact, Joe is in the process of patenting this design.

Q: It seems uncommon that someone completing their level one certification would be making welds for something so important.
That’s the beauty of apprenticeships. I can speak to the importance of them as someone beginning their welding career. When you are in school, all you are looking to do is pass an exam. If you do it well, you perform a process once and you pass. In the real world, this is not how you do it. Welding begins way before putting your helmet on. You sit and discuss things for hours and days. That’s seventy percent of the work. It’s after all the forethought and when you figure things out, then you start building and making the actual welds.

Q: Did you find it difficult to get into the welding field?
In New Orleans I looked around for an NCCER or an AWS curriculum. Although there is no official trade school for all the levels of training, Delgado Community College offers two free classes because of a grant provided by the state of Louisiana. These two prep classes would allow me to be ready for the level one welding course they offer. The two classes were open route and pipe procedures. Mr. Young, my teacher at Delgado Community College, really spent time with me. Now that I’ve completed my level one training, and seeing that I can work on innovative projects like finding more humane ways to move a tiger, I’m looking for a trade school or curriculum as a metal engineer. There are just so many possibilities in metal engineering that you can have a vision and actually make it a reality.

If you, like Eric Brownstein, are looking for more information on career options in welding and allied processes, check out AWS WeldLink. AWS WeldLink is a career planning and management system specifically designed to bring together individuals, businesses, and schools in the welding industry. Whether you’re considering a career in welding, seeking to grow within your current position, or thinking about transitioning into another field, WeldLink can provide relevant, accurate, and detailed guidance.

One thought on “An Unconventional Journey in Welding”

  1. Excellent article. Mr. Feliciano and Eric prove that a master- apprentice relationship combined with formal training is the best way to learn. It’s creative craftsmanship for mutual benefit of client, master and apprentice.

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