Education and Training: Apprenticeship
Salary: Median—$20.40 per hour
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Bridges and skyscrapers, bank vaults and elevators, fences and stairways—steelworkers construct them all. Those who erect bridges, framework for buildings, and other supports for heavy equipment are called structural steelworkers. They are also known as ironworkers. They raise, pry, push, and pull huge prefabricated steel girders and beams into place. Work on large structures, such as bridges, is done in crews. Each crew member specializes in a certain operation.
Once cranes and derricks raise girders into place, a detail crew joins parts temporarily using steel drift pins. A second crew then uses crowbars, jacks, wedges, turnbuckles, and cables to level and align all the structural parts. Finally, ironworkers weld, bolt, or rivet the girders permanently together.
Ornamental ironworkers install all preconstructed metal structures, including elevators, stairways, balconies, and grillwork. They bolt or weld these structures into position.
Education and Training Requirements
The best way to learn the trade is through an apprenticeship program. Prospective apprentices should be at least eighteen years old and have a high school diploma or its equivalent. The program consists of three or four years of on-the-job training with at least 144 hours a year of classroom instruction. On the job, experienced workers teach the apprentices to assemble, install, and repair metal structures, using techniques including welding and riveting. In the classroom, apprentices are taught drafting, mathematics, blueprint reading, and other technical skills. Many structural steelworkers who do not go through the apprenticeship program learn their trade by working as helpers.
Getting the Job
Future structural steelworkers should contact a local contractor or union. Either source will have information about apprenticeship programs. Another good way to learn the basics is to get a job as a laborer assisting steelworkers. Laborers often advance to helpers' positions.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Structural steelworkers are already at the top of their craft. However, experienced workers can become supervisors. A few start their own businesses. Experienced steelworkers can change jobs within the field. For example, structural workers might choose to do ornamental ironwork.
Employment for structural steelworkers is expected to increase as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2014. While the number of jobs in the construction industry varies with the general economy, the need to rehabilitate and replace older buildings, highways, and bridges will sustain employment of ironworkers. Much of the growth in jobs will be in areas of increasing population, such as the Sunbelt states. Job openings will also result from the retirement of experienced steelworkers.
Structural steelworkers generally work forty hours per week, with extra wages for overtime work. Because the work takes place outdoors, bad weather can cause lost work time. As a result, a high hourly wage does not always mean a high annual income. Structural steel workers must have above-average strength to handle heavy and bulky materials. Structural workers must be agile and have a sense of balance. They spend a lot of time at great heights, walking on narrow footways. Ironwork is more hazardous than other building trades; however, the use of safety nets, scaffolding, and helmets reduces the risk of injury.
Structural steelworkers must sometimes travel long distances for jobs. Because the local demand for workers is not always large enough to keep crews employed continuously, some contractors keep crews working by moving them to different parts of the country. Many workers belong to labor unions.
Earnings and Benefits
Wages for structural steelworkers vary according to the worker's experience, the particular job, and the region of the country. The median wage in 2004 was $20.40 per hour. The lowest ten percent were paid less than $11.25. The highest ten percent made more than $33.53. Full-time structural steelworkers who belonged to a union earned slightly more than nonunion workers. Wages for ornamental ironworkers were comparable to those of structural steelworkers. The highest wages were paid in metropolitan areas.
Where to Go for More Information
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 400
Arlington, VA 22201
United Steelworkers of America
Five Gateway Center
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Union workers generally receive paid holidays, life insurance, and hospitalization and pension plans. The number of vacation days they receive depends on the number of days they work each year.