Boilermakers and boilermaker mechanics make, install, and repair boilers, vats, and other large vessels that hold liquids and gases. Boilers supply steam to drive huge turbines in electric powerplants and to provide heat and power in buildings, factories, and ships. Tanks and vats are used to process and store chemicals, oil, beer, and hundreds of other products.
Boilers and other high-pressure vessels usually are made in sections, by casting each piece out of molten iron or steel. Manufacturers are increasingly automating this process to increase the quality of these vessels. Boiler sections are then welded together, often using automated orbital welding machines, which make more consistent welds than are possible by hand. Small boilers may be assembled in the manufacturing plant; larger boilers usually are assembled on site.
Following blueprints, boilermakers locate and mark reference points on the boiler foundation, using straightedges, squares, transits, and tape measures. Boilermakers attach rigging and signal crane operators to lift heavy frame and plate sections and other parts into place. They align sections, using plumb bobs, levels, wedges, and turnbuckles. Boilermakers use hammers, files, grinders, and cutting torches to remove irregular edges, so that edges fit properly. They then bolt or weld edges together. Boilermakers align and attach water tubes, stacks, valves, gauges, and other parts and test complete vessels for leaks or other defects. They also install refractory brick and other heat-resistant materials in fireboxes or pressure vessels. Usually, they assemble large vessels temporarily in a fabrication shop to ensure a proper fit before final assembly on the permanent site.
Because boilers last a long time35 years or moreboilermakers regularly maintain them and update components, such as burners and boiler tubes, to increase efficiency. Boilermaker mechanics maintain and repair boilers and similar vessels. They inspect tubes, fittings, valves, controls, and auxiliary machinery and clean or supervise the cleaning of boilers using scrapers, wire brushes, and cleaning solvents. They repair or replace defective parts, using hand and power tools, gas torches, and welding equipment, and may operate metalworking machinery to repair or make parts. They also dismantle leaky boilers, patch weak spots with metal stock, replace defective sections, and strengthen joints.
Boilermakers often use potentially dangerous equipment, such as acetylene torches and power grinders, handle heavy parts, and work on ladders or on top of large vessels. Work is physically demanding and may be done in cramped quarters inside boilers, vats, or tanks that are often damp and poorly ventilated. In some instances, work may be done at high elevations for an extended period. To reduce the chance of injuries, boilermakers may wear hardhats, harnesses, protective clothing, safety glasses and shoes, and respirators. Boilermakers may experience extended periods of overtime when equipment is shut down for maintenance. Overtime work also may be necessary to meet construction or production deadlines. At other times there may be periods of unemployment between jobs.
Many boilermakers learn this trade through a formal apprenticeship. Others become boilermakers through a combination of trade or technical school training and employer-provided training. Apprenticeship programs usually consist of 4 years of on-the-job training, supplemented by a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in subjects such as set-up and assembly rigging, welding of all types, blueprint reading, and layout. Those with welding training or a welding certification will have priority in applying for apprenticeship programs. Experienced boilermakers often attend apprenticeship classes or seminars to learn about new equipment, procedures, and technology. When an apprenticeship becomes available, the local union publicizes the opportunity by notifying local vocational schools and high school vocational programs.
Some boilermakers advance to supervisory positions. Because of their broader training, apprentices usually have an advantage in promotion over those who have not gone through the full program.
Boilermakers held about 19,000 jobs in 2004. Nearly 7 out of 10 worked in the construction industry, assembling and erecting boilers and other vessels. More than 1 in 7 worked in manufacturing, primarily in boiler manufacturing shops, iron and steel plants, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and shipyards. Some also worked for boiler repair firms or railroads.
Average growth in employment of boilermakers is expected through the year 2014. Additional openings will be created by the need to replace experienced workers who are expected to retire in great numbers in the next 10 years. Unionized boilermakers are eligible to retire earlier than many other workers, partly due to the physically demanding nature of the work. Persons who have welding training or a welding certificate should have the best opportunities for being selected for boilermaker apprenticeship programs.
Growth will be limited by trends toward repairing and retrofitting, rather than replacing, existing boilers; the growing use of small boilers, which require less onsite assembly; and automation of production technologies. However, many boilers are getting older and will need replacing, which will create some demand for more boilermakers. In addition, utility companies will need to upgrade many of their boiler systems in the next few years to meet the Federal Clean Air Act. Also, as more power companies convert to coal as their primary source of fuel, additional boilers will be needed.
Most industries that purchase boilers are sensitive to economic conditions. Therefore, during economic downturns, boilermakers in the construction industry may be laid off. However, maintenance and repairs of boilers must continue even during economic downturns so boilermaker mechanics in manufacturing and other industries generally have more stable employment.
In May 2004, the median hourly earnings of boilermakers were about $21.68. The middle 50 percent earned between $17.80 and $26.82. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14.07, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $32.46. Apprentices generally start at about half of journey-level wages, with wages gradually increasing to the journey wage as progress is made in the apprenticeship.
About half of all boilermakers belong to labor unions. The principal union is the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. Other boilermakers are members of the International Association of
Machinists, the United Automobile Workers, or the United Steelworkers of America.
For further information regarding boilermaking apprenticeships or other training opportunities, contact local offices of the unions previously mentioned, local construction companies and boiler manufacturers, or the local office of your State employment service.
For information on apprenticeships and the boilermaking occupation, contact:
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers, 753 State Ave., Suite 570, Kansas City, KS 66101. Internet: http://www.boilermakers.org
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,
Boilermakers, on the Internet at
(visited June 21, 2006).