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Nature of the Work
* Structural and reinforcing ironworkers earn high pay but often can't work during inclement weather.
* These workers are among the most likely to be put out of work when downturns in the economy slow new construction.
* Most people enter this occupation through a formal 3-year apprenticeship.
Builders use materials made from iron, steel, aluminum, fiberglass, precast concrete, brass, and bronze to construct highways, bridges, office buildings, power transmission towers, and other large buildings. These structures have frames made of steel columns, beams, and girders. In addition, reinforced concreteconcrete containing steel bars or wire fabricis an important material in buildings, bridges, and other structures. The steel gives the concrete additional strength. Metal stairways, catwalks, floor gratings, ladders, and window frames, as well as lampposts, railings, fences, and decorative ironwork make these structures more functional and attractive. Structural and reinforcing ironworkers fabricate, assemble, and install these products. They also repair, renovate, and maintain older buildings and structures such as steel mills, utility plants, automobile factories, highways, and bridges.
Before construction can begin, ironworkers must erect the steel frames and assemble the cranes and derricks that move structural steel, reinforcing bars, buckets of concrete, lumber, and other materials and equipment around the construction site. This equipment arrives at the construction site in sections. There it is lifted into position by a mobile crane. Ironworkers then connect the sections and set the cables to do the hoisting.
Once this job has been completed, structural ironworkers begin to connect steel columns, beams, and girders according to blueprints and instructions from supervisors and superintendents. Structural steel, reinforcing rods, and ornamental iron generally come to the construction site ready for erectioncut to the proper size with holes drilled for bolts and numbered for assembly. Ironworkers do this work in fabricating shops generally located away from the construction site. In fabrication shops, iron workers lay out the raw steel received from a steel mill and cut, bend, drill, bolt, and weld each piece according to the specifications for that particular job. Ironworkers at the construction site unload and stack the fabricated steel so it can be hoisted easily when needed.
To hoist the steel, ironworkers attach cables from a crane or derrick. One worker directs the hoist operator with hand signals. Another worker holds a rope (tag line) attached to the steel to prevent it from swinging. The crane or derrick hoists steel into place in the framework, where several workers using spud wrenches position it with connecting bars and jacks. Workers using driftpins or the handle of a spud wrencha long wrench with a pointed handlealign the holes in the steel with the holes in the framework. Then they bolt the piece in place temporarily, check vertical and horizontal alignment with plumb bobs, laser equipment, transits, or levels and then bolt or weld it permanently in place.
Reinforcing ironworkers set the bars in the forms that hold concrete, following blueprints showing the location, size, and number of reinforcing bars. They fasten the bars together by tying wire around them with pliers. When reinforcing floors, workers place blocks under the reinforcing bars to hold them off the deck. Although these materials usually arrive ready to use, ironworkers occasionally must cut the bars with metal shears or acetylene torches, bend them by hand or machine, or weld them with arc-welding equipment. Some concrete is reinforced with welded wire fabric. Using hooked rods, workers cut and fit the fabric and, while a concrete crew places the concrete, ironworkers position it properly in the concrete.
Workers install ornamental ironwork and related pieces after the exterior of the building has been completed. As they hoist pieces into position, ironworkers bring them into position, make sure they fit correctly, and bolt, braze, or weld them for a secure fit. They also erect metal tanks used to store petroleum, water, or other fluids and assemble prefabricated metal buildings according to plans or specifications.
Structural and reinforcing ironworkers usually work outside in all kinds of weather. However, those who work at great heights do not work when it is wet, icy, or extremely windy. Because the danger of injuries due to falls is so great, ironworkers use safety devices such as safety belts, scaffolding, and nets to reduce the risk.
Structural and reinforcing ironworkers held about 770,000 jobs in 1996. Almost all of these workers were employed in the construction industry. Nearly 6 of every 10 worked for structural steel erection contractors; most of the remainder worked for a variety of contractors specializing in the construction of homes, factories, commercial buildings, churches, schools, bridges and tunnels, and water, sewer, communications, and power lines.
Ironworkers are employed in all parts of the country, but most work in metropolitan areas, where most commercial and industrial construction takes place.
Most employers recommend apprenticeship as the best way to learn this trade. The apprenticeship consists of 3 or 4 years of on-the-job training and a minimum of 144 hours a year of classroom instruction. Apprenticeship programs are usually administered by joint union-management committees made up of representatives of local unions of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers and local chapters of contractors' associations.
Ironworkers must be at least 18 years old. A high school diploma may be preferred by employers and may be required by some local apprenticeship committees. High School courses in general mathematics, mechanical drawing, and shop are helpful. Because materials used in ironworking are heavy and bulky, ironworkers must be in good physical condition. They also need good agility, balance, eyesight, and depth perception in order to work at great heights on narrow beams and girders. Ironworkers should not be afraid of heights or suffer from dizziness.
In the classroom, apprentices study blueprint reading, mathematics for layout work, the basics of structural erecting, rigging, reinforcing, welding and burning, ornamental erection and assembling. They also study the care and safe use of tools and materials. On the job, apprentices work in all aspects of the trade, such as unloading and storing materials at the job site, rigging materials for movement by crane or derrick, connecting structural steel, and welding.
Some ironworkers learn the trade informally on the job without completing an apprenticeship. These workers generally do not receive classroom training, although some large contractors have extensive training programs. On-the-job trainees usually begin by assisting experienced ironworkers by doing simple jobs, like carrying various materials. With experience, they perform more difficult tasks like cutting and fitting different parts. Learning through work experience alone may not provide training as complete as an apprenticeship program, however, and usually takes longer.
Some experienced workers become supervisors. Others may go into the contracting business for themselves.
Employment of structural and reinforcing ironworkers is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2006 largely because of the continued slow growth in industrial and commercial construction. The rehabilitation and maintenance of an increasing number of older buildings, factories, power plants, and highways and bridges is expected to increase, mitigating somewhat slower employment growth. In addition, more ironworkers will be needed to build incinerators and other structures to contain hazardous materials as part of ongoing toxic waste cleanup. Although employment growth will create many new jobs for structural and reinforcing ironworkers, most openings will result from the need to replace experienced ironworkers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
The number of job openings fluctuates from year to year as economic conditions and the level of construction activity change. During economic downturns, ironworkers can experience high rates of unemployment. Similarly, job opportunities for ironworkers may vary widely by geographic area. Job openings for ironworkers usually are more abundant during the spring and summer months, when the level of construction activity increases.
Median weekly earnings of structural and reinforcing ironworkers employed full time were about $598 a week in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $445 and $778 a week. The top 10 percent earned more than $958 and the lowest 10 percent less than $306 a week.
According to the Engineering News Record, prevailing union wage ratesincluding benefitsfor ironworkers averaged about $30.56 an hour in 1997. Their wages ranged from a low of about $14.56 in Houston to a high of 47.35 in New York City.
Apprentices generally start at about 50 to 60 percent of the rate paid to experienced journey workers. They receive periodic increases throughout the course of the apprenticeship program as they acquire the skills of the trade until their pay approaches that of experienced workers.
Earnings for ironworkers may be reduced on occasion because work can be limited by bad weather, the short-term nature of construction jobs, and economic downturns.
Many workers in this trade are members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers.
Structural and reinforcing ironworkers play an essential role in erecting buildings, bridges, highways, powerlines, and other structures. Others who also work on these construction jobs are operating engineers, concrete masons, and welders.
For more information on apprenticeships or other work opportunities, contact local general contractors; a local of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers union; a local joint ironworkers' union-management apprenticeship committee; a local or State chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, or the nearest office of the State employment service or apprenticeship agency.
For general information about ironworkers, contact:
Associated General Contractors of America, Inc., 1300 North 17th St., Rosslyn, VA 22209-3883
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20006.
National Erectors Association, 1501 Lee Hwy., Suite 202, Arlington, VA 22209.
National Association of Reinforcing Steel Contractors, P.O. Box 280, Fairfax, VA 22030.
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