Ironworkers install iron girders and columns to construct buildings and other structures. It is a physically demanding job, and workers must be comfortable with great heights. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 97,800 ironworkers employed in the United States in 2008. Approximately 88 percent were employed in the construction field. Ironworkers may find employment throughout the country, but many jobs are concentrated in urban areas where a great deal of construction takes place.
On construction sites, ironworkers install steel bars that will be filled with concrete to stabilize the structure. They then use wire to tie the steel bars together, following the building’s blueprints. Ironworkers may also place steel mesh over a surface that requires concrete. Using long, hooked poles, they move the bars or mesh into place in the wet cement so that the concrete is evenly supported. In some cases, ironworkers must cut, bend or weld steel and other materials so they fit the project. They also sometimes use cables to reinforce a structure. The cables are placed in wet cement with the ends exposed, and ironworkers tighten them with special tools before the concrete completely sets. Ironworkers may also mount stairs, handrails and other metal fixtures after the building is completed. They bolt or weld the pieces in place to ensure that they are secure.
Employers generally prefer ironworkers who have completed a three-to-four-year apprenticeship in ironwork. Individuals receive paid on-the-job training, and are taught in a classroom as well. Many apprenticeship programs are sponsored by union representatives. To enter an apprenticeship, candidates generally must have a high school diploma or GED. Those who have taken high school classes in welding, math and mechanical drawing have a solid foundation for ironwork training. Students in ironwork apprenticeship programs receive instruction in math; blueprint reading; and the basics of structural erecting, reinforcing and welding. They also receive training in safety procedures and the proper use of tools and materials. Some ironworkers have no formal training, and instead learn while on the job. They usually start out helping experienced ironworkers with basic tasks and progress to more difficult work, such as cutting and welding.
Many ironworkers must work outdoors year-round, so they must sometimes work in cold, inclement weather. Some work at significant heights, though, so they do not work when it is snowing, raining or particularly windy. Ironworkers must use safety equipment to prevent falls, including scaffolding, nets and harnesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, ironworkers still suffer an above-average nonfatal injury rate. In addition, ironworkers should be in good physical shape because they must carry heavy materials and be able to balance at great heights.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for structural iron and steel workers was $20.68 as of May 2008. Reinforcing iron and rebar workers had median hourly wages of $19.18, while structural iron and steel workers in foundation, structure and building exterior contractors had median hourly wages of $21.51. Those in nonresidential building construction earned median hourly wages of $18.53.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment for structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers will increase by 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is about as fast a rate as the average for all occupations. Renovations to older buildings and facilities should give rise to opportunities for ironworkers. Many of the openings will result from experienced workers retiring or leaving the field. Ironwork is often affected by the economy because there tends to be less construction during economic downturns.