Ironwork is one of the fundamental skilled trades in commercial and industrial construction. Ironworkers create the network of cables and rebar that reinforce poured or stressed concrete and the massive steel frames that provide skyscrapers with their structural strength. It's hard physical work that draws on a number of specialized skills best learned through a formal apprenticeship.
Formal apprenticeships in the United States follow a standard pattern laid out by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment & Training Administration. An apprenticeship for an ironworker lasts three to four years, depending on the specific state's labor laws. Apprentices work full time under the supervision of journey-level ironworkers, completing a minimum of 2,000 hours' employment on the job site for each year of the apprenticeship. They must also spend at least 144 hours each year in formal classroom instruction, learning the math and blueprint-reading skills they need and a knowledge of local building codes. Most apprentices start at 50 percent of a journey person's pay and get a raise each year until the apprenticeship is finished.
Qualifying apprentices need to be at least 18, high school graduates, physically strong and drug-free. Ironworkers often work high off the ground, so it's also important to have good balance and no fear of heights. Apprenticeship programs are mostly operated by locals of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, and occasionally by contractor's organizations. The ironworker's union offers a state-by-state list of apprenticeship programs on its website. Because apprentices have to work full-time hours, the number of available apprenticeships is limited by the amount of work available in the local area.
Although structural and reinforcing work are central to the ironworking trade, there are other skills involved. Moving and working with heavy steel requires skilled use of cabling, cranes, forklifts and other equipment. Often steel must be cut or welded on the job site, so apprentices learn both skills as a routine part of their training. Ornamental or architectural iron workers specialize in installing components that provide architectural detail for aesthetic or functional purposes. Those include door frames and windows, entrances, stairways, catwalks and a variety of gratings, bars, fences or other detail pieces. Those must be mounted carefully to preserve their appearance and are sometimes fabricated by hand on-site.
After completing their apprenticeship, new ironworkers apply for licensing as journey persons in their own right. Most states require them to pass either a written exam or a skill-based physical test to demonstrate competence. Journey ironworkers can work independently on job sites, without supervision, and can play a role in training newer ironworkers. Employment in the field is cyclical, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22 percent job growth for ironworkers between 2010 and 2020. That's well above the 14 percent average for all occupations. Ironworkers with welding and rigging certifications should have the best prospects.