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Structural and Reinforcing Iron and Metal Worker Career Information

Career and Job Highlights

  • Though some workers gain their skills on the job, a formal apprenticeship provides the best training.
  • During economic recessions, employment for workers can be unstable or unavailable.
  • This work can be very hazardous. Workers often work on roof, scaffolds, or other high places, and so they risk falls. During inclement weather when surfaces might be wet or icy, work might be stalled.

Iron and Metal Worker Career Overview

The daily work of structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers consists of positioning and installing iron and metal products to build structures like bridges, office buildings, towers, etc. They use iron products like steel pillars, supports, or beams. They also make steel shafts or grilles that support concrete to make raised roads, tunnels, freeways, industrial buildings, and bridges. Also, they are involved in maintaining and repairing old structures to make them stronger and more sound. Workers generally use steel to perform these tasks, but they are often called ironworkers.

Metal workers are needed at the very beginning of construction projects to construct steel framework. They use cranes and hoists to move steel shafts, barrels of concrete, wood planks, steel, and other construction material. All of the material and equipment needs to be carefully planned and organized. Metal workers can then begin the actual construction. They examine blueprints and specifications and attach steel beams, pillars, and supports accordingly. Some materials need to be assembled onsite, but others, like reinforcing shafts, structural steel, or decorative iron, are prefabricated in iron shops.

While on construction sites, metal workers receive and allocate materials so it is easily accessible when builders need them. To lift the premade steel, metal workers use a sling arrangement to connect the steel to a crane or winch. One metal worker stays on the ground and directs the operator of the crane, while another worker holds a cord, called a tag line, which steadies the load. The crane operator lifts the steel into position in the structure. Next, other metal workers secure the steel to the shafts or pillars around it. Most of the time the steel comes with pre-drilled and numbered holes that workers bolt to the frame using driftpins, bolts, or special wrenches that have tapered handles. Workers inspect the steel to make sure everything lines up properly using levelers, laser sights, plumb bobs, or other equipment. When everything is in place they permanently secure the bolts with torches wrenches.

Though some metal workers can perform many different jobs, most specialize in one of the following areas:

  • Reinforcing iron and rebar: Workers who specialize in this area install “rebar” (reinforcing iron or steel bars) into concrete to make it stronger. Usually the positions of the rebar is specified in blueprints, so workers consult them to find out the number, type, and size of bars that the job requires. They use wire to connect the rebar together. Working on floors requires that metal workers install spacers beneath the rebar to hold it in place above the base. Usually the bars and spacers are prefabricated in a shop and only need to be installed. However, sometimes workers need to measure, cut, and shape the bars themselves using acetylene torches, steel-bending machinery, metal shears, or welders.

    Sometimes concrete workers use a metal mesh as a reinforcing material rather than rebar. Workers use a long tool with a hook on the end to pull, cut and position the mesh. They then install the mesh into the concrete at the same time concrete workers pour it.

    Another way to reinforce concrete is called post-tensioning. This involves using heavy steel cords instead of rebar or mesh. Workers create a system of cording that will reinforce the concrete. The concrete is then poured over the top, leaving the ends of the cord sticking out. Once the concrete is set, metal workers use specialized jacks to pull the cords taut and make them secure. Using reinforcing cords, instead of mesh or rebar, allows buildings to have large open spaces since pillars can be further away from each other. Because of this, post-tensioning is common in structures like parking facilities and stadiums.

  • Ornamental Metal Work: Workers who specialize in this area work in construction sites and make finishing touches like elevator doors, steps, decorative windows, walls, and other decorative touches. They lift products into place, make sure they are positioned securely and then solder, nail, or bolt them.

About 80% of ironworkers are employed in the construction industry. Of those 80%, about 50% are employed by foundation, structural, or exterior contractors. The other 20% of metal workers are employed by other contractors like general construction contractors who specialize in building industrial facilities, churches, educational facilities, bridges, water treatment plants, tunnels, electrical or telephones lines.

Jobs for structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers are available all over the country, but the majority of positions are clustered around urban areas where most construction takes place.

Iron and Metal Worker Career Training and Qualifications

Though many individuals gain their skills on the job, the best way to enter the profession is through completing a formal apprenticeship. Most apprenticeship programs take three to four years to complete and are sponsored by boards made up of both local contractors’ organizations and regional representatives of International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

Prospective metal workers need to be eighteen or older and having a high school diploma or equivalent is recommended. Background or classes in math, drafting, or metal shop are beneficial. Also, workers need to be physically fit since they have to carry and manipulate heavy materials like steel or iron. They also need to be coordinated and have good conceptualization and manual dexterity. They often have to work on scaffolding or framework that might be very high up, so workers need to have good balance and be comfortable working at heights.

Apprenticeships involve both classroom instruction and practical experience. The classwork involves instruction in reading specifications, math skills like geometry, construction principles, building framework, physics, using ropes and pulleys, soldering, decorative ironwork, reinforcement, and assembly. A lot of emphasis is placed on following safety procedures and using safety equipment. The practical experience is mostly gained by helping professionals at actual jobsites. Apprentices perform simple tasks like transporting and allocating materials, arranging steel to be lifted by a crane, or welding.

Not all workers enter the trade by completing apprenticeships. Some begin as assistants to professionals and learn on the job. Sometimes these workers do get formal training that is provided by their employer, but this isn’t always the case. Workers who learn on the job usually start out with simple tasks like transporting materials or handing workers tools. As they gain experience and skill, they will be given bigger responsibilities like measuring and shaping steel bars. Entering the trade this way does not provide training that is as comprehensive as that provided by an apprenticeship, however, and can take more time.

Opportunities for advancement for structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers consist of supervisory positions or they might start their own businesses as contractors.

Job and Employment Opportunities

Job prospects for those who want to become structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers is projected to proceed at the rate of the average in coming years. Most of this will come from the increased amount of construction in industrial and public areas. Aside from new construction, there will be demand for structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers to remodel, renovate, replace, and maintain older structures like bridges, factories, and roads. Also, many positions will become available as professionals retire or shift to different occupations.

Employment rates for structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers can vary based on the economy. During times of economic growth there is more construction generally; during recessions workers in the construction industry could be out of work. Also, workers may need to travel to job sites which may be in remote locations. Employment can also be unstable based on the time of year. Since much of the work is done outdoors, most of it has to be done during the spring and summer. There may be few positions available during the fall and winter.

Historical Earnings Information

Most structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers are paid by the hour. The majority of structural iron and steel workers made between $14.50/hour and $26.00/hour in 2002, with a median of $19.60/hour. the lowest tenth on the pay scale made under $10.80/hour and the highest tenth made over $31.80/hour.

The majority of reinforcing iron workers made between $12.70/hour and $25.70/hour in 2002 with a median of $17.70/hour. The lowest tenth on the pay scale made under $10.00/hour and the highest tenth earned over $31.40/hour.