What Is An Ironworker?
Ironworkers, sometimes referred to as The Cowboys of the Sky, erect and dismantle the metal framework of a wide range of structures, from bridges and antennas, to skyscrapers and stadiums. Ironworkers also often erect the cranes and derricks that are used in the construction of these structures, and install and repair the catwalks, elevators, ladders, fire escapes, railings, and fences for commercial and industrial structures. The type of work that an Ironworker performs can usually be categorized into one of the following designations: reinforcing, structural, and ornamental. For more detailed information, please see the Roles and Responsibilities section below.
Why Is This An Important Role?
Ironworkers are instrumental in the construction of hospitals, stadiums, office buildings, power plants, shopping malls, bridges and other structures that are essential to our modern way of life. Whether you’re talking about the tall steel or iron beams that make up the framework of a high-rise, the rebar that supports the concrete serving as its foundation, or the ladders, catwalks, railings, platforms, and gates found throughout, Ironworkers play an important role in just about every facet of construction.
What Career Opportunities Are Available to Ironworkers?
Ironworkers are skilled in a wide variety of disciplines, but at the end of the day they are builders, and pride themselves on being able to do it all. As such, opportunities for Ironworkers can be found within any industry involving building with iron and steel. Ironworkers erect, dismantle, alter, and add to industrial, commercial, and residential buildings, including bridges, factories, power plants, dams, stadiums, arenas, drilling platforms, and other large structures. With the right amount of experience and professional development in any of these industries, an ironworker can transition into roles such as foreman, supervisor and superintendent.
How Do I Get Started?
Those looking to get into Ironworking typically begin their careers through a formal apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are usually sponsored by an employer or a union. For example, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Ironworkers is a prominent union that maintains a directory of training centers that offer apprenticeship opportunities across the United States and Canada. Every training center will have their own specific requirements for admission, so be sure to review the terms and conditions carefully. Some of these requirements usually include high school diploma, drug and alcohol screenings, safety training, and/or union membership.
Ironworkers-in-training can also prepare for a career in the field by training at a technical college or other post-secondary educational institution. Completion of a certificate or degree program can definitely give you an advantage in being selected for an apprenticeship, as well as reducing the learning curve once you get started. For more detailed information, please see the Education section below.
An Ironworker’s tasks vary according to the specific needs of a project and the type of ironworking they perform. The following is a general description of the responsibilities required of a reinforcing, structural and ornamental ironworker. Each of these specializations employs different tools, skills, and knowledge, although the well-versed ironworker is familiar with multiple welding, metalworking, and construction processes.
Preparation: Prior to commencing work, Ironworkers must ensure that all of their equipment is in good working order. Ironworking can be very dangerous work, and Ironworkers are required to adhere to all safety protocols, including the use of harnesses or other safety apparatuses to minimize the risk of injury if they are working at considerable heights. If welding, an Ironworker will be required to select and calibrate all their tools and equipment according to the parameters listed in the Welding Procedure Specification (WPS). In some cases, Ironworkers must also analyze drawings and blueprints in order to understand and perform the work to the proper specifications.
A Reinforcing Ironworker is responsible for reinforcing concrete structures. This typically involves positioning and laying down steel rods, bars, or mesh as a support for concrete, and tying or otherwise connecting these bars together. A Reinforcing Ironworker will also be expected to install tension cables where needed for additional support. Performing these tasks requires a working knowledge of concrete, as well as the use of a wide range of tools, including welding equipment, hydraulic rod benders, jacks and pumps, power saws, and pry bars.
Structural Ironworkers are primarily tasked with the erection and connection of metal beams and columns to form structural skeletons. Measuring tools and equipment are used to ensure the perfect alignment of the beams that Ironworkers bolt or weld together to create a frame. Rigging and crane systems are then used to lift and move the frames so that Ironworkers can bolt and weld them to the columns.
Ornamental Ironworkers use many of the same aforementioned tools, equipment, and skills to ensure the safe and sturdy attachment of various structural components of industrial and commercial buildings. These include catwalks, fire escapes, railings, balconies and ladders. Ornamental ironworkers take measurements, align and install metal components, and bend, cut, or otherwise position them to be reinforced into iron and concrete structures with steel bars or wire mesh.
Follow Up: Before a job can be considered complete, an Ironworker may be tasked with ensuring that structures are aligned properly, as per blueprints or other specifications. This will usually involve assessing the angles and orientation of beams and support structures with cameras and computerized equipment. An Ironworker would then be responsible for making the necessary adjustments, if any..
- Highly motivated and self-directed
- Flexible and able to work in a team environment
- Physically fit
- Comfortable working with heights
- Mechanical aptitude
- Manual dexterity
IMPORTANT KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
- Knowledge of standard welding safety procedures and protocol
- Ability to use basic welding equipment and engage in welding and cutting processes
- Ability to use cutting and shaping hand or power tools, including spud wrenches, drift and bull pins, and sleever bars
- Ability to read blueprints and analyze design plans
- Strong analytical thinking and problem solving skills
There is no single educational path to a career in ironworking. However, an employer or union sponsored apprenticeship is the most common way of acquiring the knowledge and skills required to become an Ironworker. Most employers and apprenticeship programs require candidates to have a high school diploma and pass a drug and alcohol screening. However, previous welding experience, or the completion of a welding training program, will certainly make your transition from novice welder to apprentice an easier one.
Because there are there are three different types of ironworking (reinforcing, structural, and ornamental) the specifics of your training will vary depending on the nature of the work you choose to pursue. However, many technical schools and colleges offer certificates and Associate’s degrees for Ironworking. These programs offer courses that can serve you in various branches of ironworking, in addition to general welding processes and safety. Some of the topics in a typical ironworking curriculum include: welding, scaffold usage, blueprint reading, mathematics for ironworkers, reinforcing concrete, structural steel erection, pre-engineered metal building erection, and hazardous materials training.
The AWS School Locator and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Ironworkers are good resources for finding training centers, schools, and apprenticeship opportunities in your area.
TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT
An Ironworker’s apprenticeship typically lasts between three and five years. An apprentice will complete anywhere from 6000 to over 8000 hours of on-the-job training, in addition to roughly 160 hours of supplementary classroom instruction. Each apprenticeship experience will be different, but generally speaking, prospective ironworkers will learn a variety of different processes from experienced journeymen. During this time, an apprentice will earn a percentage of a journeyman’s wage, which increases as skills are developed and training or classroom time is accrued. The completion of an apprenticeship earns an Ironworker the title of Journeyman, which in addition to a healthy increase in benefits and compensation, can also open up career opportunities not previously available to an apprentice.
There is no government licensure for Ironworkers. Instead, the title of Journeyman indicates that a person has acquired the knowledge and skills required of a fully qualified Ironworker. A journeyman can then decide to progress in their career in a multitude of ways, including becoming a foreman, superintendent, or Certified Welding Inspector, among others. It is also not uncommon for an Ironworker to eventually own their own business or workshop.
It’s important to keep in mind that being an Ironworker can potentially put you in dangerous situations. However, some of the hazards of the job can be minimized with the proper training. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration offers 10 and 30 hour training courses that cover some of the basics of construction site safety, including material handling, scaffold use, and electrical safety. Additionally, the National Center for Construction Education and Research offers a range of training courses and certifications for safety with some of ancillary functions of Ironworking, including rigging and crane operation.