It takes nerves of steel and muscles of iron, to work hundreds of feet above the ground, building structures that push up to merge with the clouds. Ironworkers have what it takes to help build the supporting structures for bridges, large buildings, and roads. Consulting sketches and blueprints to guide their work, ironworkers move prefabricated iron and steel by hand and signal crane operators to lift and position it. Using a variety of tools, they cut and shape the iron and steel, then weld or bolt it into place. Getting these heavy materials into the right, level position is key to structural integrity, and requires specialized tools to ensure it. It takes good balance and coordination, strength and stamina to make it in any specialty in this field. Structural iron and steel workers connect steel columns and girders for tall structures. Although wet, icy, or windy conditions can stop work, work is outdoors in most types of weather. With the risk of falls, cuts, and muscle strain, precautions must be taken. Reinforcing iron and rebar workers use steel and iron to strengthen concrete for highways, buildings, and bridges. They must be able to carry, bend, cut, and connect rebar quickly to help keep projects on schedule. Most ironworkers work full time in the construction industry, and learn their trade through a 3-4 year apprenticeship. A high school diploma or equivalent is generally required.

Ironworkers install structural and reinforcing iron and steel to form and support buildings, bridges, and roads.

What Do Iron Workers / Structural Steel Workers Do?

Duties

Ironworkers typically do the following:

  • Read and follow blueprints, sketches, and other instructions
  • Unload and stack prefabricated iron and steel so that it can be lifted with slings
  • Signal crane operators who lift and position structural and reinforcing iron and steel
  • Use shears, rod-bending machines, and welding equipment to cut, bend, and weld the structural and reinforcing iron and steel
  • Align structural and reinforcing iron and steel vertically and horizontally, using tag lines, plumb bobs, lasers, and levels
  • Connect iron and steel with bolts, wire, or welds

Structural and reinforcing iron and steel are important components of buildings, bridges, roads, and other structures. Even though the primary metal involved in this work is steel, workers often are known as ironworkers or erectors. Most of the work involves erecting new structures, but some ironworkers may also help in the demolition, decommissioning, and rehabilitation of older buildings and bridges.

When building tall structures such as skyscrapers, structural iron and steel workers erect steel frames and assemble the cranes and derricks that move materials and equipment around the construction site. Workers connect precut steel columns, beams, and girders, using tools like shears, torches, welding equipment, and hand tools. A few ironworkers install precast walls or work with wood or composite materials.

Reinforcing iron and rebar workers use one of three different materials to support concrete:

  • Reinforcing steel (rebar) is used to strengthen the concrete that forms highways, buildings, bridges, and other structures. These workers are sometimes called rod busters, in reference to rods of rebar.
  • Cables are used to reinforce concrete by pre- or post-tensioning. These techniques allow designers to create larger open areas in a building because supports can be placed farther apart. As a result, pre- and post-tensioning are commonly used to construct arenas, concrete bridges, and parking garages.
  • Welded wire reinforcing (WWR) is also used to strengthen concrete. This reinforcing is made up of narrow-diameter rods or wire welded into a grid.

Structural metal fabricators and fitters manufacture metal products in shops, usually located away from construction sites.

Career Snapshot

Structural Iron and Steel Workers raise, place, and unite iron or steel girders, columns, and other structural members to form completed structures or structural frameworks. They may erect metal storage tanks and assemble prefabricated metal buildings. The job requirements of steel workers are physically demanding and highly dangerous. Not only do structural iron and steel workers need the training necessary to install steel beams and columns to form bridges, buildings, and other structures but they also require incredible balance, stamina and the ability to deal with the ever-increasing heights of today's buildings and skyscrapers.

(Similar work titles include:  Fitter, Fitter / Welder, Iron Worker, Iron Worker Foreman, Ironworker, Rigger, Steel Fabricator, Steel Worker, Structural Steel Erector, Tower Hand)

Job Details

Structural Iron and Steel Workers typically do the following:

  • Read and follow blueprints, sketches, and other instructions
  • Unload and stack prefabricated iron and steel so that it can be lifted with slings
  • Signal crane operators who lift and position structural and reinforcing iron and steel
  • Use shears, rod-bending machines, torches, hand tools, and welding equipment to cut, bend, and weld the structural and reinforcing iron and steel
  • Align structural and reinforcing iron and steel vertically and horizontally, using tag lines, plumb bobs, lasers, and levels
  • Connect iron and steel with bolts, wire, or welds
  • Install metal decking used in building construction
  • Bolt aligned structural steel members in position for permanent riveting, bolting, or welding into place

Education and Experience

A high school diploma or equivalent is typically required to enter the occupation.  Most workers in this sub-sector learn through an apprenticeship and on-the-job training.  Structural iron and steel worker occupations usually need three to four years of training involving both on-the-job experience and informal training with experienced workers.  Several groups, such as unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs.

Career Outlook

  • Annual pay: As of May 2019, iron and steelworkers earned an average salary of $49,000
  • Employment growth forecast 2018-2028: 11%
  • Entry-level education: High school diploma or equivalent

Career Growth Opportunity

Certifications in welding, rigging, and crane signaling may make ironworkers more attractive to prospective employers. Several organizations provide certifications for different aspects of the work.  After gaining experience, ironworkers may advance to become a supervisor or a manager, a position in which they have more responsibilities and are tasked with directing other ironworkers.

Professional Associations

  • National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators - NCCCO was formed in January 1995 as a non-profit organization with its mission to develop effective performance standards for safe load handling equipment operation to assist all segments of general industry and construction.
  • International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers - The IW represents 120,000 members in North America. Members of this union have worked on nearly every major construction project you can think of - the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the St. Louis Arch, the Oil Sands Plant Expansion in Alberta, the World Trade Center and Freedom Tower. IW represents ironworkers who work on bridges, structural steel, ornamental, architectural, and miscellaneous metals, rebar and in shops.
  • National Center for Construction Education and Research - NCCER is a non-profit education foundation.  It was developed with the support of more than 125 construction CEOs and various association and academic leaders who united to revolutionize training for the construction industry. Sharing the common goal of developing a safe and productive workforce, these companies created a standardized training and credentialing program for the industry.
  • Association for Iron and Steel Technology  - This non-profit has as its mission to advance the technical development, production, processing and application of iron and steel.
  • National Institute of Steel Detailing - NISD’s mission is to foster a professional approach to business, by advocating improved quality, through member networking, education and certification, and create a better understanding of the importance of detailing services in the construction process.
  • United Steelworkers - The United Steelworkers is North America’s largest industrial union. They are 1.2 million members and retirees strong in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.  They advocate for ‘better workplaces, better lives for everyone and a better world’.
  • The Associated General Contractors of America - The AGC of America works to ensure the continued success of the commercial construction industry by advocating for federal, state and local measures that support the industry; providing opportunities for firms to learn about ways to become more accomplished; and connecting them with the resources and individuals they need to be successful businesses and corporate citizens.
  • Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. - ABC's mission is the advancement of the merit shop construction philosophy, which encourages open competition and a free enterprise approach that awards contracts based solely on merit, regardless of labor affiliation.
  • Building Trades Alliance, Structural Iron and Steel Worker - BTA is a non-partisan, apolitical organization dedicated to the promotion of the building trades and to the partnership between the various building trade unions and contractors that drives progress throughout our nation.
  • American Welding Society - This organization is a non-profit with a global mission to advance the science, technology and application of welding and allied joining and cutting processes, including brazing, soldering and thermal spraying.
  • Sisters in the Brotherhood - Sisters in the Brotherhood is a group dedicated to strengthening the UBC by promoting activism and diversity and by increasing the number of women members.
  • The Associated General Contractors of America - The Associated General Contractors of America works to ensure the continued success of the commercial construction industry by advocating for federal, state and local measures that support the industry.

Publications

  • Ironworker Magazine - Since its inception in 1901, The Ironworker has served as primary communication tool for our members, local union, district councils, and officers to keep apprised of ironworkers' interests locally and across North America.
  • Constructor - online digital magazine
  • Metal Working World Magazine - machine tools, sheet metal, technologies, news...

Programs/Training

Many structural iron and steel workers become welders certified by the American Welding Society. Certifications in welding, rigging, and crane signaling may increase a worker’s usefulness on the jobsite and result in higher pay.

A high school diploma is generally required for Structural Iron and Steel Workers. Courses in math, shop, blueprint reading, and welding can be particularly useful.