Boilermakers assemble, install, and repair boilers, closed vats, and other large vessels or containers that hold liquids and gases.

Duties

Boilermakers typically do the following:

  • Use blueprints to determine locations, positions, or dimensions of parts
  • Install small premade boilers into buildings and manufacturing facilities
  • Lay out prefabricated parts of larger boilers before assembling them
  • Assemble boiler tanks, often using robotic or automatic welders
  • Test and inspect boiler systems for leaks or defects
  • Clean vats using scrapers, wire brushes, and cleaning solvents
  • Replace or repair broken valves, pipes, or joints, using hand and power tools, gas torches, and welding equipment

Boilers, tanks, and vats are used in many buildings, factories, and ships. Boilers heat water or other fluids under extreme pressure to generate electric power and to provide heat. Large tanks and vats are used to process and store chemicals, oil, beer, and hundreds of other products.

Boilers are made out of steel, iron, copper, or stainless steel. Manufacturers are increasingly automating the production of boilers to improve the quality of these vessels. However, boilermakers still use many tools to assemble or repair boilers. For example, they often use hand and power tools or flame cutting torches to cut pieces for a boiler. To bend the pieces into shape and accurately line them up, boilermakers use plumb bobs, levels, wedges, and turnbuckles.

If the plate sections are very large, cranes lift the parts into place. Once boilermakers have the parts lined up, they use metalworking machinery and other tools to remove irregular edges so the parts fit together properly. They then join the parts by bolting, welding, or riveting them together.

In addition to installing and maintaining boilers and other vessels, boilermakers help erect and repair air pollution equipment, blast furnaces, water treatment plants, storage and process tanks, and smokestacks. Boilermakers also install refractory brick and other heat-resistant materials in fireboxes or pressure vessels. Some install and maintain the huge pipes used in dams to send water to and from hydroelectric power generation turbines.

Because boilers last a long time—sometimes 50 years or more—boilermakers must regularly maintain them by upgrading parts. As a result, they frequently inspect fittings, feed pumps, safety and check valves, water and pressure gauges, and boiler controls.

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Work Environment

Boilermakers held about 18,000 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most boilermakers in 2012 were as follows:

Building equipment contractors 26%
Nonresidential building construction 17
Utility system construction 12
Boiler, tank, and shipping container manufacturing 11

Boilermakers perform physically demanding and dangerous work. They often work outdoors in all types of weather, including in extreme heat and cold.

Because dams, boilers, storage tanks, and pressure vessels are large, boilermakers often work at great heights. When working on a dam, for example, they may be hundreds of feet above the ground.

Boilermakers also work in cramped quarters inside boilers, vats, or tanks that are often dark, damp, and poorly ventilated.

Injuries and Illnesses

Although boilermakers often use dangerous equipment, they have lower rates of injuries and illnesses than many other construction occupations. Still, common injuries include burns from acetylene torches, cuts from power grinders, muscle strains from lifting heavy parts and tools, and falls from ladders or large vessels.

To reduce the chance of injury, boilermakers often wear hardhats, harnesses, protective clothing, earplugs, and safety glasses. In addition, when working inside enclosed spaces, boilermakers often must wear a respirator.

Work Schedules

Nearly all boilermakers work full time and may experience extended periods of overtime when equipment is shut down for maintenance. Overtime work also may be necessary to meet construction or production deadlines, especially during the spring and fall seasons. In contrast, because most field construction and repair work is contract work, there may be periods of unemployment when a contract is complete.

Many boilermakers must travel to worksites and live away from home for long periods.

Education and Training

Most boilermakers learn their trade through an apprenticeship program. Candidates are more likely to be accepted into training programs if they already have welding experience and certification.

Education

A high school diploma or GED is generally required. High school courses in math and welding are considered to be useful.

Training

Most boilermakers learn their trade through a 4- or 5-year apprenticeship. Each year, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of related technical training and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. On the job, apprentices learn to use the tools and equipment of the trade. Those who already have welding experience complete training sooner than those without it. During technical training, apprentices learn about metals and installation techniques, as well as basic mathematics, blueprint reading and sketching, general construction techniques, safety practices, and first aid.

When they finish the apprenticeship program, boilermakers are considered to be journey workers, performing tasks under the guidance of experienced workers. 

A few groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs. The basic qualifications to enter an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school education or equivalent
  • Physically able to do the work

In addition to satisfying these qualifications, candidates with certification or documented welding experience usually have priority over applicants without experience.

Some boilermakers enter the trade through training in similar occupations, such as pipefitters, millwrights, sheet metal workers, or welders. Much of the core training of those occupations is similar to that of boilermakers.

Important Qualities

Physical stamina. Workers must have high endurance because they spend many hours on their feet while lifting heavy boiler components.

Physical strength. Workers must be strong enough to move heavy vat components into place.

Unafraid of confined spaces. Because workers often work inside boilers and vats, they cannot be claustrophobic.

Unafraid of heights. Some boilermakers must work at great heights. While installing water storage tanks, for example, workers may need to weld tanks several stories above the ground.

Pay

The median annual wage for boilermakers was $56,560 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,400, and the top 10 percent earned more than $79,970.

Apprentices usually start at 60 percent of the rate paid to fully trained boilermakers. They receive pay increases as they learn to do more tasks.

Nearly all boilermakers work full time and may experience extended periods of overtime when equipment is shut down for maintenance. Overtime work also may be necessary to meet construction or production deadlines, especially during the spring and fall seasons.

In contrast, because most field construction and repair work is contract work, there may be periods of unemployment when a contract is complete.

Many boilermakers must travel to worksites and live away from home for long periods.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all other occupations, boilermakers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. Although there is no single union that covers all boilermakers, the largest organizer of these workers is the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers.

Job Outlook

Employment of boilermakers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

Overall demand for boilermakers is linked to the relative cost of coal versus natural gas. Coal-fired power plants require more boilermakers for installation and maintenance. As a result, if natural gas prices remain low relative to the cost of coal as an input, fewer boilermakers will be needed. Conversely, if coal is the lower cost input, more boilermakers will be needed to meet federal Clean Air Act requirements by continuing to upgrade electrical generation plants’ boiler and scrubbing systems.

The installation of new boilers and pressure vessels, air pollution equipment, water treatment plants, storage and process tanks, electric static precipitators, and stacks and liners will spur some demand for boilermakers, although to a lesser extent than repairs and upgrades will.

While boilers typically last more than 50 years, the need to replace parts, such as boiler tubes, heating elements, and ductwork, is an ongoing process that will require the work of boilermakers.

Job Prospects

Overall job prospects should be favorable because the work of a boilermaker remains hazardous and physically demanding, leading some qualified applicants to seek other types of work. Although employment growth will generate some job openings, the majority of positions will stem from the need to replace the large number of boilermakers expected to retire in the coming decade.

People who have welding training or a welding certificate should have the best opportunities to be selected for boilermaker apprenticeship programs. Those with general mechanical aptitude also will have better job opportunities.

As with many other construction workers, employment of boilermakers is sensitive to fluctuations of the economy. On the one hand, workers may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

Nonetheless, maintenance and repair of boilers must continue even during economic downturns, so boilermaker mechanics in manufacturing and other industries generally have more stable employment than those in construction.

The spring and fall seasons are the busiest times for boilermakers.

For More Information

For information about apprenticeships or job opportunities as a boilermaker, contact local boiler construction contractors, a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers, a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee, or the nearest office of your state employment service or apprenticeship agency. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s toll free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, or Employment and Training Administration.

For apprenticeship information, visit

International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers

For welding certification information, visit

American Welding Society

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.