Structural iron and steel workers install iron or steel beams, girders, and columns to form buildings, bridges, and other structures. They are commonly referred to as ironworkers.


Ironworkers typically do the following:

  • Unload and stack prefabricated steel so that it can be lifted easily with slings
  • Use a crane to lift steel beams, girders, and columns into place
  • Stand on beams or girders to help position pieces that are being lifted
  • Signal crane operators for positioning of the structural steel
  • Align beams and girders into position
  • Verify vertical and horizontal alignment of the structural steel
  • Connect columns, beams, and girders with bolts or by welding them into place
  • Use metal shears, torches, and welding equipment to cut, bend, and weld the steel

Iron and steel are important parts of buildings, bridges, and other structures. Even though the primary metal involved in this work is steel, these workers often are known as ironworkers or erectors.

When building tall structures such as a skyscraper, ironworkers erect steel frames and assemble the cranes and derricks that move structural steel, reinforcing bars, buckets of concrete, lumber, and other materials and equipment around the construction site. Workers also connect steel columns, beams, and girders according to blueprints and instructions from construction supervisors. A few also may install precast walls or work with wood or composite materials.

Although most of the work involves erecting new structures, some ironworkers also may help in the demolition, decommissioning, and rehabilitation of older buildings and bridges.

As they work, ironworkers use a variety of tools. They use rope (called a tag line) to guide the steel while it is being lifted; they use spud wrenches (long wrenches with a pointed handle) to put the steel in place; and they use driftpins or the handle of the spud wrench to line up the holes in the steel with the holes in the framework. To check for alignment, they may use plumb bobs, laser equipment, or levels.

Structural steel generally arrives at the construction site ready to be installed—cut to the proper size, with holes drilled for bolts and numbered for assembly.

Some ironworkers are assemblers and fabricators. They fabricate metal in shops, which are usually located away from the construction site.

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Work Environment

Structural iron and steel workers held about 58,100 jobs in 2012. About 44 percent were employed in the foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors industry and about 23 percent were employed in nonresidential building construction.

Ironworkers help build the supporting structure for bridges and for industrial, commercial, and large residential buildings. In doing so, they perform physically demanding and dangerous work. For example, they usually work outside in most types of weather, and some must work at great heights. As a result, workers must wear safety devices, such as harnesses, to reduce the risk of falling.

Work Schedules

Nearly all ironworkers work full time. Those who work at great heights do not work during wet, icy, or extremely windy conditions.

Injuries and Illnesses

Ironworkers experience several work-related deaths each year due to falls. In addition to falls, workers may experience cuts from sharp metal edges and equipment, as well as muscle strains and other injuries from moving and guiding heavy structural steel.

Education and Training

Although most structural iron and steel workers learn through an apprenticeship, some learn on the job. Certifications in welding and rigging can be helpful.


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


Most ironworkers learn their trade through a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of related technical training and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. Nearly all apprenticeship programs teach both reinforcing and structural ironworking. On the job, apprentices learn to use the tools and equipment of the trade; handle, measure, cut, and lay rebar; and construct metal frameworks. In technical training, they are taught basic mathematics, blueprint reading and sketching, general construction techniques, safety practices, and first aid.

After completing an apprenticeship program, they are considered to be journeymen who perform tasks with less guidance.

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

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Physical ability to perform the work
  • Pass substance abuse screening

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Many ironworkers 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.

Personality and Interests

Structural iron and steel workers typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a structural iron and steel worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Structural iron and steel workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Balance. Because workers often walk on narrow beams, a good sense of balance is important to keep them from falling while doing their job.

Depth perception. Ironworkers must be able to envision the distance between objects and themselves to work safely. Ironworkers that misjudge the distance between girders, for example, may cause the girders to collide, which can be dangerous and costly.

Physical stamina. Ironworkers must have physical endurance because they spend many hours on their feet while connecting heavy and cumbersome beams.

Physical strength. Ironworkers must be strong enough to guide heavy beams into place and tighten bolts.

Unafraid of heights. Some ironworkers must not be afraid to work at great heights. For example, as they erect skyscrapers, workers must walk on narrow beams—sometimes over 50 stories high—while connecting girders.


The median annual wage for structural iron and steel workers was $46,140 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 $26,970, and the top 10 percent earned more than $83,970.

The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 50 percent and 55 percent of what journeymen ironworkers make. They receive pay increases as they learn to do more.

Nearly all ironworkers work full time. Those who work at great heights do not work during wet, icy, or extremely windy conditions.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, structural iron and steel workers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. Although there is no single union that covers all ironworkers, the largest organizer of these workers is the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

Job Outlook

Employment of ironworkers is projected to grow 22 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

The need to rehabilitate, maintain, or replace an increasing number of older highways and bridges is expected to drive employment growth, particularly because state and federal legislatures will likely fund these infrastructure projects.

In addition, steel is an important part of commercial and industrial buildings. Future construction of these structures should create additional demand for ironworkers.

Job Prospects

Those who are certified in welding, rigging, and crane signaling should have the best job opportunities. Those with prior military service experience are also viewed favorably during initial hiring.

Employment opportunities should be best in metropolitan areas, where most large commercial and industrial buildings are constructed.

As with many other construction workers, employment of ironworkers 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.

For More Information

For information about apprenticeships or job opportunities as a structural iron and steel worker, contact local structural iron and steel construction contractors, 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 ironworker and apprenticeship information, visit

International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers

For more information about ironworkers, visit

Associated Builders and Contractors

Associated General Contractors of America


Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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