Career Guide for Boilermakers

Boilermakers create, install, and repair boilers and other large vessels and containers that hold liquids and gases. Individuals in this profession work with potentially dangerous equipment and typically have a lot of on the job training.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a boilermaker.

Boilermaker Summary

  • Most boilermakers learn their job through a formal apprenticeship; people with a welding certification or other welding training get priority in selection to boilermaker apprenticeship programs.
  • Boilermakers use potentially dangerous equipment and the work is physically demanding.
  • Job opportunities are expected to be favorable.

Working as a Boilermaker

Boilermakers and boilermaker mechanics make, install, and repair boilers, closed vats, and other large vessels or containers that hold liquids and gases. Boilers heat water or other fluids under extreme pressure for use in generating electric power and to provide heat and power in buildings, factories, and ships. Tanks and vats are used to store and process chemicals, oil, beer, and hundreds of other products.

In addition to installing and maintaining boilers and other vessels, boilermakers also help erect and repair air pollution equipment, blast furnaces, water treatment plants, storage and process tanks, and smoke stacks. 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.

Boilers and other high-pressure vessels used to hold liquids and gases usually are made in sections by casting each piece out of steel, iron, copper, or stainless steel. Manufacturers increasingly are automating this process to improve the quality of these vessels. Boilermakers weld sections of the boiler together, often using robotic welding systems or automated welding machines. Small boilers may be assembled in the manufacturing plant; larger boilers usually are prefabricated in numerous pieces and assembled on site, although they may be temporarily assembled in a fabrication shop to ensure a proper fit before final assembly at the permanent site.

Because boilers last a long time—sometimes 50 years or more—boilermakers need to regularly maintain them and upgrade components, such as boiler tubes, heating elements, and ductwork, to increase efficiency. They frequently inspect fittings, feed pumps, safety and check valves, water and pressure gauges, boiler controls, and auxiliary machinery. For closed vats and other large vessels, boilermakers clean or supervise cleaning of the vats using scrapers, wire brushes, and cleaning solvents. They repair or replace defective parts using hand and power tools, gas torches, and welding equipment, and may operate metalworking machinery to repair or make parts. They also dismantle leaky boilers, patch weak spots with metal stock, replace defective sections, and strengthen joints.

Before making or repairing a fabricated metal product, a boilermaker studies design drawings and creates full size patterns or templates, using straightedges, squares, transits, and tape measures. After the various sized shapes and pieces are marked out on metal, boilermakers use hand and power tools or flame cutting torches to make the cuts. The sections of metal are then bent into shape and accurately lined up before they are welded together. If the plate sections are very large, heavy cranes are used to lift the parts into place. Boilermakers align sections using plumb bobs, levels, wedges, and turnbuckles. They use metalworking machinery and other tools to remove irregular edges so that metal pieces fit together properly. They then join them by bolting, welding, or riveting. Boilermakers also align and attach water tubes, stacks and liners, safety and check valves, water and pressure gauges, and other parts, and test complete vessels for leaks or other defects.

Work environment. Boilermakers often use potentially dangerous equipment, such as acetylene torches and power grinders, handle heavy parts and tools, and work on ladders or on top of large vessels. Dams, boilers, storage tanks, and pressure vessels are usually of substantial size, thus a major portion of boilermaker work is performed at great heights, sometimes hundreds of feet above the ground in the case of dams. The work is physically demanding and may be done in cramped quarters inside boilers, vats, or tanks that are often dark, damp, and poorly ventilated. Field construction work is performed outside so exposure to all types of weather conditions, including extreme heat and cold, is common. To reduce the chance of injuries, boilermakers often wear hardhats, harnesses, protective clothing, ear plugs, safety glasses and shoes, and respirators.

Boilermakers 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. However, since 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 a project and live away from home for long periods of time.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most boilermakers learn this trade through a formal apprenticeship. People with a welding certification or other welding training get priority in selection to boilermaker apprenticeship programs.

Education and training. Boilermakers learn their trade through formal apprenticeships offered through unions or employers or from a combination of trade and technical school training and employer-provided training. Training usually includes both boilermaking and structural fabrication. Apprenticeship programs usually consist of 6,000 hours or 4 years of paid on-the-job training, supplemented by a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in subjects such as set-up and assembly rigging, plate and pressure welding, blueprint reading, and layout. Those who finish registered apprenticeships are certified as fully qualified journey-level workers.

Most apprentices must be at least 18 years old, a high school graduate or holder of a GED, and be legally authorized to work in the United States. Those with welding training or a welding certification will have an advantage in applying for apprenticeship programs. When an apprenticeship becomes available, the local union usually publicizes the opportunity by notifying local vocational schools and high school vocational programs. Education often continues throughout a boilermaker’s career as they often attend classes or seminars to learn about new equipment, procedures, and technology.

Other qualifications. The work of boilermakers requires a high degree of technical skill, knowledge, and dedication. Because the tools and equipment used by boilermakers are typically heavier and more cumbersome than those in other construction trades, having physical strength and stamina is important. Good manual dexterity is also important.

Advancement. Some boilermakers advance to supervisory positions. Because of their extensive training, those qualified through apprenticeships usually have an advantage in getting promoted over those who have not gone through the complete program.

Employment as a Boilermaker

Boilermakers held about 20,200 jobs in 2008. About 21 percent worked in the nonresidential building construction industry, assembling and erecting boilers and other vessels. Another 21 percent worked in manufacturing.

Job Outlook

Employment is projected to grow faster than average. Favorable job opportunities are expected.

Employment change. Employment of boilermakers is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2008 and 2018. Growth will be driven by the need to maintain and upgrade, rather than replace, the many existing boilers that are getting older, and by the need to meet the growing population’s demand for electric power. While boilers historically have lasted over 50 years, the need to replace components, such as boiler tubes, heating elements, and ductwork, is an ongoing process that will continue to spur demand for boilermakers. To meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act, utility companies also will need to continue upgrading their boiler systems.

Federal policies are also encouraging the construction of more environmentally sound and higher efficiency clean-burning coal, wind, and solar power plants, which will spur demand for boilermakers.

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 further drive growth of boilermakers, although to a lesser extent than repairs will.

Job prospects. 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. Job growth will generate some new openings, but an even greater number of openings will arise from the numerous boilermakers expected to retire.

People who have welding training or a welding certificate should have the best opportunities for being selected for boilermaker apprenticeship programs.

Many industries that purchase boilers are sensitive to economic conditions. Therefore, during economic downturns, boilermakers in the construction industry may be temporarily laid off. However, maintenance and repairs of boilers must continue even during economic downturns so boilermaker mechanics in manufacturing and other industries generally have more stable employment.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Boilermakers 47-2011 20,200 24,000 3,800 19
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Boilermakers

In May 2008, the median annual wage and salary of boilermakers was about $52,260. The middle 50 percent earned between $41,210 and $64,300. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $76,160. Apprentices generally start at about half of journey-level wages, with wages gradually increasing to the journey wage as workers gain skills.

Many boilermakers belong to labor unions, most to the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. Other boilermakers are members of the International Association of Machinists, the United Automobile Workers, or the United Steelworkers of America.

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