May 12, 2012

A quaint name for a diverse, modern industry

Yes, they make boilers.

Yes, they make boilers.

And build and repair power plants, ships, water treatment facilities, storage tanks and smokestacks. And work on blast furnaces, oil refineries, locomotives and cement kilns.

They also share their name with an Indiana college mascot and an alcoholic beverage.

Boilermakers are a diverse — and tough — lot.

“Every day, Boilermakers sacrifice, doing the hard, dangerous and difficult work that keeps our citizens comfortable and our nation strong,” Newton B. Jones, president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers, told those attending a union convention last year.

“Take a moment and look at the evidence that is all around us,” Jones said. “It may be taken for granted too often, but if it were not for the hard work of our great craft and our dedicated members, we would know a different world today.”

Being a boilermaker requires a high degree of technical skill, and because workers often must handle dangerous equipment in hazardous environments, the job can be physically demanding. A boilermaker may be found using an acetylene torch perched high atop a dam, cramped inside a dark, poorly ventilated boiler, or exposed to extreme weather conditions.

For many, it’s feast or famine: Because of construction deadlines, they might put in loads of overtime for an extended period, then go weeks waiting for work. For some, the work is seasonal. And many also must travel long distances to a project or live away from home for extended periods.

Many boilermakers are members of labor unions, with the majority belonging to the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Others are members of the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers or United Steelworkers of America.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers represents about 59,000 workers in the United States and Canada.

The number of boilermaker jobs in the U.S. has declined from 20,400 in 2009 to 18,850 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual salary in 2011 was $56,650. Projected employment is predicted to increase 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, however, with 24,000 jobs available by 2020.

A Labor Department official explained that the number of jobs was much smaller than the union membership because the Boilermakers includes a number of skilled trades, some of which are counted in other job categories.

The Boilermakers union has had its headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., since 1893.

“We are one of the few that’s located away from the Washington, New York, and Chicago areas,” said James Pressley, an international vice president.

Why here?

Because, Pressley said, “It’s the center of the country.”

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