Working in the trades gets less attention than it deserves as a career option. Going to college for four years or more usually requires a significant outlay of cash, or assumption of debt. In the trades, the training can be faster and the earnings are more immediate. Many trade workers will start earning money almost immediately, and wages will continue to climb as they gain additional years of experience. Someone working as a union ironworker, for example in the Chicago area, can earn as much or more than many professional office workers ever earn. I could hear Billy’s passion about the field when I spoke to him and he believes the trade made him a better person and there was a major element of camaraderie that he enjoyed. He also had a great work-life balance, which is not as common in other careers.

Date of Interview:July 16, 2021

Interviewee:Billy

Basic Information

Your occupation

Answer: Retired iron worker

Current employer

Answer:Retired, but was a union iron worker that worked for numerous contractors/subcontractors primarily in Chicago, IL.

City you work in

Answer:Chicago, IL prior to retirement

Compensation

According to the ILLINOIS workNet CENTER:

Apprentices usually start at about 50 to 60 percent of the rate paid to experienced journey workers. They receive pay increases throughout the course of the program.

Earnings can sometimes be reduced because of work time lost due to bad weather. Structural metal workers can also lose work during economic slowdowns, when jobs are not available.

Wages vary by area of specialization. Wages also vary by employer and area of the country. Workers in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other large cities receive higher wages. Wages also vary depending on the workers’ experience. In addition, workers who are members of unions, usually earn higher wages than non-union workers.

Benefits vary by employer. Full-time structural metal workers often receive typical benefits. These include paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance.

The median annual earnings for iron workers in Cook County (where Billy worked i.e. Chicago, IL) are as follows:

  • Reinforcing iron and rebar workers: $107,126
  • Structural iron and steel workers: $95,314
  • Structural metal fabricators and fitters: $41,096

As mentioned above, the earnings in other areas of the country will vary, but total compensation can be significant, especially in larger cities.

Experience

Years in your field

Answer:28 years as an iron worker

Where did you work before your current job?

Answer: I was in and out of college two times while working jobs, like waiting tables, prior to starting iron work.

Education/Credentials

Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education? If yes, was it required for your job?

Answer: College is not required to be an iron worker. I went to college for astronomy initially. I wasn’t prepared for college and couldn’t write well. I just wasn’t disciplined and was thrown out of college after the two quarters and started junior college instead. After two years, I reapplied and switched to anthropology, instead. I kept with it for two more years. It was interesting, but I wasn’t cut out for academia, so I was floundering.

What was your college major?

Answer: Astronomy and anthropology.

What college did you go to?

Answer: Northwestern University

Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?

Answer:None required

What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?

Answer: A 4-year paid apprenticeship in which you start out at about 50-60% of the full union scale paid to journey men iron workers. The rate you are paid as an apprentice gets increased about 5% about every 6 months.

Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?

Answer: N/A

Advice For Success

What advice would you provide to someone on how to get a job at Google or become a software engineer?

Answer: Be confident in yourself. If other people do this job, you can do it, too. It’s not easy but it is worth it. You will learn about yourself and humanity. It will prepare you for other aspects of your life since you will work with a lot of interesting characters.

Nature of Job and Schedule

Describe what an iron worker does:

Answer: Iron workersread blueprints from the general contractor and determine where things are going to go. An iron worker will use lasers and snap lines. Layout needs to be meticulous. It’s important to communicate issues if there is a sense that something might be wrong. It’s a simple concept in principle, but the mechanics can get complicated.

There are also steps where iron workers attach things to the building. These may be either vertical or horizontal members, or it may be aluminum with glass in it.

Other aspects of the job involve attaching materials that will house glass or stone/metal panels. There is also a distribution aspect of the job. Materials arrive at the shop via trucks and iron workers unload the trucks and transport these items up into the building for other members of the job to attach. It’s common for apprentices to help with the organization and movement of the materials.

Describe your daily and weekly schedule

Answer: I used to start work at 8:00AM then finish the day at 4:30PM. This was Monday-Friday. Overtime was available on some jobs, but I would know whether it was an option when signing up for the job. On some jobs everyone works overtime. There’s a half hour lunch break and 15 minute morning and afternoon breaks. Those breaks tend to get stretched if it’s very cold in the winter and everyone needs to warm up.

What parts of your job are repetitive?

Answer: Commercial residential is boring since its basically just putting pre-glazed units into concrete. Commercial buildings are more complex and interesting with a higher satisfaction level.

The younger workers help out the old timers who have injuries This includes giving them the lighter work. Usually there’s assembly on a job which tends to be lighter work. Any decent superintendent will do that for the older guys.

What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?

Answer:There is ongoing training. A certification lasts for six months. Some jobs require certification, primarily for welding, but there are others, too. There are lots of classes offered by the union to keep people up-to-date.

Describe the setting you work in most

Answer: I was usually at the job site. I sometimes travelled to another job in the same day, but that was not typical. The longest period I spent at a job was 1.5 years at Ogilvie [commuter train station in Chicago].

Likes/Dislikes/Other

What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?

Answer: Working with other iron workers. I was working with tough guys, but I never felt like I didn’t belong. We were all crazy in a way. They all had my back, especially when I was scared of heights. The Union meant a lot to me, too. There were people doing the same work, but with no protection and for peanuts. We [Union workers] were protected, earning a living, and we were respected. For example, I worked as a bike messenger briefly in the 1990s and I thought it was more dangerous than being an iron worker.

What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?

Answer: There were periods where there wasn’t any work. If an iron worker is laid off and has been working a certain period, the union finds them work. These slow periods could be demoralizing.

Does your job provide work/life balance?

Answer: It did. I could easily go out after work and have a great time when I was younger and had more energy.

How much time off do you take from work?

Answer: Journeyman can take as much time off as they want. There’s also an option to take a withdrawal. During that time, union dues don’t have to be paid, but benefits are also on pause during that time, too.

Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?

Answer: I could get scrap metal that was leftover from jobs. For example, I put skylights in my cottage that were extra materials from a job. A lot of job sites also gave a great views/perspectives of the city.

Also, I helped build the fountains in Millennium Park. My face is in the rotation and wife and son got to see my face one time.

Why did you pick your job?

Answer: I had gone to college and wasn’t making great money as a waiter and other jobs I was doing. My brother-in-law called me and asked if I wanted make $13 an hour. The [union] hall was empty and they needed people. I went down and got a permit from the hall. I was working on permit which allowed me to earn full [journeyworker] wages. To work on permit, someone just needs to have the right skills/trust. It helps to have friends in the trade.