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It begins with what would appear to the outward, untrained eye as a chaotic scene. Sparks fly. Fires forge, radiating bright, blinding orange as hammers thump and collide. Flickering, scorching particles enter the air in a burst of uninhibited liveliness, like fireflies creating a summer evening twilight. Metal bends, is methodically cut, shaped and reshaped, and fashioned, as artistically as it is scientifically, into the products we use; and so too are the intermeshed cogs within these items that are so critical to whether they function properly.
There’s a considerable variety of tasks that take place—and such rich history—in the metalworking industry. Forging processes date back to the early metal- and blacksmiths we’ve read about in history textbooks, seen portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters, and (for some of us) interacted with while on Renaissance Fairgrounds. Jump forward in time, industrialized manufacturing has employed machinists, welders, and fabricators at such a rate that pop culture references have spun up. Fictional fabricators and welders have entered our collective consciousness, like Shameless’s incomparable Debbie Gallagher, or the titular, albeit insomniac, machinist portrayed by the versatile Christian Bale. Metalworkers have likewise appeared in reality construction-related TV shows and have been cast in a more positive light, like the fabrication artisans seen in custom shops like Gotham Garage and Rust Bros Restorations, who take down-on-their-luck classic cars and turn them into ingenious “resto-mod” creations.
These appearances, growing in frequency, help portray how fruitful, numerous, and advantageous metalworking career opportunities are to those interested in pursuing a trade that has stood the test of time.
In this article, we’ll highlight an occupation in metalwork, as well as:
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Metalwork is among the oldest occupations. As early 10th century BCE, for example, lived Tubal-cain, known for being the first blacksmith, who forged instruments made of bronze and iron.
A metalwork definition might broadly describe the process of creating useful objects and products constructed of metal. This could comprise shaping and reshaping metals to create complete objects, like swords and other tools, to creating small parts (like engine components), assemblies, and joining large-scale structures.
Metalworkers are skilled trades specializing in working with metal material. Duties may differ depending on the area of metalworking you specialize in: e.g., cutting, joining (forging: metalsmith; welding: welder fabricator), machining, etc. For the purpose of this article, and the various facets of the metalworking industry (as well as the wide-ranging career opportunities and occupations in the metal industry), we’ll break down general roles and responsibilities of the most common metalworking jobs.
Duties, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, of a sheetmetal worker may include:
While these duties typically overlap with similar roles (e.g., fabricators, welders), duties of metalworkers specializing in machining differ.
General duties of a machinist, per BLS, include:
General duties of machinists specializing in tool and die making, on the other hand, may include:
If you’re trying to determine how to get into metalworking for the first time, you’ll want to keep a couple of things in mind. Like other trades and occupations in the construction industry, a metalworking career, on the whole, doesn’t require taking on the time and considerable financial investment typically associated with a traditional 4-year college degree. However, like with all careers, honing the right skills, and pursing the appropriate training, certification, and (where applicable) education can help set you apart in the talent pool, get more callbacks, and land more jobs.
Typical skills of a metalworker include:
Meanwhile, skills of a tool and die maker, while similar, may add:
Technical colleges, community colleges, and trade schools all offer a wide range of invaluable training and credentialing that could set you apart while providing a wealth of knowledge, often taught by industry professionals, instructors who actually do what they teach.
For example, technical diplomas can be earned, and skills gained, in such areas as welding, advanced metal fabrication, tool and die making, CNC technician, and machine tool operations. Past the diploma-level, associate’s degrees in areas like welding technology or manufacturing operations management can train you in the most cutting-edge tools of trade or prepare you for a management path, respectively.
Additional educational training in manufacturing may be of interest, such as in mechanical CAD or mechanical design technology, which could help land manufacturing-related roles, but also open doors to careers in mechanical drafting, as well as roles as a construction technologist or BIM specialist; while pursuing education in supply chain management could certainly be of use to those interested in roles as a construction inventory manager. It’s worth nothing, the more qualified, the better, especially if you’re interested in making the case for evolving your role and making yourself an invaluable asset to any company. That said, if you’re interested mainly in honing your craft, some state universities even offer programs leading to a fine arts bachelor’s degree in metalsmithing.
Finally, a not-too-far-off path for metalworkers, particularly closely related to tool and die makers, is pursing additional education to become a materials engineer. Whereas you might think the metalworker as the technician who uses materials to fashion together products, it is the job of a materials engineer to develop, process, and test materials that are to be used in a wide array of products. Usually requiring a bachelor’s degree in material science or engineering, the median salary of a materials engineer is a respectable $95,640 or $45.98 per hour, and builds off the similar analytical and mathematical skills as well as overall interests in materials and construction you already may have.
Apprenticeships in sheet metalworking, welding, and tool and die maker roles can be obtained, in many cases, through technical, trade schools, and junior colleges, and typically require 5 years to complete.
While not required, sheet metal workers can earn certifications through the American Welding Society as well as through Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International that employers may value.
The average pay for metalworkers depends a lot on the specific application of metalwork, title, roles/responsibilities, as well as the industry you’re working in.
For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that pay for “Sheet Metal Worker” is $51,370 on average, ranging from $30,460 on the low end to $87,470 on the high end. This is slightly higher than the average construction trade worker salary of $47,480, and varies depending on the industry, with the highest earners working in government ($59,710), followed by specialty trade contractors ($52,210), those employed in the construction of buildings ($45,450), as manufacturing metalworkers ($45,320), and in employment services ($43,320).
By contrast, those employed as “Assemblers and Fabricators” make less, on average, with the median pay for this role being $34,970, or $16.81 per hour, according to BLS data. The lowest earning assemblers and fabricators made $24,320, while the highest earners made $56,030. Again, pay varies depending on where you work as an assembler and fabricator. The highest paid ($53,160) are those working on aircraft structures, while engine assemblers make $45,770; structural metal fabricators and fitters make $41,780; coil winders, tapers, and finishers make $37,970; fiberglass laminators and fabricators make $36,390; electrical, electronic, and electromechanical assemblers make $36,390; and timing device assemblers and adjusters make $36,170.
Meanwhile, the median salary for “Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers,” according to the BLS, is $44,190 or $21.25 per hour. The lowest earning welders made $30,640, while the highest earners made $66,250. Similarly, the highest paid welders were those employed as specialty trade contractors, bringing in a median income of $48,420, followed by repair and maintenance welders ($44,070), and manufacturing welders ($42,650).
The median blacksmith salary, according to data reported by Salary.com, is $43,724, ranging on the low end at $32,662 to the high end of $54,358.
The median salary for “Machinists and Tool Die Makers,” according to the BLS, is $47,040, or $22.62 per hour, ranging from $29,240 on the low end to $45,840 on the high end across all occupations. The highest earning industries for machinists were transportation and equipment manufacturing ($49,370), followed by machinery manufacturing ($45,800), machine shops ($44,790), employment services ($34,250).
On the other hand, a tool and die maker, a specific class of machinist in manufacturing, commands a higher overall salary than a straight machinist, earning on average (across all industries) $54,760, with the highest earners being employed in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry ($69,360); motor vehicle parts manufacturing ($61,360); machine shops, turned product, screw, nut, and bolt manufacturing ($54,370); plastics product manufacturing ($52,320); and metalworking machinery manufacturing ($51,430).
The job outlook and career prospects for metalworking trades varies by position:
As with any vocation, procuring and mastering the use of your tools of trade is key to becoming a dependable tradesperson that is hired back for jobs.
That said, there are a variety of variety of metalworking tools worth entertaining:
So, is metalworking a trade worth considering? We absolutely think so! All things considered, you can hit the ground running in the metal industry with valuable education, training, and apprenticeships likely easily accessible to you at your neighborhood community college. That said, there’s also plenty of opportunity to pursue additional education, to make yourself stand out among the crowd and command a higher salary, whether that’s in advanced technology in welding and manufacturing technology, technical diplomas in tool and die making and CAD design (opening even more career opportunities to you!), or whether you’d like to apply your natural analytical and mathematical skills toward additional materials engineering training. The sky’s the limit!
All this to say, just as the blacksmith tends to have a lot of irons in the fire, you too have plenty of opportunities worth considering in the metalworking industry. Better strike when the iron’s hot!
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