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Hard as nails, but easy to get into, the ironworker trade offers a living wage to anyone with some math, some muscles and a sense of safety.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Torrey Greenwood explains how to tie rebar during Steel Day.

On a recent Friday morning, a collection of 20-somethings met at the Iron Workers Local 29 Training Center near the Portland airport to "Experience a Day in the Life of an Ironworker," as the four-hour session was billed.

This event was not the usual collection of disoriented teens wondering what they might do with their lives, kicking the tires of various jobs. Instead, it mainly was white-collar engineers looking to get a feel for steel as a construction material. They came from firms such as Catena Consulting Engineers and Mackenzie, as well as PacifiCorp and even Amazon.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - People interested in ironworking try electric arc welding on SteelDay.

For a bit of fun (and a dose of humility), they tried climbing "the pole." The pole is a steel I-beam, H- or I- shaped in cross-section, which stands 16 feet tall on the union's property. As the lead, Vernon Brose, explained, the only method that works is gripping the flat side nearest to you with your bare fingers and jamming your feet against the plate farthest away. It requires incredible core and limb strength. Brose and apprentice K.J. Selmo zipped up the beam like monkeys up a coconut tree, but Steven Ogilvie, a salesman with TFe Connection, had to stop after about five feet, beaten by gravity.

"That was difficult, to say the least!" said Ogilvie as he recovered. "I'm a guy who likes to bike and hike and lift weights, but, wow, it's just such a different skill to climb a beam like that. It's exhausting."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Nana Ochiai inspects a steel beam during SteelDay. It was organized by the American Institute of Steel Construction to give engineers and architects and others a feel for steel.

TFe Connection is a Singapore-based sub fabrication shop, meaning large fabricators in the United States and Canada contract them to help out on big jobs. Currently, a lot of their work is high rises and Amazon warehouses. They just did the steel for a two-story warehouse in Canada where 18 wheelers drive up to the second floor.

Ogilvie likes to study shop drawings.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Steven Ogilvie, a salesman with TFe Connection, tries to climb the pole, a steel I-beam, at the Ironworkers Local 29 near the Portland airport. Even with an assist from ironworker, Vernon Brose, it was difficult. Although Ironworkers use cranes and lift, they sometimes must climb a pole to loosen a jammed bolt or fix something else.

"At the end of the day, you can't just be laser-focused in on what you're what you're fabricating and selling, the entire building has to go up smoothly, so you have to have a little bit of practical expertise to understand the difficulties of the guys in the field."

His bachelor's degree was in exercise physiology. After working at a stroke rehab facility, he moved to steel. His dad worked for a steel fabricator for 40 years, Canron, which became Supreme Steel, builders of the Barbara Walker Crossing, the Wildwood Trail footbridge in Washington Park. "It's in the blood," Ogilvie said.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  -  KJ Selmo demonstrates how to climb a steel beam during Steel Day.

Erector set

The Ironworker apprenticeship is four years long with 160 hours of class training each year and is affiliated with Mt. Hood Community College. So this was more like a day to sample the fun stuff.

Outside, welding instructors helped people to run an oxygen-acetylene torch and a plasma torch.

The oxyacetylene rig was set up on a steel grid that looked like a barbecue grill. Turning up the acetylene made the torch's flame hotter for welding motel metal together. Turning up the oxygen made the flame cut more quickly. "It's making it rust," said the instructor, putting it simply.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Rebar laid out at a job site in Northwest Portland waiting for ironworkers to move it into place. Ironworkers are the first in to the job site as a building rises, and stay for much of the project. Even after topping out they work on siding, windows and handrails.

Nearby were sheets of rusty rebar that students were tying together with wire from a spool on their hip. Compared to the rebar, the wire looked like bread bag ties, but it gets the job done of holding the rebar in shape while concrete is poured all over it.

Participants were offered personal protection equipment, including welding leathers. Inside the union's cinder block and steel buildings, one whole area is devoted to arc welding, the preferred modern method for accurate welds when there is a reliable electricity supply. Guests lined up at the booths while an instructor showed them the basics.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Tying off rebar (reinforcing steel bar) with wire is all part of the job of being an ironworker. The steel keeps its shape when concrete is poured over it inside forms, making columns and foundations.

There was a fall-protection structure (to get a feel for working on the second floor of a building) tied off. Some rebar was placed two feet off the ground, so anyone could get a feel for walking on it.


Reading plans was one of the things you could do at the SteelDay without wearing gloves.

SteelDay was organized by the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), a nonprofit that promotes the use of steel in construction. It's a fabricator-based organization. Fabricators take the raw steel and make anything from curved, one-off bridge parts to beams and rebar.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Corey Dennis tests the strength of a suction cup on a window pane during SteelDay.

Todd Alwood, Director of Membership and Certification at the AISC, told the Business Tribune, "A general contractor, steel fabricator and steel erector, one of their tasks is to educate their apprentices on how to actually read those plans, from the dimensional aspects to constructability." There's always a tension between how steel products are designed and whether they can be built, and AISC tries to help the two sides to understand each other's roles.

"It's helpful for the engineers to actually get into a fabrication shop or a job site to see what is going on. Because it's their designs that have to be constructed," Alwood said.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The Ironworkers union Local 29 in Portland is keen to attract new people to its four-year apprenticeship. On Sept. 24 it hosted SteelDay, with the American Institute of Steel Construction, to give white collar workers a sense of what ironworkers do in the field.

They have 1,800 people enlisted in teaching classes, and work with universities on their research into structural steel. "We're not a union organization, but we work with them because they're a central part of the industry."

Lift together

Apprentice ironworker David Godinez was helping after having taken his final in multi-piece staging, cranes and rigging. "It's a fun job, and it's a workout, lifting heavy objects," said Godinez.

"But now you work with groups. If it's too heavy, you get a forklift, or if it's really heavy, you get a crane. They train us to think ahead on every movement and don't waste a move."

The chances of a hot rivet landing on his head are slim, Godinez said, since overhead work is roped off with red tape for safety.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - At SteelDay, people got to try out mixing gas pressures in oxygen acetylene welding. Increasing the oxygen pressure (blue tank) makes the metal oxidize rapidly and fall apart in cutting.

Journeymen ironworkers make $40.46 an hour, and new apprentices make 60% of that.

"Anything over 40 hours is overtime. If you work four tens, Friday and Saturday is 20 hours of overtime." Godinez remembers working four or five months doing 60-hour workweeks at Intel Corp. in Washington County.

Back in the classroom, teacher Kevin Joyce said, "Ironworkers got a bad, bad rap for a long time because they'd say, 'Without us, you can't do nothing.'" He said they need all the trades to help the building go up, including the elevator. He stresses to his students that they must work quickly to make money for the contractor.

He has one student, a 59-year-old, who was a boilermaker at Vigor for 30 years. "He probably has five or six useful years in the field before he wants to retire," said Joyce approvingly.

Life after being a barista

Vernon Brose, an instructor for Local 49, said climbing the beam or "pole" is not something you need to do very often these days.

"If there is no lift or crane and there's no other option to get up there, you've just got to climb."

Third-year apprentice KJ Selmo had also just done her crane written final. She got 100%.

What kind of background did she have in construction?

"Absolutely none. Before I got in, I had no idea how to read a tape measure. I never touched a torch. I've never welded before. I just knew that I wanted something different for myself." She had only worked at Dutch Bros and was a shipping and handling lead in a warehouse making $13.50 an hour.

Selmo is 30, her daughter is seven years old, and her son is nine. She has no family in construction. Her dad is a custodian. She met an Ironworker who brought her down to the union hall. "I did the five-day orientation, and I was out to work the next month on the Multnomah County Courthouse. I went from $13.50 to $22.50 an hour."

Her first day on the job was intimidating.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Sierrah Kienit, a third generation apprentice Portland ironworker, was helping out at SteelDay. She loves her job for the cameraderie and problem solving. (Mask removed briefly for zoomed in photo.)

"Just getting on the elevator was, was hard for me because they hold 29 people, and it was maxed out. And I was in the back, this little type of person. And it shakes, it's loud."

But her colleagues turned out to be fair and helpful, and she likes the work.

"I have five-to-10-year plans, once I journey-out plans," she says smiling. Selmo wants to travel, teach the trade. "And I want a leadership role," she says.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - People interested in ironworking try electric arc welding on SteelDay in welding booths at Ironworkers Local 29.

Brose thinks she can do it. He ran a job in Maui for seven months. "I negotiated my house, truck and phone payments, and they fly my wife there once a month or fly me home for a week. We're tools, we're a commodity, yeah. So, if they want a good tool, they're going to have to pay a certain price."

Iron Workers Local 29 Training Center

11620 N.E. Ainsworth Circle, Suite 100

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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