Structural Steel Erection

SIC 1791

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers special trade contractors primarily engaged in the erection of structural steel and of similar products of prestressed or precast concrete.

Industry Snapshot

According to industry statistics, 5,285 establishments are engaged in structural steel erection, generating an estimated $7.56 billion worth of business. Major uses of structural steel include office and industrial buildings; commercial buildings, including retail stores, restaurants, and service stations; apartment buildings, hotels, and motels; warehouses; and highways, bridges, tunnels, and other transportation facilities. Single-family homes accounted for a very small percentage of the structural steel used in the United States.

The structural steel erection industry felt the effects of the U.S. economic downturn more than other construction-related industries because it relied so heavily on commercial and industrial construction, both of which saw growth slow during the final years of the 2000s. Overall spending on nonresidential construction dropped from $709.8 billion in 2008 to $654.2 billion in 2009, and commercial construction declined from $86.2 billion to $55.0 billion over the same period. Transportation construction spending, helped by an infusion of funds from the federal government, actually increased in 2009 to $38.5 billion, up from $35.5 billion in 2008.

Background and Development

French architects began using iron to form the framework of their roofs about 1780. By the 1830s, they also were using a form of masonry reinforced with imbedded iron bars that is regarded as the precursor of reinforced concrete. English builders began relying on iron in the construction of factories in about 1850, primarily in an effort to make the buildings fireproof. Columns, beams, and window frames were made of cast iron, while exterior walls were made of brick or stone. Many commercial buildings also used iron, with elaborate facades often constructed entirely of cast iron and glass.

Builders in the mid-1800s also used wrought iron, which could be hammered into a sheet and laid between wooden beams, or vice versa, for added strength. Iron plates also were sometimes riveted to the ends of these beams to create an early I-beam. The first I-beams made entirely of wrought iron were produced in Paris about 1847. The Trenton Iron Works in Trenton, New Jersey, began rolling wrought iron I-beams in 1854. The first wrought iron I-beams produced in Trenton were shipped to New York where they were used to rebuild the six-story Harper Building, which had burned in 1853. The building also had a cast-iron front.

Bridge builders also began using iron to replace wood and stone in the late eighteenth century. Abraham Darby, an Englishman credited with originating the coke blast furnace, designed and built the famous Coalbrookdale Bridge over the Severn River in 1779, using wedged-shaped sections of cast iron to form the arch. The 100-foot bridge was still standing more than 200 years later. The first bridge in the United States made entirely of cast iron was built in 1840 and spanned the Erie Canal at Frankfurt, New York. The first railroad bridge made entirely of cast iron was built in 1845 at Manayunk, Pennsylvania.

In 1886, a bridge being built across the St. Lawrence River near Montreal needed to pass through part of the Caughnawaga Indian reservation. To obtain permission, the bridge builder agreed to hire local Indians. The Indians proved adept at the work, and several tribes, especially the Iroquois, later earned reputations for high steel construction work.

However, bridges made of cast iron often shattered and collapsed under the tremendous weight of steam locomotives, so bridge builders turned to wrought iron, which has greater elasticity under stress. Later, bridge builders turned to steel for even greater strength. The first bridge to use arches made of steel was built at Kuelenberg, Holland, in 1868, and spanned the Rhine River. The Eads Bridge, which was built in 1874 and spanned the Mississippi River at St. Louis, was the first bridge to use steel arches in the United States. The rest of the bridge was made of wrought iron. The first all-steel bridge was built over the Missouri River at Glasgow, Montana, in 1879.

Besides being used in bridges, steel was crucial to the erection of the world's first tall buildings. In the early 1850s, Elisha Graves Otis, an American inventor, developed an improved elevator with safety devices to keep it from falling. About the same time, Henry Bessemer in England and William Kelly in the United States developed a process that made it possible to produce large quantities of inexpensive steel. Together, the Bessemer process and the Otis elevator gave rise to the modern structural steel erection industry. Safe elevators made it practical to build taller structures, and cheap steel provided architects with a way to support taller buildings without relying on thick, windowless walls of masonry.

William Le Baron Jenney, a Chicago architect, built the first metal-frame skyscraper, the 12-story Home Insurance Building, in the mid-1880s. Jenney used an iron framework for the first six floors to carry the weight of the building into the foundation. He used steel beams for the top six floors. According to Douglas Alan Fisher in The Epic of Steel, the first building with a frame made entirely of steel probably was the Rand McNally Building completed in Chicago in 1890. By 1900, buildings had reached 30 stories. The Empire State Building, built in 1931, was originally 86 stories. It was later raised to 102 and remained the United States's tallest building until the Sears Tower in Chicago was built in 1972.

The structural steel erection industry reflected general economic trends in the United States. With an economic downturn in the early years of the first decade of the 2000s, there was less construction of new factories and office buildings, which depressed the industry. In fact, by early 2003, the office vacancy rate had jumped to 16.5 percent, compared to 8.9 percent in 1998. Between 2002 and 2003, spending on office building construction declined from $43 billion to $39 billion. However, structural steel and prestressed or precast concrete remained the primary construction materials for large-scale projects, and the industry was expected to rebound with another spurt in new construction as the economy recovered in 2004 and 2005.

In the early years of the first decade of the 2000s, the United States also was becoming increasingly concerned with the deteriorating transportation infrastructure. With thousands of railroad and highway bridges needing repair, the outlook for the structural steel erection industry was strong, particularly with the likely passage of the TEA-21 Reauthorization Bill, introduced by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which earmarked billions of dollars for transportation. As a result, the employment outlook for this industry was also better than average.

Commercial construction reached 1,038 million square feet in 2007, up 2 percent compared to 2006 with retail and office construction driving the growth, while garage and service station construction began to wane. Retail construction climbed slightly to 311 million square feet, while office construction reached 215 million square feet in 2007, up 4 percent compared to 2006. Health care facilities reported the largest gains in both 2005 and 2006, in particular, hospital construction, but fell 18 percent in 2007 after its "mid-decade surge."

The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) reported demand for structural steel on construction projects will continue to perform well in 2007, driven in part by power plants and petrochemical facilities. Following the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, construction of ethanol plants skyrocketed in both 2006 and 2007. Other areas targeted for expansion were industrial and warehouse construction projects, parking structures, schools and universities, as well as construction in the public sector that would bolster the structural steel erection contractors bottom lines.

In an article in the September 17, 2008 issue of the Engineering News-Record magazine, author Jim Parsons writes, "Although state departments of transportation sought to assure nervous motorists that their roads and bridges were safe in the weeks following the 1-35W bridge collapse, the suddenness of the disaster confronted them with a large and potentially expensive reality check. 'Nobody wants to be responsible for another Minneapolis,' says Mike Lembo, a senior vice president for Skanska USA Civil, which is performing a scheduled $271-million, 480,000-sq ft rehabilitation on New York City's Triborough Bridge, and a $243-million design-build replacement of the twin, 2.5 mile-long Escambia Bay Bridges in Pensacola, Fla." Although state funding was scarce, the federal aid highway program did receive $41.1 billion, which included $1 billion for bridge repair, in 2008.

Current Conditions

According to industry statistics, there were an estimated 5,285 establishments engaged in structural steel erection, bolstering $7.56 billion in revenues with industry-wide employment at 68,226 workers in 2009. The generally classified structural steel erection sector had 3,341 operations responsible for 63.2 percent in market share valued at $5.32 billion, employing 48,408 workers of the industry total. States with the majority of operations were centered in California, Texas, and Florida.

Contractors engaged in structural iron work had 1,208 firms (22.9 percent market share), 6,270 workers, and $735.8 million in revenues, and placing of concrete reinforcement had 207 firms (3.9 percent market share), employed 5,225 workers, and generated $471.8 million in revenues. The 153 operations (2.9 percent market share) engaged in the erection of metal storage tanks employed 3,095 workers valued at $404.2 million, and the 125 operations (2.4 percent market share) engaged in the placing of precast concrete structural framing or panels had a workforce of 2,711 workers who added $366.7 million into the industry's bottom line.

Economic conditions were difficult for the structural steel industry during the late 2000s. In fact, one of the industry's leaders, 70-year old Reliance Steel and Aluminum, located in Los Angeles, California, noted in its report: "We feel 2009 was the most difficult operating environment that our company has ever experienced." According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, total U.S. apparent steel consumption fell in 2009 to 94.2 million metric tons, down from 148.1 million metric tons in 2008 and even more significantly from the 176.1 million metric tons consumed in 2006.

Almost all categories of nonresidential construction, mdash;including office, commercial, retail, health care, and power--were down during 2009 due to the economic recession that begin in 2008. Transportation and utilities construction spending actually improved slightly during 2009 as funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 began to filter into the economy. Some of the $787 billion stimulus package targeted the improved of the nation's infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

Economic conditions began to improve during 2010, albeit slowly. In December, Reliance Steel and Aluminum continued the trend toward industry consolidation by acquiring Lampros Steel, Inc., a company that specializes in structural steel shapes located in Portland, Oregon. Lampros became a subsidiary of American Metals Corporation, which itself is a wholly owned subsidiary of Reliance Steel and Aluminum.

Industry Leaders

The diversified steel company Reliance Steel and Aluminum Co. had several structural steel firms within its portfolio including Pitt-Des Moines Steel Service Centers Inc. and Lampros. Thirteen percent of Reliance Steel and Aluminum's revenues are attributable to structural steel products. The company posted revenues of $3.92 billion in 2009, down from $8.72 billion in 2008. Schuff International Inc., of Phoenix, Arizona, reported $681.6 million in revenue in 2009. Employee-owned Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska reported revenue of $8.0 billion for 2009 with 15,000 employees. Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc. receives more than 60 percent of its contracts through government agencies, from dams to high-rise office towers to power plants.

Workforce

Structural steel erection workers held approximately 65,130 jobs in May 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly four of every five worked for the construction industry. Very few were self-employed. Many were members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers. Hourly wages for structural steel erection workers in 2009 averaged $23.30 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earnings of these workers can be reduced due to poor weather and the short-term nature of the work in the construction industry.

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