Large commercial, industrial and residential buildings are more than just physical structures. Each one is a complex environment in its own right, relying on a variety of heating, cooling and ventilation systems to keep it livable. Those systems are often powered by a boiler and supporting systems of pumps and motors that keep everything operating. Boiler operators and stationary engineers are the people who keep these systems -- and therefore the building -- functioning. They generally learn their trade in a formal apprenticeship program before becoming licensed.
Formal apprenticeships in the United States follow a model laid out by the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. For boiler operators, apprenticeships require four years of full-time employment, with at least 2,000 hours per year of paid employment. Apprentices must also spend at least 144 hours each year in classroom instruction, learning the scientific and theoretical basis for their work. Apprentices must be at least 17 in most states, and have a high school diploma or GED. They must also pass a drug test, and some states might have additional requirements. The International Union of Operating Engineers, industry organizations and individual employers can all sponsor apprenticeships.
Alternative Training Paths:
Some trade and technical colleges also offer courses for boiler operators and stationary engineers. These can be certificate programs lasting a few months to a year, or associate degree programs two years in length. Most apprenticeships will credit those formal training programs against the apprenticeship requirements, shortening the time to completion. School-based training sometimes offers better instruction in modern, computerized equipment and can be a career advantage. It's also possible to become a boiler operator entirely through informal on-the-job training, rather than schooling or an apprenticeship. However, operators without formal training might be at a disadvantage when looking for jobs.
Licensing and Certification:
Not every jurisdiction requires boiler operators to be licensed. For example, Washington state doesn't require a license, but the cities of Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma all do. Where licensing is required, it's usually offered at multiple levels. Apprentices who have newly finished their training can take a certification or licensing exam for an entry-level license, then upgrade through ongoing experience or continuing education. Ambitious boiler operators who continue to upgrade their qualifications will eventually become stationary engineers, and have responsibility for most of the building's systems.
Boiler operators don't have the benefit of a fast-moving industry to drive employment. They work in large facilities, and those don't spring up overnight. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected only 6 percent growth for boiler operators and stationary engineers between 2010 and 2020, less than half the 14 percent average for all occupations. As of May 2012, the bureau reported an average wage of $54,860 for boiler operators and stationary engineers.