There are roughly 42,000 stationary engineers and boiler operators working in the United States. Job growth predictions indicate that over the next decade this industry will grow at a rate of around 5%, which is a slower pace than the average of all jobs. Workers will face competition; those who are best trained, have considerable experience, or are licensed will have the greatest job opportunities.
Stationary engineers and boiler operators typically are trained via apprenticeship programs or through on the job training. Many, but not all, states require licensure; for many employees, new hires must also be licensed.
Stationary engineers and boiler operators often work for large offices, shopping centers, warehouses, and other commercial buildings with complex climate control and ventilation systems. Many industrial facilities supply power in the form of steam, oil, gas, or electricity. Stationary engineers and boiler operators are responsible for maintaining, repairing, and operating boilers, air-conditioners, commercial refrigerators, diesel engines, turbines, generators, pumps, condensers, and compressors. This machinery generates heat, electricity, or power that is stored or remains stationary. Stationary engineers and boiler operators keep an eye on meters, gauges, and computerized controls to ensure that machinery is operating correctly and efficiently. At times it is necessary for stationary engineers and boiler operators to adjust or repair machinery by hand, using power tools or hand tools. Routine confirmation that safety devices are operative and logging all pertinent information are also among the tasks performed by stationary engineers and boiler operators.
One important aspect of the job is regularly performed maintenance to locate and repair minor problems before they become major, which helps keep machinery running at top efficiency. Filters are replaced, moving parts lubricated, defective components such as bearings or valves replaced, and a thorough cleaning to remove corrosive materials and dirt are all procedures that will prolong the life of expensive machinery. Air and hydro systems must also be monitored to ensure that circulation of hot or cold liquids or vapors is operating at top efficiency.
Engineers and operators use electronic diagnostic equipment. A senior stationary engineer who is responsible for all mechanical systems will direct a team that may contain stationary engineers, turbine operators, boiler tenders, air-conditioning or refrigeration operators, and mechanics. Smaller buildings or companies may employ a single stationary engineer who oversees all the systems, including maintenance, repair, and operation.
In general, engine, boiler, mechanical, and electrical rooms are kept clean and well lit. However, due to the nature of the work, it is difficult to control the climate. Very high temperatures, deafening noise, and debris or fumes in the air can cause discomfort. Workers are on their feet through most of the shift and may also have to assume twisted, bent, or awkward positions for extended periods of time when inspecting, cleaning, or repairing machinery. The machinery itself is hazardous; strict adherence to safety regulations will help reduce accidents that may result in burns, electrical shock, exposure to toxins, or loss of a limb—or even a life—to a fast-moving machine.
The work is steady and year-round. Some businesses operate three eight-hour shifts and rotate workers through them. Overtime, weekend, and holiday work may be required.
Oftentimes stationary engineers and boiler operators accept entry-level trainee positions and learn on the job. Formal apprenticeship programs or a certificate or associate degree program at a technical college are also possibilities. Because many states and jurisdictions require licensing, applicants who are certified and licensed are at an advantage. Postsecondary vocational coursework in computerized controls and instrumentation is especially useful. Those who choose on the job training will work for years before becoming an engineer or operator. Some unions and professional groups, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers, which is the primary union serving stationary engineers and boiler operators, sponsor apprenticeship programs. Four-year apprenticeships involve 6,600 hours of on the job and classroom training. For stationary engineers and boiler operators, continuing education classes are important because new techniques must be learned as technology improves machinery and software.
To be licensed, applicants must be 18 or older, live in the state or locality where the job is located, fulfill work experience requirements, and pass a written test. Licenses are not necessarily transferable from one location to another. Several classes of licensing are offered for stationary engineers.
In addition to training, experience, education, mechanical aptitude, and manual dexterity, employers seek the most highly qualified job applicants who also have a basic comprehension of math, science, computers, mechanical drawing, blueprint reading, and chemistry.
Advancement occurs most easily as engineers gain progressively higher license classifications or by passing exams given by the company. Advanced positions include becoming boiler inspectors, chief plant engineers, superintendents, or managers. Some workers may progress to examining engineers or technical instructors. Seniority is an important factor in advancement. For some workers, advancing can most readily occur by accepting a higher position with another company.
The median annual salary of stationary engineers and boiler operators is slightly over $50,000. The lowest paid of all stationary engineers and boiler operators earn a little more than $31,000, while the highest-paid receive more than $75,000.