Drywall and Ceiling Tile Installer (Acoustical Carpenters) Careers

Significant Points

  • Most workers learn their trade through informal training programs or through an apprenticeship.
  • Work is physically demanding.
  • Job prospects are expected to be good.
  • Workers may be idled when downturns in the economy slow construction activity.

Nature of the Work

Drywall and ceiling tile installers, tapers, plasterers, and stucco masons are specialty construction workers who build, apply, or fasten interior and exterior wallboards or wall coverings in residential, commercial, and other structures. Specifically, drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers work indoors, installing wallboards to ceilings or to interior walls of buildings; plasterers and stucco masons, on the other hand, work both indoors and outdoors-applying plaster to interior walls and cement or stucco to exterior walls. While most work is performed for functionality, such as fireproofing and sound dampening, some applications are intended purely for decorative purposes.

Drywall consists of a thin layer of gypsum between two layers of heavy paper. It is used to make walls and ceilings in most buildings today because it is faster and cheaper to install than plaster.

There are two kinds of drywall workers-installers and tapers-although many workers do both types of work. Installers, also called framers or hangers, fasten drywall panels to the inside framework of houses and other buildings. Tapers or finishers, prepare these panels for painting by taping and finishing joints and imperfections. In addition to drywall workers, ceiling tile installers also help to build walls and ceilings.

Because drywall panels are manufactured in standard sizes-usually 4 feet by 8 feet-drywall installers must measure, cut, fit, and fasten them to the inside framework of buildings. Installers saw, drill, or cut holes in panels for electrical outlets, air-conditioning units, and plumbing. After making these alterations, installers typically screw the wallboard panels to the wood or metal framework, called studs. Because drywall is heavy and cumbersome, another worker usually helps the installer to position and secure the panel. Installers often use a lift when placing ceiling panels.

After the drywall is installed, tapers fill joints between panels with a joint compound, also called spackle or "mud." Using the wide, flat tip of a special trowel, they spread the compound into and along each side of the joint. They immediately use the trowel to press a paper tape-used to reinforce the drywall and to hide imperfections-into the wet compound and to smooth away excess material. Nail and screw depressions also are covered with this compound, as are imperfections caused by the installation of air-conditioning vents and other fixtures. Using increasingly wider trowels, tapers apply second and third coats of the compound, sanding the treated areas after each coat to make them smooth and devoid of seams.

Ceiling tile installers, or acoustical carpenters, apply or mount acoustical tiles or blocks, strips, or sheets of shock-absorbing materials to ceilings and walls of buildings to reduce deflection of sound or to decorate rooms. First, they measure and mark the surface according to blueprints and drawings. Then, they nail or screw moldings to the wall to support and seal the joint between the ceiling tile and the wall. Finally, they mount the tile, either by applying a cement adhesive to the back of the tile and then pressing the tile into place, or by nailing, screwing, or wire-tying the lath directly to the structural framework.

Work environment. As in many other construction trades, this work is physically demanding. Drywall and ceiling tile installers spend most of the day on their feet, either standing, bending, stretching, or kneeling. Some workers need to use stilts; others may have to lift and maneuver heavy, cumbersome materials, such as oversized wallboards. The work also can be dusty and dirty, irritating the skin, eyes, and lungs, unless protective masks, goggles, and gloves are used. Hazards include falls from ladders and scaffolds, and injuries from power tools and from working with sharp tools, such as utility knives.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most workers learn their trade through informal training programs or through an apprenticeship. It can take 3 to 4 years of paid on-the-job training to become a fully skilled worker, but many skills can be learned within the first year. In general, the more formal the training process, the more skilled the individual becomes, and the more in demand by employers.

Education and training. A high school education, or its equivalent, is helpful, as are courses basic math, mechanical drawing, and blueprint reading. The most common way to get a first job is to find an employer who will provide on-the-job training. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. Employers may also send new employees to a trade or vocational school or community college to receive classroom training.

Some employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with unionized workforces, offer employees formal apprenticeships. These programs combine on-the-job training with related classroom instruction-at least 144 hours of instruction each year for drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers. The length of the apprenticeship program, usually 3 to 4 years, varies with the apprentice's skill. Because the number of apprenticeship programs is limited, however, only a small proportion of these workers learn their trade this way.

Helpers and apprentices start by carrying materials, lifting and cleaning up debris. They also learn to use the tools, machines, equipment, and materials of the trade. Within a few weeks, they learn to measure, cut, apply, and install materials. Eventually, they become fully experienced workers. At the end of their training, workers learn to estimate the cost of completing a job.

Other jobseekers may choose to obtain their training before seeking a job. There are a number of vocational-technical schools and training academies affiliated with the industry's unions and contractors that offer training in these occupations. Employers often look favorably upon graduates of these training programs and usually start them at a higher level than those without the training.

Other qualifications. Workers need to be in good physical condition and have good eye-hand coordination, a sense of balance and manual dexterity. For drywall and ceiling tile installers and tapers, the ability to solve basic arithmetic problems quickly and accurately is required. They also should be able to identify and estimate the quantity of materials needed to complete a job, and accurately estimate how long a job will take to complete and at what cost.

Apprentices usually must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. Those who complete apprenticeships registered with the Federal or State Government receive a journey worker certificate that is recognized Nationwide.

Certification and advancement. Drywall and ceiling tile installers may advance to supervisor or general construction supervisor positions. However, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English because Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Knowing English well also makes it easier to advance. Many workers become independent contractors. Others become building inspectors.

Job Outlook

Employment of drywall and ceiling tile installers is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations. Job growth, however, will differ among the individual occupations in this category. Good job prospects are expected overall.

Employment change. Overall employment is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2008 and 2018. Employment of drywall and ceiling tile installers-the largest specialty-is expected to grow 14 percent, reflecting growth of new construction and remodeling projects. New residential construction projects are expected to provide the majority of jobs during the projection decade, but home improvement and renovation projects are also expected to create jobs because existing residential and nonresidential buildings are getting old and need repair.

Employment of tapers is expected to grow 13 percent, which is as fast as the average. Demand for tapers, which often mirrors demand for drywall installers, also will be driven by the overall growth of construction activity.

Job prospects. Job opportunities for drywall and ceiling tile installers are expected to be good overall. Many potential workers are not attracted to this occupation because they prefer work that is less strenuous and has more comfortable working conditions. Experienced workers will have especially favorable opportunities.

Besides opportunities resulting from job growth, many drywall and ceiling tile installer and taper jobs will open up each year because of the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Skilled, experienced plasterers with artistic ability should have excellent opportunities, especially with restoration projects. Decorative custom finishes, expensive homes, and large-scale restoration projects will further result in opportunities for plasterers in the Northeast, particularly in urban areas.

Like many other construction workers, employment in these occupations is sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy. Workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.