Stationary Engineer and Boiler Operator Careers

Significant Points

  • Workers usually acquire their skills through a formal apprenticeship program or through on-the-job training.
  • Licensure is required in many States and is a prerequisite for many job openings.
  • Employment is projected to grow more slowly than average, and applicants may face competition for jobs.

Nature of the Work

Most large office buildings, malls, warehouses, and other commercial facilities have extensive heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems that keep them comfortable all year long. Industrial plants often have additional facilities to provide electrical power, steam, or other services. Stationary engineers and boiler operators control and maintain these systems, which include boilers, chillers, air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment, diesel engines, turbines, generators, pumps, condensers, and compressors. The equipment that stationary engineers and boiler operators control is similar to equipment operated by locomotive or marine engineers, except that it is used to generate heat or electricity rather than to move a train or ship.

Stationary engineers and boiler operators start up, regulate, repair, and shut down equipment. They ensure that the equipment operates safely, economically, and within established limits by monitoring meters, gauges, and computerized controls. When necessary, they control equipment manually and make adjustments using hand and power tools. They watch and listen to machinery and routinely check safety devices, record data in logs, and identify any potential problems.

Routine maintenance is a regular part of the work of stationary engineers and boiler operators. Engineers use tools to perform repairs ranging from a complete overhaul to replacing defective valves, gaskets, or bearings. They lubricate moving parts, replace filters, and remove soot and corrosion that can reduce the boiler's operating efficiency. They also test the water in the boiler and add chemicals to prevent corrosion and harmful deposits.

In most facilities, stationary engineers are responsible for the maintenance and balancing of air systems, as well as hydronic systems that heat or cool buildings by circulating fluid (such as water or water vapor) in a closed system of pipes. They may check the air quality of the ventilation system and make adjustments to keep the operation of the boiler within mandated guidelines. Servicing, troubleshooting, repairing, and monitoring modern systems all require the use of sophisticated electrical and electronic test equipment.

In a large building or industrial plant, a senior stationary engineer may be in charge of all mechanical systems in the building and may supervise a team of assistant stationary engineers, turbine operators, boiler tenders, and air-conditioning and refrigeration operators and mechanics. In small buildings, there may be only one stationary engineer who operates and maintains all of the systems.

Work environment. Engine rooms, power plants, boiler rooms, mechanical rooms, and electrical rooms are usually clean and well lit. Even under the most favorable conditions, however, some stationary engineers and boiler operators are exposed to high temperatures, dust, dirt, and high noise levels from the equipment. Maintenance duties also may require contact with oil, grease, or smoke. Workers spend much of the time on their feet. They also may have to crawl inside boilers and work while crouched or kneeling to inspect, clean, or repair equipment.

Safety is a major concern for these workers. Stationary engineers and boiler operators work around hazardous machinery, and must follow procedures to guard against burns, electric shock, noise, dangerous moving parts, and exposure to hazardous materials. Despite these precautions, however, stationary engineers and boiler operators have a relatively high rate of occupational injuries.

Stationary engineers and boiler operators generally have steady, year-round employment. The average workweek is 40 hours. In facilities that operate around the clock, engineers and operators usually work one of three daily 8-hour shifts on a rotating basis. Weekend and holiday work are often required, as many buildings are open 365 days a year.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many stationary engineers and boiler operators begin their careers in mechanic or helper positions and are trained on the job by more experienced engineers. Others begin by entering formal apprenticeships or training programs. Licensure is required in many States and jurisdictions, and is a prerequisite for many job openings.

Education and training. Most employers prefer to hire people with at least a high school diploma or the equivalent for stationary engineers and boiler operator jobs. Workers acquire their skills primarily on the job and usually start as apprentices or helpers. This practical experience may be supplemented by postsecondary vocational training in subjects such as computerized controls and instrumentation. Becoming an engineer or operator without completing a formal apprenticeship program usually requires many years of work experience.

The International Union of Operating Engineers sponsors apprenticeship programs and is the principal union for stationary engineers and boiler operators. Apprenticeships usually last 4 years and include 6,000 hours of on-the-job training. Apprentices learn to operate boilers, generators, compressors, motors, and air-conditioning and refrigerating equipment.

Apprentices also receive 600 hours of classroom instruction, studying elementary physics, practical chemistry, blueprint reading, instrumentation, and other technical subjects.

Continuing education-such as vocational school or college courses-is becoming increasingly important for stationary engineers and boiler operators, in part because of the growing complexity of the equipment with which engineers and operators now work.

Most large and some small employers encourage and pay for skill-improvement training for their employees. Training is almost always provided when new equipment is introduced or when regulations concerning some aspect of the workers' duties change.

Licensure. Many State and local governments have licensing requirements for stationary engineers and boiler operators. Applicants for licensure usually must be at least 18 years of age, reside for a specified period in the State or locality in which they wish to work, meet experience requirements, and pass a written examination. A stationary engineer or boiler operator who moves from one State or city to another may have to pass an examination for a new license because of regional differences in licensing requirements.

There are generally four or five classes of stationary engineer licenses. Each class specifies the type and size of equipment the engineer is permitted to operate without supervision. A top-level stationary engineer is qualified to run a large facility, supervise others, and operate equipment of all types and capacities. An applicant for this license may be required to have a high school education, have completed an apprenticeship or lengthy on-the-job training, and have several years of experience working with a lower class license. Engineers with licenses below this level are limited in the types or capacities of equipment they may operate without supervision.

Many job openings require that workers be licensed before starting the job, although some jobs may offer apprenticeships.

Other qualifications. In addition to training, stationary engineers and boiler operators need mechanical aptitude and manual dexterity. Most employers of entry-level workers and apprenticeship committees prefer applicants with a basic understanding of mathematics, science, computers, mechanical drawing, machine shop practice, and chemistry. Being in good physical condition is also important.

Advancement. Generally, engineers advance as they obtain higher class licenses. These licenses permit boiler operators to work with larger, more powerful, or more varied equipment. In jurisdictions where licenses are not required, workers generally advance by taking company-administered exams. Some stationary engineers and boiler operators advance to become boiler inspectors, chief plant engineers, building and plant superintendents, or building managers. A few obtain jobs as examining engineers or technical instructors.

Because most stationary engineering staffs are relatively small, workers may find it difficult to advance, especially within a company. Most high-level positions are held by experienced workers with seniority. Workers wishing to move up to these positions must often change employers or wait for older workers to retire before they can advance.

Job Outlook

Employment in this occupation is expected to grow more slowly than average through 2018. Applicants may face competition for jobs. Employment opportunities will be best for those who have apprenticeship training and are licensed in their jurisdictions.

Employment change. Employment of stationary engineers and boiler operators is expected to grow by 5 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Continuing commercial and industrial development will increase the amount of equipment to be operated and maintained. Although automated systems and computerized controls are making newly installed equipment more efficient, experienced workers will increasingly be needed to maintain and repair these complex systems.

While employment of stationary engineers and boiler operators is spread across all industries, some industries will experience more growth than others. The largest employment growth will occur in industries with the need for precise temperature control, such as hospitals.

Job prospects. People interested in working as stationary engineers and boiler operators should expect to face competition for these relatively high-paying positions. Although many opportunities will be created by the retirement of the baby-boomer generation, finding an entry-level job can be difficult-especially for inexperienced and unlicensed workers. While there are workers employed in most establishments with large buildings, the typical engineering staff is relatively small. The tendency of experienced workers to stay in a job for decades can make it difficult for entry-level workers to find a job.

Workers who have completed a training course or apprenticeship will have the best prospects. Additionally, in States and jurisdictions where licenses are required, workers who are licensed prior to beginning employment will have better opportunities.