Roofers install and repair roofs of buildings using a variety of materials and methods, including built-up roofing, single-ply roofing systems, asphalt shingles, tile, and slate. They may also waterproof and damp-proof walls, swimming pools, and other building surfaces. Roughly 162,000 roofers are employed in the United States.
History of Roofer Career
Roofs cover buildings and protect their interiors against snow, rain, wind, temperature extremes, and strong sunlight. The earliest roofs were probably thatched with plant materials such as leaves, branches, or straw. With clay or a similar substance pressed into any open spaces, such a roof can provide good protection from the weather. Roofs constructed on frameworks of thick branches or timbers allowed different roof designs to develop, including the flat and pitched, or sloping, forms that are in use today. When brick and stone began to be used in buildings, people could construct domes and vaults, which are roof forms based on arches.
Throughout most of history, flat roofs have been associated with dry climates, where drainage of water off the roof is seldom a concern. In the 19th century, new roofing and building materials made flat roofs an economical alternative to pitched roofs in somewhat wetter conditions, such as those in much of the United States. Today, flat or very slightly sloped roofs are common on commercial buildings and are also used on some residential buildings. Pitched roofs in various forms have been used for many centuries, largely in climates where drainage is a concern. Most houses have pitched roofs.
All roofs must keep out water. There are two basic types of roof covering that do this: separate shingles, or flat pieces of a waterproof material that are placed so that water cannot get through at the joints; and a continuous layer or sheet membrane of a material that is impermeable to water. Different kinds of roofing materials are appropriate for different kinds of roofs, and each material has its own method of application.
The occupation of roofer has developed along with the various kinds of modern roofing materials. Roofers today must know about how the elements in each roofing system are used, and how water, temperature, and humidity affect the roof. While asphalt shingle roofs on homes may require only relatively simple materials and application procedures, large commercial building roofs can involve complex preparation and layering of materials to produce the necessary protective covering.
The Job of Roofers
Although roofers usually are trained to apply most kinds of roofing, they often specialize in either sheet membrane roofing or prepared roofing materials such as asphalt shingles, slate, or tile.
One kind of sheet membrane roofing is called built-up roofing. Built-up roofing, used on flat roofs, consists of roofing felt (fabric saturated in bitumen, a tar-like material) laid into hot bitumen. To prepare for putting on a built-up roof, roofers may apply a layer of insulation to the bare roof deck. Then they spread molten bitumen over the roof surface, lay down overlapping layers of roofing felt, and spread more hot bitumen over the felt, sealing the seams and making the roof watertight. They repeat this process several times to build up as many layers as desired. They then give the top a smooth finish or embed gravel in the top for a rough surface.
Single-ply roofing, a relatively new roofing method, uses a waterproof sheet membrane and employs any of several different types of chemical products. Some roofing consists of polymer-modified bituminous compounds that are rolled out in sheets on the building’s insulation. The compound may be re-melted on the roof by torch or hot anvil to fuse it to or embed it in hot bitumen in a manner similar to built-up roofing. Other single-ply roofing is made of rubber or plastic materials that can be sealed with contact adhesive cements, solvent welding, hot air welding, or other methods. Still another type of single-ply roofing consists of spray-in-place polyurethane foam with a polymeric coating. Roofers who apply these roofing systems must be trained in the application methods for each system. Many manufacturers of these systems require that roofers take special courses and receive certification before they are authorized to use the products.
To apply asphalt shingles, a very common roofing material on houses, roofers begin by cutting strips of roofing felt and tacking them down over the entire roof. They nail on horizontal rows of shingles, beginning at the low edge of the roof and working up. Sometimes they must cut shingles to fit around corners, vent pipes, and chimneys. Where two sections of roof meet, they nail or cement flashing, which consists of strips of metal or shingle that make the joints watertight.
Tile and slate shingles, which are more expensive types of residential roofing, are installed slightly differently. First, roofing felt is applied over the wood base. Next, the roofers punch holes in the slate or tile pieces so that nails can be inserted, or they embed the tiles in mortar. Each row of shingles overlaps the preceding row.
Metal roofing is applied by specially trained roofers or by sheet metal workers. One type of metal roof uses metal sections shaped like flat pans, soldered together for weatherproofing and attached by metal clips to the wood below. Another kind of metal roofing, called “standing seam roofing,” has raised seams where the sections of sheet metal interlock.
Some roofers waterproof and damp-proof walls, swimming pools, tanks, and structures other than roofs. To prepare surfaces for waterproofing, workers smooth rough surfaces and roughen glazed surfaces. Then they brush or spray waterproofing material on the surface. Damp-proofing is done by spraying a coating of tar or asphalt onto interior or exterior surfaces to prevent the penetration of moisture.
Roofers use various hand tools in their work, including hammers, roofing knives, mops, pincers, caulking guns, rollers, welders, chalk lines, and cutters.
Roofer Career Requirements
Most employers prefer to hire applicants at least 18 years of age who are in good physical condition and have a good sense of balance. Although a high school education or its equivalent is not required, it is generally preferred. Students can also take courses that familiarize them with some of the skills that are a regular part of roofing work. Beneficial courses include shop, basic mathematics, and mechanical drawing.
Roofers learn the skills they need through on-the-job training or by completing an apprenticeship. Most roofers learn informally on the job while they work under the supervision of experienced roofers. Beginners start as helpers, doing simple tasks like carrying equipment and putting up scaffolding. They gradually gain the skills and knowledge they need for more difficult tasks. Roofers may need four or more years of on-the-job training to become familiar with all the materials and techniques they need to know.
Apprenticeship programs generally provide more thorough, balanced training. Apprenticeships are three years in length and combine a planned program of work experience with formal classroom instruction in related subjects. The work portion of the apprenticeship includes a minimum of 1,400 hours each year under the guidance of experienced roofers. Classroom instruction, amounting to at least 144 hours per year, covers such topics as safety practices, how to use and care for tools, and arithmetic.
Certification or Licensing
In addition to apprenticeship experience or on-the-job training, all roofers should receive safety training that is in compliance with standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers can get safety training through their employer or through OSHA’s Outreach Training Program.
In addition, the educational arm of the National Roofing Contractors Association and the Roofing Industry Educational Institute have combined to provide various educational resources, including seminars, customized training programs, and certificate programs. For more information on these programs, visit the Web site http://www.nrca.net/
A roofer with a fear of heights will not get far in his or her career. Roofers need a good sense of balance and good hand-eye coordination. Since this work can be dangerous, roofers need to pay attention to detail and be able to follow directions precisely. They should enjoy working outdoors and working with their hands. Roofers may work with architects and other construction workers as well as interact with customers, so they must be able to work as part of a team. To advance in this field, to the position of estimator for example, a roofer should also have strong communications and mathematical skills.
Exploring Roofer Career
High school or vocational school students may be able to get firsthand experience of this occupation through a part-time or summer job as a roofer’s helper. It may be possible to visit a construction site to observe roofers at work, but a close look is unlikely, as roofers do most of their work at heights.
There are approximately 162,000 people employed as roofers in the United States. Most work for established roofing contractors. Approximately one-third of roofers are self-employed.
People who are planning to start out as helpers and learn on the job can directly contact roofing contractors to inquire about possible openings. Job leads may also be located through the local office of the state employment service or newspaper classified ads. Graduates of vocational schools may get useful information from their schools’ placement offices.
People who want to become apprentices can learn about apprenticeships in their area by contacting local roofing contractors, the state employment service, or the local office of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers.
Experienced roofers who work for roofing contractors may be promoted to supervisory positions in which they are responsible for coordinating the activities of other roofers. Roofers also may become estimators, calculating the costs of roofing jobs before the work is done. Roofers, who have the right combination of personal characteristics, including good judgment, the ability to deal with people, and planning skills, may be able to go into business for themselves as independent roofing contractors.
The earnings of roofers vary widely depending on how many hours they work, geographical location, skills and experience, and other factors. Sometimes bad weather prevents them from working, and some weeks they work fewer than 20 hours. They make up for lost time in other weeks, and if they work longer hours than the standard workweek (usually 40 hours), they receive extra pay for the overtime. While roofers in northern states may not work in the winter, most roofers work year-round.
In 2004, median hourly earnings of roofers were $14.83, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, or a $30,850 yearly salary for full-time work. Wages ranged from less than $9.41 (or a full-time salary of $19,570) to more than $25.59 (or a full time salary of $53,230). Median annual earnings for foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors were $14.90 (or a full-time salary of $30,990). According to a 2000 salary survey by the National Roofing Contractors Association, average salaries for roofing helpers is $24,810, for journeymen $36,836, and roofing foremen $44,067.
Hourly rates for apprentices usually start at about 40 percent of the skilled worker’s rate and increase periodically until the pay reaches 90 percent of the full rate during the final six months.
Roofers work outdoors most of the time they are on the job. They work in the heat and cold, but not in wet weather. Roofs can get extremely hot during the summer. The work is physically strenuous, involving lifting heavy weights, prolonged standing, climbing, bending, and squatting. Roofers must work while standing on surfaces that may be steep and quite high; they must use caution to avoid injuries from falls while working on ladders, scaffolding, or roofs.
Roofer Career Outlook
Employment for roofers is expected to increase at about the same rate as the average for all occupations through 2014. Roofers will continue to be in demand for the construction of new buildings, and roofs tend to need more maintenance and repair work than other parts of buildings. About 75 percent of roofing work is on existing structures. Roofers will always be needed for roof repairs and replacement, even during economic downturns when construction activity generally decreases. Also, damp-proofing and waterproofing are expected to provide an increasing proportion of the work done by roofers.
Turnover in this job is high because roofing work is strenuous, hot, and dirty. Many workers consider roofing a temporary job and move into other construction trades. Since roofing is done during the warmer part of the year, job opportunities will probably be best during spring and summer.