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Aluminum and Copper Industries Job Descriptions, Careers in the Aluminum and Copper Industries, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Aluminum and copper are important metals with many uses. Besides aluminum foil and copper wire, these two metals are fashioned into many other products that are used in industries such as aerospace and construction. Aluminum and copper are nonferrous metals—that is, metals that do not contain iron. Other nonferrous metals include lead, tin, gold, silver, and zinc. Aluminum and copper plants refine the raw metal and manufacture finished products. Refining plants are often located near sources of raw materials.

Copper refining involves separating copper from ore, which contains a good deal of rock and other waste. Machines break the ore down into fine particles. These particles are then put into a huge tank and mixed with water, oil, and various chemicals to separate the copper from the rock and other waste materials. The copper is then heated in furnaces to remove further impurities. The furnaces are run by melters, who are responsible for the quantity and quality of the copper that they produce. From time to time, they send samples of hot liquid copper to a laboratory where it is tested by metallurgical engineers and technicians. More impurities are removed by further heating and processing with compressed air.

In the final refining process, the almost pure copper is formed into plates that are placed between sheets of pure copper and immersed in a tank containing a chemical solution. An electric current is passed through the chemical solution, which causes the pure copper in the plates to dissolve slowly. The pure copper in the solution is then deposited on the sheets of pure copper. This process takes about a month to complete.

The pure copper sheets are then melted down. Pourers release the melted copper into molds shaped like blocks. Once the metal has become solid, strippers use overhead cranes to lift the molds from the copper blocks, or ingots. The ingots are sent to a rolling or fabricating mill, where heaters make them extremely hot once more so they can be shaped. The hot copper is rolled, squeezed, forced, or drawn into different shapes. The result is copper products such as wire, rods, sheets, pipes, and tubes that are sold to many industries and to consumers. Because of its conductivity and other special properties, copper is especially useful in the electrical industry. Much of the copper in manufactured products eventually comes back to a copper plant as scrap, which can be used to make new products.

Unlike copper, aluminum is not found in nature as a metal. It is processed from bauxite ore, a raw material that contains many minerals. The bauxite is usually mined from open pits. It is crushed, washed, dried, ground, and put into tall tanks with special chemicals. The mixture in these tanks is subjected to heat and pressure. This causes a fine white powder called alumina to separate from the other ingredients in the tank. These processes are highly automated and require only a few workers.

The alumina powder is placed in steel pots that are lined with carbon and filled with a special chemical solution. Carbon poles are suspended in the liquid, and electric cables are attached to both the pots and the poles. An electric current is passed through the poles, through the liquid, to the lining of the pots. The electricity heats the liquid, and a chemical change occurs. Pure liquid aluminum is the result. This operation is handled by pot tenders who add more alumina as needed.

Because liquid aluminum is fairly heavy, it settles at the bottom of the pot. Every twenty-four to seventy-two hours, tappers and their helpers direct the removal of some of the aluminum from each pot. They supervise hot metal crane operators, who use special heavy automatic equipment to draw the molten aluminum into crucibles—huge steel containers lined with brick. After several months, the carbon that lines the steel pots wears through. The pots are then shut down and the liquid drained out so that pot liners can repair or replace the lining.

Once a crucible is full, charge gang weighers weigh the aluminum and send samples to the laboratory for testing. Overhead crane operators pour the aluminum into a remelting furnace. Remelt operators then add scrap aluminum or other ingredients needed to make the kind of metal desired. Waste materials are removed from the surface of the aluminum by workers using large, long-handled rakes. Casting operators pour the hot liquid metal into molds that form large blocks called ingots.

Aluminum can be shaped in several different ways—for example, by casting, rolling, forging, machining, or extruding. Many of the workers in the aluminum industry are involved in the shaping of the metal once it has been formed into ingots. Before aluminum is rolled, scalper operators smooth the ingots with a machine that shaves thin layers off the surface. Workers using overhead cranes then lower the ingots into a special furnace or soaking pit to raise them to the right temperature for rolling. The ingots remain in the soaking pit for twelve to eighteen hours. Soaking pit operators are responsible for this process. When the heated ingots are ready, rolling mill operators roll them between a series of huge rollers. The sheets of aluminum are then wound onto reels by coiler operators. The aluminum is then cooled and cold-rolled. Sometimes it is reheated during this process by annealers. If the metal needs stretching, stretcher level operators and their helpers do so with special machinery. Depending on the form that the final product will take, other workers may be involved. They include wire draw operators, who operate machines that pull aluminum wire through a series of holes, and extrusion press operators, who run machines that squeeze the molten aluminum into presses that shape it. Finished aluminum products are sold to consumers or to other industries that use them to manufacture products ranging from pots and pans to automobiles and appliances.

Like copper, aluminum is often recycled. Although it makes up only about 1 percent by weight of solid waste in the United States, it is a relatively valuable material that is being used for more and more products. Many scientific, engineering, and technical workers are researching to discover new ways of recycling and uses for this strong, lightweight, and versatile metal.

Education and Training Requirements

Most production workers in the copper and aluminum industries start in unskilled positions. There are usually no specific education requirements, although some employers prefer to hire high school graduates for certain jobs. Workers usually train on the job as helpers to experienced workers. Craft workers also learn on the job, either informally or through formal apprenticeship programs. These programs usually take three to four years to complete. They combine formal instruction with experience gained on the job. Apprentices are usually chosen from workers already employed in a plant. Technicians generally need some college or technical school training. Engineers, managers, and sales workers usually have bachelor's degrees.

Getting the Job

You can apply directly to plants that refine or shape copper or aluminum. These plants often list openings in newspaper want ads or with your state employment office. Your school placement office may also have information about job openings. Local union offices and trade journals may also suggest job leads.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement usually comes by assuming a more skilled job. For example, workers who start as helpers cleaning around a furnace in a copper smelting plant can become melters after learning more difficult tasks in the furnace room. Machine operators can learn to run more complex equipment. Some production workers become technicians after getting further education. People with engineering backgrounds sometimes advance to executive positions.

The total number of new jobs in the aluminum and copper industries is expected to decline through 2014. The demand for copper is declining in the communications industry, which is replacing its cables with fiber-optic materials. However, the copper industry is finding alternate applications to offset these losses. The demand for aluminum is expected to decline as the U.S. aluminum industry faces stiff competition from foreign producers. Both industries are anticipated to undergo many changes, especially with the increasing computerization and the mechanization of operations in the plants. Because of automation of production processes, the demand for workers will not keep pace with the demand for the metal. However, new employees are needed each year to replace workers who leave their jobs.

Working Conditions

Working conditions depend on the job. In general, conditions are better in plants that shape copper and aluminum than in refining plants. The refining process creates high temperatures. Some areas are hot, dusty, and smoky. There is a certain amount of danger and discomfort working around molten metal, powerful electric currents, and strong chemicals. Safety programs help to keep injuries down, however. Although some production workers work night and weekend shifts, a forty-hour workweek is standard. Most production workers are union members.

Where to Go for More Information

Aluminum Association, Inc.
1525 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 600
Arlington, VA 22209
(703) 358-2960

ASM International
9639 Kinsman Rd.
Materials Park, OH 44073-0002
(440) 338-5151

United Steelworkers of America
Five Gateway Center
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 562-2400

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings depend on the location, the plant, the kind of job, and the worker's skill and experience. In general, employees in the aluminum and copper industries earn higher wages than workers in other manufacturing industries. Benefits often include vacations, paid holidays, retirement plans, and health insurance.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production