February 18, 2019

Furnace, Kiln, and Oven Operators in the American Community Survey

Colby (1)By Colby King

In one of my research projects, I’m examining shifts in employment by occupational categories in the Detroit and Pittsburgh region. One result of my work is that I’ve become much more familiar with the 1990 Census Bureau occupational classification scheme.

The occupational categories that respondents are placed into are fairly detailed. Specific categories exist for locksmiths and safe repairers (code 536), railroad conductors and yardmasters (code 823), payroll and timekeeping clerks (code 338), funeral directors (code 019), and even sociology instructors (code 125, under Teachers, Postsecondary). Examining the characteristics of workers in particular occupation categories can illustrate the structure of their labor market, and the information can help develop a sociological imagination.

The category that recently caught my eye, is “furnace, kiln, and oven operators, apart from food (code 766),” because working around kilns and furnaces has become a tradition in my family.

For most of the years that my dad worked, he worked at Armco (now AK-Steel Butler Works) in Butler, Pennsylvania. He worked for a year in the Melt Shop, but spent many years managing the reheat furnaces. When my mom called him at work to ask him a question, he’d answer the phone with the name of his department: “Hotmill Combustion.” I’ve always found this to be a pretty evocative name for a workplace! This kind of work became a family tradition as my brother studied, and then started to work, in the visual art field, especially ceramics. While he makes his own work, and teaches a variety of classes, he has also managed kilns for art studios and art departments.

Is there a difference between a kiln, furnace, and an oven? Kilnfrog, a company started by professional artists, explains: “all three of these names refer to a fireproof box that gets hot.” They also note that the categories vary in part by the temperature ranges.

How do these workers monitor the high temperatures they work with? I learned from my dad that in his work he used thermocouples to monitor the temperature of the furnaces he maintained. When my brother fires kilns, he is more likely to monitor the temperature by keeping an eye on the cones, a different kind of technology for monitoring temperature. I’ve watched him fire ceramics to cone 4, which I thought was pretty hot, but it turns out cones can go much higher!

I was curious about the economic conditions for furnace, kiln, and oven operators in 2017. As a graduate student, I opened an account and got into the practice of gathering data for my research from IPUMS-USA. IPUMS is part of the Minnesota Population Center and the University of Minnesota, and it collects, preserves and harmonizes U.S. Census data, including decennial censuses from 1790 to 2010 and American Community Surveys (ACS) from 2000 to today.

I downloaded 2017 ACS data, and selected employed, non-military workers. This is sample data, so I applied the weighting to the data that provides estimates of the overall population (so, the resulting numbers should be seen as estimates, not exact counts). Because my dad is retired and my brother was doing other work, neither of them would have been counted in his category in 2017, but it was still interesting to explore the data.

What did I find? Well, this category of workers is more substantially more male, slightly more white, and just a bit older on average than the rest of the labor force (furnace, kiln, and oven operators were 85.3% male, 65.2% non-Hispanic white, 42.9 years old on average, compared to 52.5%, 62.8%, and 42.0 years old). Click here to see table.

The average wage and salary income for furnace, kiln, and oven operators was $41,275.32 and the median was $37,000. While the average was below the mean of the overall labor force ($48,742.56), the median is a couple thousand dollars above the median for the overall labor force ($35,000). This difference between the means and the medians is at least in part a result of the overall labor force’s average wage and salary income having a relatively large upward (or rightward) skew caused by some high earners.

But, while my dad and my brother both worked with furnaces or kilns, they worked in very different industries. While you cannot identify individuals, one thing that’s great about the IPUMS data from the ACS or Census is that you can investigate both the occupation and industry an individual was in at the same time.

What industries do furnace, kiln, and oven operators, work in? The vast majority, 31,251 of the 35,465 total furnace, kiln, and oven operators were counted in the manufacturing industry. I was curious, though, about the industries my dad and brother might have been identified in. Looking over the set of industry categories, “blast furnaces, steelworks, rolling and finishing mills,” (category 270) would best apply to my dad’s job, as the mill my dad worked in produced specialty flat electrical steel. As for my brother, if you looked under manufacturing you might place him in “261 - pottery and related products.” Click here to see table.

I ran cross tabulations, which are tables that compare groups among two or more variables, between comparing employment in these industry categories by furnace, kiln, and oven operators. In 2017, 14.1% (or 5,008) furnace, kiln, and oven operators worked in blast furnaces, steelworks, rolling and finishing mills industries. Working with kilns in my brother’s industry category was a bit more rare - .2% (or 67) furnace, kiln, and oven operators were counted working in pottery and related products industries. Click here to see table.

I was also curious about the educational attainment of furnace, kiln and oven operators. Looking just at workers in this occupation I found that a slight majority (50.7%) had a High School Diploma or GED. About 4% of these workers have an Associate’s Degree, like my dad does, and only 1.1% has a Master’s, Doctoral, or Professional Degree, like my brother does (he earned an MFA in 2015). Click here to see table.

There’s a lot more I could explore here – I’m curious about the geographic distribution of workers in this category, and how their wage and salary incomes vary in association with things like educational attainment or industry. Each of these, and other, questions, can be tested with a variety of statistical techniques.

For now, though, it was interesting just to get a better sense of the labor market characteristics from the perspective of just one occupational category.

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