Change or die. That was the often-repeated message in a recent study commissioned by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA). The 312-page report, “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Unionized Sheet Metal Industry,” concludes that if the two main groups in the unionized sheet metal industry do not fundamentally alter the way they currently operate, each will cease to exist.
“The future for the unionized sheet metal industry does not look bright,” wrote the study’s author, William F. Maloney, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering in Lexington, Ky.
“Unless the SMWIA and SMACNA begin a complete examination of how they do business, particularly in terms of the needs of their clients, and develop a radically new way of doing business, the question of recruitment of new workers will be moot. There will be no need for new workers because there will be no unionized sheet metal industry.”
Issues that are causing damage include unsustainable retirement plans; an aging, shrinking worker pool; and fewer projects using union labor, wrote Maloney. At the same time, the report states that the associations have not done enough to reach out to minorities and women, groups that already make up a large percentage of the American work force and which will become even more important in coming years.
“They’re great sheet metal workers, but they’re not great recruiters,” said Maloney in a recent interview.
He proposed two “critical” recommendations. “First, management, i.e., the contractors, must become more actively involved in the workforce development process,” stated Maloney. “Too often, the process is left to the union, which, for the contractors, is allowing someone else to pick their work force. The apprenticeship programs in the unionized industry are legally jointly operated. It is time for the contractors to return the ‘joint’ to the committee.”
His other top recommendation was to create a full-time director of outreach and recruitment position within each joint apprenticeship committee (JAC) and joint apprenticeship and training committee (JATC). “This individual should be a human resources professional with appropriate training,” he wrote.
The report was released in January to the National Labor-Management Cooperative Committee, an affiliate of SMACNA and the Sheet Metal Workers union. SMACNA spokeswoman Rosalind Raymond said the groups’ executive committees were scheduled to meet this month to discuss the survey’s findings. She also mentioned later this year SMACNA and SMWIA executive committees would meet to discuss the findings, too.
LACK OF PRIDE?Even those within the industry don’t rate their career choice very highly, Maloney noted in the report. Less than 25 percent of those he surveyed said they wanted their children to grow up to perform sheet metal work. An even smaller percentage, not given, said they wanted their daughters to work in the industry.
Maloney quoted one worker as calling other HVAC workers “a bunch of animals.” Another person he interviewed likened the career to “selling your body for an income,” since the job is so physically demanding.
“If current members of the industry do not want their children coming into the trade, it will be extremely difficult to attract well-qualified individuals to the industry,” the report said. “How does one recruit with enthusiasm absent a belief in the future viability and attractiveness of the trade?”
At the same time that existing workers discourage offspring from entering the profession, the HVAC and sheet metal industry is poised for explosive growth. The report stated 40 percent of construction workers in general and 42 percent of sheet metal workers in particular will be eligible to retire within the next decade.
“Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception among union members that their union’s leadership, at both the local and national levels, has few, if any, ideas and is content to hold on until retirement,” wrote Maloney.
For years, the author said, union construction has tried to sell itself on the basis of having the best-trained and most productive craftsmen in the industry. However, “Clients are voting with their dollars and purchasing construction services from nonunion firms,” he stated in the report, attributing this to three factors, including the fact that “union firms are simply too costly and not competitive and the alleged better training does not result in sufficiently greater productivity.”
Maloney went on to state that unions show little concern for the client. “Clients today question the value of using a supplier who is not committed to the success of the client,” he concluded.
WOMEN, MINORITIES NEEDEDFully filling the employment void will mean recruiting more than just the “young, white males” who make up the bulk of the sheet metal industry’s traditional recruitment base, he wrote.
Currently just 3.6 percent of sheet metal workers are women, Maloney stated, quoting the U.S. Labor Department. The numbers are similar in other construction occupations. Persistent biases against female workers, along with the too-common complaints of sexual harassment, are among the reasons for the persistently low numbers of females with construction careers, he wrote. “Most guys we talk to just say, ‘Women can’t do it.’ But there are women out there who do,” said Maloney.
Although he acknowledged that sheet metal will never be a field filled with women, it’s not unreasonable to expect 10 percent of the work force could one day be female, Maloney said.
The industry should also target those populations that have shown interest in construction and have been historically underrepresented in sheet metal: Latinos, African- Americans, Asians, older workers, and other immigrant groups, Maloney said in the report.
For almost two years, Maloney has been speaking at association events about his findings. At a 2006 Partners in Progress event co-hosted by SMACNA and the SMWIA, he urged the groups to work to make young people more aware of the industry. He cited results from the Jobs Rated Almanac, a ranking of 250 jobs from best to worst, which graded careers on earnings potential, growth, working conditions, and other factors. Maloney said the book’s top jobs were biologist, actuary, and financial planner. The bottom three were cowboy, fisherman, and lumberjack. Sheet metal work was rated No. 227, consistent with other construction industry positions. “People don’t know your occupation, and that’s a problem,” said Maloney.
To view the entire report, go to the Partners in Progress Website, www.pinp.org/resources/#LMCC.