Employment in the sheet metal trade offers a variety of job opportunities, not only for men, but for women, as well.
Many unionized sheet metal training centers are working especially hard to recruit women into their apprenticeship programs, helping to fill a well-documented worker shortage and further close the gender gap.
“There are a lot of sharp women out there, and, given the opportunity, they can do a great job. … We feel that it’s a good talent pool to draw from, and it’s underutilized in our industry,” said Eric Peterson, administrative coordinator, Western Washington Sheet Metal Joint Apprentice Training Center; and journeyman training committee member, Sheet Metal Workers (JATC) Local No. 66, Everett, Washington.
A Growing Population
The International Training Institute (ITI), an educational arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, claims 200 of 7,263 active apprentices across the country are female, based on 142 of 153 reporting training centers. Seventeen female apprentices graduated in 2013. According to ITI, although women account for only 2 percent of the apprenticeship attendance across the country, the numbers are improving.
Don Steltz, training coordinator at Local 46’s training center, Rochester, New York, said there are four female apprentices right now at that training center — three are in their first year of training and one is a second-year apprentice. And 1 ½ to two years ago, another woman graduated.
ITI data revealed Sheet Metal JATC Local No. 66 currently has 33 female apprentices, who account for more than 10 percent of the apprenticeship class.
Leah Rambo, director of training for Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, covering New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties, said when she started in her current position, only 3-3.5 percent of apprentices were women. Today, there are 35 women apprentices in the local’s apprentice program, or about 9.4 percent of total attendance. In addition, five females are in the pre-apprenticeship program out of a class of 26. “It’s not always that high, but I’m ecstatic about that group. And the numbers are climbing.”
Female Apprentices and Training
In general, women apprentices bring some qualities to the table that aren’t quite as prevalent among their male counterparts. “They bring communication to the classroom,” said Steltz. “They’re not afraid to engage in a conversation.” On the other hand, he’s noticed a lot of guys don’t think it’s cool to talk or don’t want to talk in class.
Steltz also has observed that females tend to have more attention to detail and they take their time, which he said aids them in being good welders and drafters.
Rambo said several contractors have asked her to steer women into the trade. “They say that they seem to have a natural knack for welding. I don’t know if it has to do with hand-eye coordination. That is a part of the trade — welding and drafting — that I’ve specifically heard contractors tell me they feel that women do better at than men.”
Heidi Brown, who just finished her first year of apprenticeship at Local 46, said that a challenge to being a woman in sheet metal is body strength, or lack thereof. “I sometimes face not being physically capable of lifting some of the awkward duct or heavier equipment that we sometimes work with. However, help is always there for me if I need it, without question.” Steltz said he tells the apprentices to tell the journeymen, “Look, this is too big, let’s get a duct lift,” because two guys might not be able to lift it.
He also said that none of the females in the apprenticeship program at JATC Local 46 are doing specialty work, but are out there putting up ductwork and doing the same things the men are doing.
One other glaring gender difference: bathroom arrangements. Brown said, “Having a separate bathroom with a lock can also be a challenge as well as an annoyance, especially in the winter.”
The sizing of personal protective equipment is about the only thing that Steltz has noted that’s changed in training women. He orders some smaller gloves and said the hats and harnesses fit a little differently, but the contractors know that and they [handle] it appropriately. “With a smaller, petite person, you don’t want her in an extra-large harness because she’s going to get hurt.”
Rambo said she enjoys discussing her successes as a female in the sheet metal trade. “I spend a lot of time talking to them [the women] about how to work in this environment, how you carry yourself, and how you present yourself. You can wear anything you want on the job site, but realize the tighter or more revealing the clothes, the harder your job is going to be. People are not going to take you as seriously; they’re not going to look at you as a worker.”
In order to do the work skillfully, the training centers work to teach the apprentices — both female and male — all aspects of sheet metal. Steltz said, “My job is to make sure our workers are the most well-rounded people to go out there and succeed, because I really want these young adults to succeed in whatever they do. It’s a career, not just a job, and we try to convey that to them.”
Rambo said she keeps track of how much time each apprentice spends in the field and in the shop, so that everybody has a minimum of one year of experience in each place. Apprentices also get to choose the type of sheet metal work they want to concentrate on. “Apprentices are able to specialize in testing and balancing (TAB), computer aided drafting (CAD), HVAC, and welding. We recently had to set up extra classes in CAD because there was such a demand among the apprentices and contractors.”
Being an apprentice allows a person to learn in the classroom and on the job. Brown said she’d originally studied to be a welder, but a lack of prior experience left her in constant search of employment. A welding instructor connected her to Steltz, and now she is studying to be a sheet metal worker.
Brown most recently worked on a one-on-one project with a mechanic, starting with the walk-through up to the point of hanging the duct and setting the units. “This type of experience is invaluable because of the direct knowledge you can gain from your mechanic and from being in direct contact with every aspect of the process.”
Recruiting tactics differ from training center to training center. Rambo said she talks to girls who are in junior high about careers in the trade and reconnects with them when they’re in high school, so they’re familiar with the sheet metal trade and the training opportunities before they commit elsewhere.
Peterson said his training center participates in hands-on career fairs where multiple high schools will send their students to the career fair held off-site. The training center purposely chooses to be placed in the women-only section because they’ve found out that being in that section, “the girls are more likely to try something if the guys aren’t there making fun of them or looking over their shoulders. If it’s just them and their girlfriends, they are more likely to grab a hammer and put something together.”
At the local’s booth, females have a chance to try their hand at sheet metal work by building a tool tray made of sheet metal. Building the tool tray “gives them a general idea of what we might do to put pieces of metal together. They walk away with something to remember us by, a tool tray that boasts a JATC sticker on it,” said Peterson.
Steltz said he attends high school career days where the seniors bring their résumés and undergo a mock interview with professionals. It gives students a chance to ask questions about being a sheet metal worker, and he can inquire about their career aspirations.
Another recruitment method includes working with other organizations, such as Helmets to Hardhats, The Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills Inc., and Apprenticeship & Non-Traditional Employment for Women.
Training centers also rely on referrals as a recruiting tool. Peterson said the members of Local 66 recruit qualified women to the local’s training program. Other women find out about the industry from family members. Eneaqua Lewis, a second-year apprentice at Local 28, has an older sister who trained to become a mechanic through Local 28. Before Lewis became an apprentice, she didn’t know much about sheet metal, but it held a certain appeal. “I knew that my sister was happy. I haven’t seen that too often, people actually being happy about their careers.” Lewis was out of work at the time, so she decided to apply for the apprenticeship program.
Some apprentices find out about sheet metal work by taking a course that introduces them to several different trades prior to their apprenticeships. After Liz Fong, a third-year apprentice at Western Washington Sheet Metal JATC Local 66, left graduate school, she became involved in Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a free program that “introduces women to the trades three days a week, for five weeks,” she said. “One day a week is spent in the classroom learning about the construction industry, being a woman in construction, brushing up on relevant math skills, etc.; one day a week is spent visiting various trade unions (sheet metal, elec-
tricians, plumbers/pipefitters, carpenters, etc.) or places that employ tradespeople (port of Portland, loading docks, etc.); and one day a week is spent at a job site doing volunteer work around the community.”
Rambo, who started as a sheet metal apprentice in 1988, did not find the work a challenge but did find a challenge in “dealing with people who felt I wasn’t supposed to be there because I was a woman. ... It never dawned on me that people would think like that, because I was always encouraged at home.”
When she was an apprentice, she said she worked with a journeyman who didn’t speak to her for the first two weeks she worked with him, so she would look over his shoulder to see what he was doing so she could do her job.
Finally the mechanic broke his silence and explained what he would do on the job going forward. He also told her he’d worked with a woman once, but she was terrible at the job, so he didn’t think women should be in the trades.
“My philosophy, from that point on, was always, there are not enough women. When you can take one woman and use her to judge everyone, that means there are not enough women in the trade.”
Women doing sheet metal work are more accepted today, said Peterson. “Our women who have gone through the program have proven they can do the work; they’re good at it, and, therefore, the acceptance for women in the job has improved.”
Women in the trades aren’t easily accepted by every tradesman, however. Flor Muñoz, first-year apprentice at Local 28, said there are times when the guys give her a look like she doesn’t belong, but she brushes the negative attention aside because she doesn’t care what other people think. “This is my job. All that matters is how much I like it. ... It’s something I feel comfortable [in], and I do it and I like it.” She added, “I’m very proud to be a woman in the sheet metal industry.”
Because there are so few women in the trade, those who are sheet metal workers feel the need to put in extra effort to excel. “As a woman, I feel you have to work extra hard, be extra smart, and be extra fast,” Lewis said. “You definitely have to apply yourself more because, as a woman, they think you can’t do as much, but I can do the same thing they can do, and I can do it better.”
SIDEBAR: Union Support
The international union and local union support women in the trades. Rambo said,” Their support is crucial when it comes to increasing our numbers and retaining women in the trades.”
One way Local 28 is carrying this out is it sent two journeywomen and one female apprentice to The Fourth Annual Women Building California and the Nation Conference, jointly planned by the California Building Trades Council, Tradeswomen Inc., and the Building and Construction Trades Dept.’s Committee for Women in the Trades. According to event organizers, the “conference is designed to bring together 600+ women who work in every craft in the building and construction trades. Our conference goals are to see more women enter the trades and to offer tradeswomen (both new and experienced) opportunities for networking, skill building, leadership development, and organizing.”
Publication date: 5/19/2014