In the skilled trades, qualified workers are as valuable as ever before. The skills gap and labor shortage the trades are experiencing are widespread and well-covered, but when dissecting the specific skill sets required to succeed in the HVACR industry, sheet metal training is one area that can, at times, be overlooked.
It is not enough for those in HVACR to simply get more people interested in the work, the industry must also ensure those entering the field are going to get all the tools needed to thrive. Training with sheet metal is undoubtedly one of those tools.
“The need for sheet metal training is dependent to some degree on the part of the country being discussed,” said Butch Welsch, owner, Welsch Heating & Cooling, St. Louis. “In much of the country, in residential work, installations occur in attics and/or crawl spaces where not much sheet metal ductwork is required. However, in areas like here in St. Louis, where most homes have basements, a great deal of sheet metal is required, and we fabricate tons and tons of sheet metal into ductwork. As a result, it is very important that we have people who are trained to work with sheet metal.”
Randy Novak, president, Novak Heating & A/C Inc., Hiawatha, Iowa, and former president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), believes that even the most highly skilled workers need constant training because the demand for construction has not peaked.
“So, simply put, there is a shortage,” he said. “Additionally, there are a lot of people who will retire in the next five years. We need to replace that valuable, experienced knowledge base. Novak added that it is typical to have demand be greater in some parts of the country more so than others.
“I have been in the business 31 years, and it seems like there are always parts of the country that are busy and parts that are a bit slower — and not always the same areas,” he said. “Overall man-hours and demand are up.”
HOW IT’S DONE
Welsch invests his company’s future in a program that focuses on training apprentices in all facets of the sheet metal trade.
“As a union sheet metal shop, we train our apprentices through the Local No. 36 SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers — formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association — Apprentice Training Program. Typically, fairly early in their careers, apprentices will determine if they feel they would be better served being shop people, installers, or architectural sheet metal individuals. While the basics of training for each of these types of work are similar, there are intricacies to all three that must be taught to individuals who want to make careers out of that type of work. The typical shop person today must be computer-oriented as almost all shops utilize some type of plasma cutter to cut their fittings, and the dimensions are done on a computer in an office next to the shop. After being entered into the computer, the fittings are downloaded to the shop-cutting instrument. That cutter and the computer arrange the pieces of the various fittings so as to minimize waste. The shop person then has to take those flat pieces and bend them into the various shapes to make the assorted fittings. Whereas in earlier times, the time-consuming part of shop work was actually laying out the dimensions of the fittings, that is all done by the computer now. Today, the skill comes into turning those flat pieces into the various curves, knowing where and how to put the locks on, and identifying where and how to bend them must. The basics are taught at the training school while, typically, each shop will train their people to do things the way that shop wants them done.”
According to Novak, SMACNA has more than 10,000 apprentices registered at more than 150 training facilities across the U.S. and Canada. The International Training Institute (ITI) develops and produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen. The organization is jointly sponsored by SMART and SMACNA.
“We don’t focus on just sheet metal,” Novak said. “Our technicians and installers enter this profession through an apprentice training program that is jointly sponsored by SMACNA and SMART, our labor partners,” Novak said. “That training lasts between four and five years. Sheet metal is an important part, but our apprentices get training in many areas of our business and industry. Our training program exposes an apprentice to safety, sheet metal, residential, commercial, service, customer service, and welding, as examples.”
While most are at least somewhat familiar with sheet metal and its role in the industry, there are misconceptions that have been tough to overcome.
“The biggest misconception is that our union sheet metal workers often get lumped into a category as part of an overall construction job,” said Novak. “When, in truth, they are highly skilled people with many hours of training. They get paid great wages and benefits. Becoming a union sheet metal worker isn’t just a job, it’s a career.
“Our apprentices get fantastic high-level training,” continued Novak. “They get to learn and work full time and get paid. After four to five years, they have zero debt and can make as much or more than many college graduates. We, the union segment of the construction industry, struggle with that message, quite frankly. The fact is, college is a great choice for a lot of people but not all.”
Welsch added that any misconception is not really a misconception but a cost-savings approach by many, especially non-union contractors who don’t want to invest in the machinery, teachers, etc. that it takes to properly train sheet metal people.
“As a result, those companies sell the theory that the sheet metal portion is unimportant,” he said. “However, we have found from experience on hundreds of jobs where we have gone back to correct things that proper ductwork installation is extremely critical to the comfort of the installed system.”
Novak said the fact of the matter is that a big part of the industry revolves around sheet metal. It moves air through buildings, and it is part of architectural design.
“As an HVAC contractor, we install sheet metal of some sort on almost every job,” he said. “It’s important for our people to know how to build, fabricate, install, and, in some cases, design ductwork. They need the skills to custom build, run machinery, and operate the top technology that assists in this role. The way we communicate to the machinery we use every day for fabrication to the installation process, it’s all changing very fast.”
Novak suggests those interested in the work should talk to people in the industry and ask questions.
“Take a hard look at what we do and ask to visit some job sites, shops, and offices,” he said. “There are many areas of the industry you can specialize in, so you aren’t limited. My thoughts are you will be impressed by the people you interact with, and I hope you will feel their sense of pride.”
Welsch tells anyone who has skill with their hands that the sheet metal field is a very good one to enter.
“We are not going away, and there will always be tasks associated with sheet metal that need to be performed,” he said. “Since it seems that fewer and fewer individuals want to take on jobs that require work in the field, that makes the opportunities even better for individuals who are willing to work and don’t want to sit behind a computer screen all day.”
Publication date: 9/18/2017