What exactly does a sheet metal worker do all day? There’s the simple image of shaping ductwork and registers for an HVAC system. But this description fails to capture the wide range of skills and knowledge needed for the job — and while putting the pieces together remains pretty much the same as it always has been, the process behind it is changing all the time.
Hank Artlip, president of Artlip and Sons Inc. in Aurora, Illinois, said the term “sheet metal worker” has always been hard to define. It includes ductwork and register installation, but also installation of wall panels and architectural metalwork like metal roofs. Sheet metal workers also perform equipment installation, plus service and repairs to mechanical systems. They need to know about an array of metals used for different jobs. Many need to learn computer-aided design and building-information modeling.
“The sheet metal industry is a good field because it is a challenging, ever-changing industry,” Artlip said. “If you are willing to put forth the effort and commitment, it can be a very rewarding industry. “
“People just say, ‘sheet metal,’ but they don’t realize all the aspects,” added Chuck Brunelle, president of Dry Air Systems Inc. in Rowley, Massachusetts.
The problem is, not everyone wants to deal with the sheet metal aspect of HVAC. Some people who enter the HVAC field consider this work beneath them, said Vince O’Leary, president of V.M. O’Leary Sheet Metal and Heating Inc. in Cary, Illinois. O’Leary offers a different take.
“I treat sheet metal with reverence,” he said. “I view it as an art form.”
At his shop, O’Leary teaches employees to take steps such as putting in curved offsets, rather than just cutting off the piece. He uses the same tools and manuals his father and grandfather used. He said it takes a couple of days to train somebody to make a basic fitting this way, and a few months to make common fittings.
For Brunelle’s shop in Massachusetts, the state mandates five years of training in the field and in the classroom for all sheet metal workers, as well as for service techs who work with sheet metal. Dry-Air pays a portion of the training cost, with the condition that employees pay back part of it if they leave early. As a non-union shop, Dry Air Systems works with Gould Construction Institute, a local technical training center. The firm recruits many new employees through co-op programs with local vocational schools.
“You really have to get people who are committed to sheet metal,” Brunelle said.
He explained that sheet metal is a very hands-on process, so learning on the job remains crucial. Still, he said, the classroom instruction offers a great base. Brunelle himself is a journeyman sheet metal technician. He was grandfathered in when the licensing requirement went into effect a decade ago and instead learned solely on the job.
Not all states require sheet metal certification, but there are other requirements many workers must meet. These include OSHA certification and, often, special certification for working with architectural sheet metal. Manufacturers often also require special training.
“Manufacturers’ training has always been a huge part of training, but even more with the newer technologies available today,” Artlip said. “In some cases, you are not even allowed to purchase/install a system unless you have been factory trained to do so.”
Some union shops have an easier time recruiting because they pay more and offer their own training. The Service Division of Local #36 SMART (Sheet Metal/Air/Rail/Transportation) in St. Louis has 200 applicants for the 60 to 80 apprenticeships it offers.
St. Louis is unusual in its flood of talent, said Butch Welsch, owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling. Many other locals struggle to find enough applicants. Welsch has floated the idea of sending applicants to nearby cities for their apprenticeship, much like young people go away for college. Some might leave after the apprenticeship, but others might settle in the area.
Welsch said his local attracts so many applicants because it tells “a pretty good story.” The union recruits potential employees at local job fairs and colleges. They find that many young people know plenty of peers who wind up waiting tables at a restaurant after college, trying to pay off a six-figure debt with their tip money. A trade like sheet metal working offers a path to a middle-class job, and the work offers an opportunity to get out and move around.
“There are a lot of young people who are not designed to sit in an office all day,” Welsch said.
In addition to unions and trade schools, sheet metal workers can gain training from associations such as the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).
Once the initial training ends, Artlip said sheet metal workers continue learning.
“You have to continuously keep up with new technologies and methods, and training is part of that,” he said. “I do believe that the type of training that is available helps to keep people engaged and is good for retention.”
In addition to new technologies, today’s sheet metal workers need training more and more in soft skills, Welsch said.
“We as an industry are realizing that overall customer service is something that is overlooked,” he said.
One challenge is that many of today’s incoming sheet metal workers grew up communicating online and via text, rather than face-to-face.
“One of the concerns we have for the future is whether they will be able to communicate with that customer when they walk up to the front door,” Weslch said. This means learning subtle factors, such as giving people enough room and listening. Role-playing helps with this type of training, Welsch said.
The positive aspect of today’s digital natives is they possess the technical skills modern sheet metal work requires. Welsch said the sheet metal industry needs to continue working on attracting fresh employees to the trade.
“We need to promote across the country that this is a good area to go into,” he said. “That’s easier said than done.”
Artlip said techs should gain as much experience as possible in all aspects of the heating and cooling business, including sheet metal.
“The more well-rounded and capable you are, the more opportunities you will have, and the more employable you become,” he said.
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