Nathan Allred, a 24-year-old from Woodstock, Georgia, didn’t have a clear idea of what career path he wanted to take a few years ago.
“At the time, I was around 20 or 21 years old and I was stuck in a dead-end job and all my friends around me were working on their college degrees and things like that, and I was really worried about my future,” he says.
One call to his dad, a foreman at R.F. Knox, a sheet metal company in Smyrna, Georgia, changed Allred’s path. He started as a custodian and three weeks later, the superintendent approached him about joining the union and, “everything fell into place and I’ve loved it ever since,” he says.
Today, Allred is a third-year apprentice who is making enough money to support his wife and their 1-year-old son — and he’s helping spread the word about the benefits of apprenticeships in the sheet metal industry during National Apprenticeship Week.
This seventh annual event is a nationwide celebration that showcases the successes of registered apprentices and focuses on the importance of the sheet metal industry in today’s world. This week-long event is part of the push to recruit the next generation of talent. It’s imperative as 34% of the current sheet metal workforce is on the retirement track by 2025 and there are roughly 14,000 jobs to fill. The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) has even created a workforce development campaign, Ignite Your Career, which raises public awareness about the sheet metal and HVAC industries and shares feel-good stories from members across the country.
So, whether you’re ready to graduate high school or looking to switch career paths, an apprenticeship could be the right path for you.
Learning on the job
Allred didn’t even know how to read a tape measure before he started his apprenticeship, but today he’s about to weld, has learned different types of duct work and so much more. All the while, he’s been getting paid to take himself from sheet metal novice to pro.
His apprenticeship experience started off with him working as a helper. From there he took an aptitude test and interviewed with union members and contractors from the local before being placed in the school based on scores on both the test and interview. That’s how apprentices get started, he notes.
Once you’re placed and you become a first-year apprentice, your raises roll in and continue each year. You go to school one night a week for four hours a week and otherwise you’re learning on the job — and getting paid for it.
When he works alongside a journeymen on a new machine, he says he asks as many questions as possible. “That’s what I’ve really loved about the apprenticeship is that it’s all hands-on and you can ask as many questions as you want,” and watch yourself grow, he adds.
A highlight for Allred? The spiral machine, which was his dad’s machine. “That part of my apprenticeship is really important to me because before my dad became a foreman, that was his machine … so it almost feels like he’s handing off the torch to me.”
A career for all
The industry isn’t just guy’s game either. Meet Tori Wilson, a 20-year old from Fairview Park, Ohio, who is a third-year apprentice at TH Martin Inc., located in Parma, Ohio. She knew college wasn’t the path for her.
“I went to school at Polaris for welding and my junior year I got straights As with my curriculum and all of that and they ended up putting me in the school-to-work program, which led me to sheet metal union and my job at TH Martin and that’s kind of how it all happened,” Wilson says.
Today, she continues to learn and grow on the job — all while getting paid — and is helping spread the word about sheet metal apprenticeships.
“When I first started my apprenticeship, I was in the shop mainly, and a shop day is a lot different than a field day,” she says. In the shop, she would pound duct work together, pulls orders for truck drivers and more. “But now I’m mainly in the field and I do a lot of different stuff in the field. I weld a lot in the field, which is mainly what I got into when I started all of this, and then I do hang duct work and a bunch of specialty stuff.”
While the field is male-dominated at this time, there are plenty of opportunities for females, and she notes, there are several women she’s encountered during her apprenticeship. She looks up to them, she says, “because this is a very hard job for a woman to do so you have to be mentally strong, physically strong and all of the women here have been such an inspiration.”
A sheet metal apprenticeship is a wonderful opportunity for kids like her, she says. While she started without HVAC knowledge, she has learned a lot and says companies are eager to teach the next generation.
Allred agrees. “I wish I had started sooner rather than later. You’ll find out really quick that it’s a great career.”
For more information on National Apprenticeship week and kickstarting a new career, visit apprenticeship.gov.