PHOENIX, AZ — John Sapien just can’t get enough school.

Many years ago, the current president and part owner of Bel-Aire Mechanical Inc. attended sheet metal school because that’s what his father, a sheet metal worker, wanted him to do. He thought he’d give it a try for a few months, just to make his dad happy and maybe have something to do for a while.

More than 30 years later, Sapien is still in the business, running his own hvac contracting firm in Phoenix. Not only that, he has been an instructor at and now sits on the board that oversees the Phoenix Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), a school funded completely by the contractors in Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association (SMWIA) Local 359.

The school has two separate programs, both of which take five years to complete. One teaches sheet metal work, everything from layout and design to safety, machinery, and CAD drafting. The other program teaches hvac service, with an emphasis on larger commercial systems.

Sapien says he enjoys being involved with the school. “It’s a good way for me to see first-hand a lot of the up-and-coming apprentices.”

Contractor members of Local 359 came up with $65,000 for a state-of-the-art computer room, where students hone their drafting skills.

Rigorous commitment

Being able to influence curriculum is another reason why Sapien enjoys his involvement with the school.

“We can tweak the program any way we want. We try to get an early insight into what the needs of our contractors are going to be. Some clients are very high tech and sophisticated, so we need to stress certain protocols and safety requirements.

“The contractors are actively involved in telling us this information, so we can train the apprentices accordingly.”

The students (actually called apprentices) take classes at the school and also get credit from GateWay Community College. When they graduate after five years, they will be full-fledged journeyman and just a few credits shy of receiving an associates’ degree. With a couple of extra classes at the college, they can receive their degrees.

Getting into the five-year program isn’t necessarily easy. Lou Maple, apprenticeship coordinator for the school, says that in addition to having a valid driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, and high school diploma or GED, students must pass the GateWay entrance exam for math and reading.

After passing a drug test, the potential apprentice must then undergo an oral interview with the committee. Only after successfully passing through these stages is a student let in the door.

School + field work

Then there’s the program itself. Apprentices must do more than just go to school. They must also work for the signatory contractors in the union.

The apprentices themselves are members of the union, and as such, are paid anywhere between 55% and 86% of a journeyman’s salary (currently $22.06/hr plus benefits), depending on how far along they are in the program.

Contractors call the school for apprentices, who are then dispatched to the contractor for work. “To advance in the program, you not only have to attend school, you have to have so many hours of on-the-job training that goes along with it,” says Maple. “What we teach has to be put into practical use or it isn’t of any value.”

Sapien believes this is the best way to train for the hvac industry.

“When I went through the program, I thought it was great. You could come into the classroom and discuss the different theories and the processes associated with what you did all day long, so it kind of tied it together,” he says.

“You were almost summarizing what took place in your workday period at night, and at night it would prepare you for other things during the day. It would reaffirm things, which helped me.”

Must work for contractors

Maple notes that apprentices can start working for contractors the moment they arrive at the school. Indeed, they are not allowed to turn down a contractor or leave a job once they start.

If that particular contractor has no more work for the apprentice, s/he can then move to the next contractor who is asking for an apprentice. Maple says that out of about 150 apprentices he currently has at the school, only one is in-between jobs.

Sapien currently has six apprentices working for him and says he calls for an apprentice anywhere from once a week to once a month.

Beginning apprentices start out in the shop, learning the ropes from more experienced workers. They’ll observe the fabrication processes and perform some of the simpler tasks, such as insulating or assembling the ductwork, loading materials, and delivering them to the jobsite.

After they become familiar with the shop, Sapien moves the apprentices into the field.

“It’s in the field where you start building your career,” he says. “That’s something that we try to instill in them at school.

“Down the road, contractors are going to pay attention to their reputation. Superintendents have lists. And they all have memories, and you don’t want to destroy that right up front. I tell them to keep as straight and narrow as they can.”

Learning to communicate

In addition to learning everything they need to know about sheet metal or hvac service, apprentices also learn what Maple calls “the soft skills” — in other words, communication.

“We find a lot of the soft skills are very important. We offer programs in total quality management and also in problem solving, such as the thought process they need to go through to solve problems with customers and subordinates.”

Maple believes the school offers a more well-rounded education than many of the other hvac schools around.

“Most don’t have any on-the-job training — it’s strictly classroom. We have a way where you can test into our program and be given credit for your first or second year. We’ve never had anyone come in directly from one of the non-union schools and test above the first year.”

Sapien adds that the extensive screening process potential apprentices must undergo also helps quite a bit, because he has a better idea of the kind of help he’s getting. “The screening process isn’t always foolproof, but it’s about as close as we can get.”

The school's five-year program allows students to work on a variety of equipment.

The price

Of course, with this training there is also a price. Before starting the program, apprentices must sign a scholarship loan agreement that basically states how much it is costing the school to train them each year.

“They don’t owe the school any money whatsoever,” explains Maple. “However, if they are caught working for a non-signatory contractor, I can go after them in court and reclaim the money that it’s cost me to train them. We’ve only had this happen three times, but we’ve won in court all three times.”

Graduates of the school must work for a signatory contractor for 10 years in order to repay the loan. If graduates discover that the hvac trade is not for them, however, the school will not try to reclaim the costs incurred for training them.

“The trade is not for everyone, and we find some people get into it for a year or two and decide that they don’t want to spend their entire lives there. That’s fine. We understand that. As long as they don’t work the trade for a non-signatory contractor, they simply leave and they owe us nothing,” says Maple.

Considering that students receive five years of schooling for almost no cost (they pay the community college $200/semester for tuition), it seems like a pretty good deal. For those not necessarily thrilled with the idea of going to a traditional college, Maple says this is a good alternative.

“Consider that with a regular four-year college, you’re not making a nickel and you’re spending a ton of money. With us for five years, you’re making a ton of money.”