WARREN, MI — SMACNA Detroit contractors recently gathered at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 Training Center here to take a tour of the facility and hear what Senator Spencer Abraham had to say about the issues affecting their industry.

Steve Murzen, a representative of the training center, took the senator and members of the Detroit chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association (SMACNA) on a tour of the facility. He explained the program, familiarizing all in attendance with the practices of the center.

Good theory

The center’s apprenticeship program is an intensive five-year journeymen training program. The 230 students are currently enrolled in master programs such as trade mathematics, welding, duct design, CAD, foreman training, architectural sheet metal, heating, and air conditioning.

Each apprentice is required to spend 1,000 hours of classroom instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training prior to graduation. They earn while they learn in this program, designed to develop skilled sheet metal journeypersons.

Apprentices receive daily on-the-job training from their employers, with related classroom instruction one day every two weeks, according to Murzen. They are paid for every hour of work, whether it be on the jobsite or at the training center.

Upon completion of the program, journeymen scale wages, according to Murzen, start at $24.19 per hour with health and pension benefits. The center also offers upgrade courses for journeymen and apprentices, with about 120 students in these classes each term.

“Nobody across the country produces as much training in the industry,” said Murzen.

“We are not consultants as far as educational schools go. We saw a need in the industry to better things.

Challenges ahead

“We had a higher number of students enroll in our program in January, but it was still a lower number than what we want it to be,” said Murzen.

He pointed out that the center has been getting a lot of new students who are in their mid-30s and have wandered from job-to-job over the years without finding the right place for themselves.

Abraham responded by saying that Michigan needs to increase the availability of training programs for midlife career changes to address this trend.

Sharon Havlick, SMACNA Detroit administrator, added that the association’s member contractors are still hurting for people to do the work they have lined up.

“SMACNA has had to get travelers to work on its projects in Michigan,” said Mary Seraphinoff, Detroit chapter president. “We are losing people through attrition.”

One contractor commented that there are lots of jobs and lots of needs that don’t require a college education and said that young people have to be made aware and reminded that they don’t have to go to college to get a good paying job.

High-tech tech solution?

Zeroing in when Murzen told the group that computers played a part in portions of the apprentices’ training, Senator Abraham was quick to promote the controversial American Competitiveness Act — a “training and scholarship program” — he helped to craft and pass in 1998.

Citing a recent study that showed a lack of 860,000 workers throughout the nation for high-tech jobs, Abraham talked about the act as one step in a long-term solution.

The act creates the opportunity to bring foreign workers into the United States to fill a portion of these vacant positions, said Abraham. The workers are brought in for a three-year period and the companies that employ them have to pay money into a scholarship fund for training of American workers to fill these high-tech positions.

Abraham was quick to point out that the high-tech jobs the act was crafted for included what apprentices and members of the hvacr industry do in their work every day. He urged those in attendance to get the image of computer-heavy, Silicone Valley out of their minds as that was not the area this act is meant to provide aid to.