SMACNA - Arizona Chapter
Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association
Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association
Walk into the Arizona Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship program and you’ll see a classroom full of computers. This isn’t your grandfather’s sheet metal apprenticeship program. This is the future of sheet metal work, and it’s attracting a diverse group of workers to the trade.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the sheet metal trades in many ways. Contractors have been busier because of service and maintenance needs, especially with building owners focusing on upgrading their ventilation systems. Add to that the increasing demand for workers on large-scale construction projects and it’s a great time for sheet metal contractors and tradespersons. It’s also a great time for those looking to enter the trade.
“COVID taught people how important indoor air quality is,” said Jeff Holly, SMART Local 359 Business Manager. “We’ve known it as an industry, but now others are realizing it. New technology and duct design are more important than before as we construct new buildings and update older buildings.”
“When you enter the sheet metal worker job, there are around 15 different career paths within the trade that people can pursue,” said Albert Blanco, Arizona Sheet Metal JATC coordinator.
Indoor air quality technicians will be an important career going forward. Test and balance and other specialties are also needed as contractors handle retrofit, maintenance, and new construction projects. Contractors also need BIM specialists.
To meet the demand and ensure a steady flow of skilled sheet metal workers for SMACNA contractors, Local 359 is encouraging their journeypersons to upgrade their skills, especially in the areas of air quality, test and balance, technology, and building information modeling (BIM).
“We’re using computers, GPS systems, and robots on job sites,” Albert said. “Journeypersons who know how to operate the equipment, fix it, and maintain it are set apart from others.”
Upgrade classes can range from one month to a year depending on the type of technology and the need. In addition, working on BIM enables those who can no longer work in the field due to physical limitations or injuries to continue to work in construction.
“You can reeducate yourself to do something different and still stay in our industry,” Albert said.
Local 359 and the JATC have stepped up their recruitment efforts using a variety of ways to reach potential members using many channels from job fairs and presentations at schools to vehicle wraps and digital outreach.
“Our biggest results come from word of mouth,” Jeff said. “Many journeypersons are second- and third-generation sheet metal workers.”
Jeff and Albert said that the trades are attracting people who no longer want to work in offices and want to switch careers. Plus, the growing need for tradespersons who know BIM is bringing new people into the trades who may not have considered it before.
“All JATCs are teaching BIM but we are the first to hire a full-time instructor to do the full career-path training,” Albert said. “We have been innovators and are a step ahead of other training centers across the country. Our SMACNA contractors benefit from this.”
Albert points out that this is a great time to start a career in sheet metal and they are actively recruiting apprentices. He is proud that the industry doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race or age.
“We offer equal pay for equal work,” Albert said. “We also offer second-chance opportunities for those who want to turn their lives around. While they may not be able to work on some projects due to background check requirements, they are employable and there is so much work around the Valley that they can do.”
Albert tells prospective apprentices that this trade can change your life.
“I’ve seen apprentices graduate from the program, regain custody of their children because they have steady employment, become homeowners, and expand their careers as foremen or as CAD and BIM specialists,” Albert said. “That transformation can happen. I ask ‘Are you committed?’ I tell them ‘We provide opportunity and what you do with the opportunity is up to you.’”
The JATC and Local 359 understand the value of having a diverse membership. The current apprenticeship enrollment includes women, Tribal Nation members and Latinos. To further support this commitment, women, military veterans and anyone with a welding certification get direct entry into the program.
Albert adds that many women come to the sheet metal trade because their family members worked in the trades, and they saw the opportunities. Jeff is proud to send a Local 359 delegation to the Tradeswomen Build Nations conference every year.
Even those who work for independent and nonunion contractors can come into the apprenticeship program and test into one of the levels or even become journeymen. They take a comprehensive exam to assess their skills and knowledge, and aptitude for the trades. They also have an interview with a panel who assess their skill level.
“That’s because we train for a career, not a job,” said Jeff.
Another important aspect of the JATC and Local 359’s philosophy is their commitment to setting apprentices up for success.
For example, women who are on maternity leave stay enrolled in the apprenticeship program and are able to pick up where they left off when ready to return.
“We are looking into childcare options for our journeymen and apprentices,” Jeff said while noting that many of their members – men and women – are single parents and have to depend on friends and family to help with childcare.
“We are willing to be flexible to help each other and make it work,” Albert said. “We need to think outside the box. The way we did business yesterday is not the way we should do business today. We want to do better. We are evolving and changing and providing more quality training for the industry, contractors and members.”
Jeff says that Local 359’s partnership with SMACNA pays off for everyone. Contractors can go after more work because the Local can provide the manpower needed. Moreover, the Local can attract more workers and grow its membership because contractors are securing steady, quality work for tradespersons who want to further their careers and make a good living to support their families.