Sheet Metal Workers Union Training New Apprentices

Sheet Metal Workers Union Training New Apprentices
By Paul Burton
September 2011

Instructor Henry Funcke, right, demonstrates metal cutting tools to a Sheet Metal Workers 104 apprentice.
Instructor Henry Funcke, right, demonstrates metal cutting tools to a SMW 104 apprentice.

A new group of apprentices is being trained at the Sheet Metals Workers Local 104 training facility in San Leandro, to meet the need for skilled craft workers as construction starts to pick up. SMW Local 104 Training Coordinator Keith Dias said that work for sheet metal workers is increasing and with as many as 46 percent of current journeymen reaching retirement age within the next few years, there is a need for new trained workers. With an increasing focus on “green” construction practices, a growing part of the apprentice training is in energy efficiency. Dias said, “There will be more work for us. The future is pretty bright.”

The SMW apprenticeship is a five year program that includes over 200 hours of daytime classes in five week blocks in the first four years and a fifth year of evening classes, as well as work for a Local 104 Union Contractor. Many of the current class of 20 pre-apprentices already have jobs, and others will be placed in jobs in the first year. Local 104 Business Representative Rob Stoker said the program has an 85 percent retention and completion rate.

Recruiting apprentices has been difficult for the building trades unions over the last three years with the severe downturn in the U.S. economy that stalled construction as banks stopped lending to developers. With some trades experiencing unemployment rates approaching 25 to 30 percent, bringing new workers into the trades has been difficult. Dias said that the union placed 15 apprentices in jobs last year, but this year things are picking up, and there is more work. Stoker said the union recruits trainees through outreach at local job fairs, high schools, and colleges, and sometimes even at middle schools, “to plant the seed” of interest in the trade.

After years of cuts to shop programs in high schools over the past few decades and elimination of career counselors, the task of recruiting students into the building trades has been a challenge. The efforts of the building trades to win support for shop classes may be starting to pay off. Stoker said the union will be working with the Dublin Unified School District to establish an “Introduction to the Building Trades” class that will have presentations for students from various trades. He said that San Leandro High School would also be setting up a metal shop class in 2012. The union will partner with the school to provide equipment and training and curriculum.

The training center also offers classes for journeymen to upgrade their skills—whether in learning to use the latest Computer Assisted Drafting (CAD) programs or restoring historic metalwork.

Students in the current Sheet Metal Workers 104 apprentice class.
Students in the current Sheet Metal Workers 104 apprentice class.

Apprentices also get on-the-job training to meet the required number of hours doing different aspects of the job—including metal cutting, installation, hanging gutters, or CAD.

Dias said much of the coordination and scheduling of construction projects begins with the sheet metal workers and their designs of the HVAC systems. Dias said they often custom design and build the HVAC systems that rely on metal ductwork.

Stoker noted that by 2020 all new residential and one-half of commercial building would have to be “zero net” producers of greenhouse gas emissions under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. Rather than being a threat to jobs, Stoker said that because of the environmental regulations, “We will continue to be proactive with our training to ensure all of our members have the training to properly assess, design, fabricate, install and maintain these systems.”

“We’ve been building green before it was called green,” Dias said. Another apprenticeship program that the Sheet Metal workers offer is “air balancing,” which makes the HVAC systems run more efficiently. Dias noted that the union’s newest training center in Fairfield was built to LEED Gold standards. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards of the U.S. Green Building Council emphasize energy efficiency and use of sustainable building materials. “We’re practicing what we preach and keeping up with the latest technology and trends in the training and curriculum we offer,” Dias said.

Stoker and Dias noted that even with some new construction projects going green by using natural heating and ventilation, there was still a great need for the HVAC systems the sheet metal workers fabricate, install, and maintain.

Several students said they chose to become sheet metal workers because good paying jobs would be available. Cary Roy-Ents of Oakland said she had been working at FedEx and was looking for something new. She heard about the union’s apprenticeship at a job fair and in talking to people in the trade, scored high on the aptitude test and got into the program. She said she liked the variety of skills she would be learning and saw a lot of opportunities for work.

Adam Masters, whose father Brian is a Business Representative for the Local, said he got into the trade because, “It’s a good paying job that you can support a family on.” The 22 year old Masters said he has been a pre-apprentice for two years and was taking a leave of absence from his job while in class.

Other students said they thought there would be lots of opportunities for work, especially with new hospitals under construction in the East Bay.

In a recent class students started with the basics as instructor Henry Funcke covered safety regulations. He explained the proper placement of ladders and use of personal protective equipment. Funcke, an instructor since 1987, showed the students how to use eye protection around welding or soldering equipment, as well as respirators and ventilators to protect from dust or hazardous materials.

Students in the current Sheet Metal Workers 104 apprentice class.
Students in the current Sheet Metal Workers 104 apprentice class.

After the first weeks in the classroom with the traditional drafting tables and drafting tools, students moved to the shop to learn about fabricating metal work. They practiced using the cutting tools and machines to bend and shape the metal work into ducts, vents, and connectors.

Funcke said he agreed that with the need for energy efficient HVAC systems, there is a long-term need for skilled sheet metal workers. “The future looks good,” he said. He pointed out that in many older buildings, the HVAC systems would need to be redesigned, upgraded and retrofitted by the sheet metal workers to bring them up to the current efficiency standards. He said that improving indoor air quality and ways to treat indoor air were also areas where the trade had experience and would continue to work.

“We already have a good basis, with the mechanical engineering training we have,” he said. “We’ll incorporate more training in management and maintenance of the systems and training in LEED.” He said 11 of his 20 students have jobs in the field as pre-apprentices and will go back to their jobs as apprentices after the first five-week session. He said that shop owners were flexible in allowing the workers to take time off to take the apprenticeship classes because they want the workers to continue to get training.

While the apprentices use the facility during the day, journeymen workers can come in to classes in the evenings to get the latest training. The local’s Administrator of Training, Javier Campos, was recently preparing to test a group of journeymen in the training center’s welding room. He said the journeymen would be tested on different types of welding to get certification.

The 40,000 square foot San Leandro Training Center is one of four Local 104 training centers—others are in San Jose, Burlingame and Petaluma.

For more photos, see the Building Trades Apprenticeship Programs Gallery