The 1979 newspaper ad for sheet metal apprentices said women and minorities were “encouraged to apply.”

Not knowing much about sheet metal workers except that many made good money, that was enough to attract Beth Szillagyi.

But when the Springfield, Ill., resident went to the union hall, the business agent had other ideas.

“He did everything he could to try and talk me out of it,” Szillagyi said. “Nobody could believe that there were women who would show up.”

Almost 30 years later, not a lot has changed when it comes to women in the sheet metal and HVAC industries, according to a study commissioned by the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association and the Sheet Metal Workers union.

The groups have not done enough to reach out to women as well as minorities, groups that already make up a large percentage of the American work force and which will become even more important in future years.

Workers, not recruiters

“They’re great sheet metal workers, but they’re not great recruiters,” said the study’s author, William F. Maloney, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering in Lexington, Ky.

The 312-page report, “Meeting the Workforce Needs of the Unionized Sheet Metal Industry,” was released in January to the National Labor-Management Cooperative Committee, an affiliate of SMACNA and the Sheet Metal Workers union. It includes 71 recommendations for work force development, including partnering with the Girl Scouts, reaching out to female and minority labor organizations, establishing education programs on sexual harassment and discrimination, and meeting with clothing and hand tool manufacturers to discuss the problems many women have with industry equipment and garments designed for men.

The report’s findings are under discussion, said SMACNA spokeswoman Rosalind Raymond.

In the report, Maloney writes that the current situation threatens the groups’ existence.

“The future for the unionized sheet metal industry does not look bright,” Maloney wrote. “Unless the SMWIA (union) and SMACNA begin a complete examination of how they do business, particularly in terms of the needs of their clients, and develop a radically new way of doing business, the question of recruitment of new workers will be moot. There will be no need for new workers because there will be no unionized sheet metal industry.”

Low rankings

For almost two years, he has been speaking at association events about his findings, which he said have implications for all sheet metal workers, regardless of union affiliation. At a 2006 Partners in Progress event co-hosted by SMACNA and the union, he urged the groups to work to make young people more aware of the industry. He cited results from the Jobs Rated Almanac, a ranking of 250 jobs from best to worst, which graded careers on earnings potential, growth, working conditions and other factors. Maloney said the book’s top jobs were biologist, actuary and financial planner. The bottom three were cowboy, fisherman and lumberjack. Sheet metal work was rated No. 227, consistent with other construction industry positions.

“People don’t know your occupation, and that’s a problem,” Maloney said at the time.

Even those within the industry don’t rate their career choice very highly, Maloney noted in the report. Less than 25 percent of those he surveyed said they wanted their children to grow up to perform sheet metal work. An even smaller percentage, not given, said they wanted their daughters to work in the industry. Maloney quotes one worker as calling other HVAC workers “a bunch of animals.” Another person he interviewed likened the career to “selling your body,” since the job is so physically demanding.

“If current members of the industry do not want their children coming into the trade, it will be extremely difficult to attract well-qualified individuals to the industry,” the report said. “How does one recruit with enthusiasm absent a belief in the future viability and attractiveness of the trade?”

Industry growing

At the same time that existing workers discourage offspring from entering the profession, the HVAC and sheet metal industries are poised for explosive growth. The report says 40 percent of construction workers in general and 42 percent of sheet metal workers in particular will be eligible to retire within the next decade.
Maloney mentions that some observers say construction will need to add up to 250,000 new skilled workers annually to meet demand.

And fully filling that void will mean recruiting more than just the “young, white males” who make up the bulk of the sheet metal industry’s traditional recruitment base, he added.

Currently just 3.6 percent of sheet metal workers are women, Maloney wrote, quoting the U.S. Labor Department. The numbers are similar in other construction occupations and have not moved substantially in more than 20 years. Persistent biases against female workers, along with complaints of sexual harassment, are among the reasons for the persistently low numbers of females with construction careers.
“Most guys we talk to just say, ‘Women can’t do it.’ But there are women out there who do,” he said.

Some enjoy work

Such as Szillagyi. The 50-year-old said her sheet metal career has provided her with a good income. She acknowledged that she had to deal with some sexism in the past, but always handled such problems herself, rather than filing formal complaints or lawsuits.

“My way of dealing with it has always been a sense of humor and fighting fire with fire,” she said.
When some of her male co-workers hung pictures of centerfolds, she brought in photos of naked men. And when a co-worker pinched her buttocks as a fourth-year apprentice, she grabbed him by the shirt collar and dared him to do it again.

None of it bothered Szillagyi.

“The guys who are jerks are jerks to everybody,” she said.

Szillagyi turned her experiences into a novel, Hey, Lady! Your Tin Snips are Showing!, which chronicled the entry of a female into the male-dominated world of HVAC work. The book was published by SynergEbooks in 2002. (See “A tin lady’s tale,” August 2002 Snips.)

But will sheet metal ever be an industry where women have a major presence? Probably not, Maloney said, but it’s possible 10 percent of the work force could one day be female.

Aim higher

Others, such as Elizabeth Youhn, thinks that number could be too low. She’s the executive director of Tradeswomen Inc., an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group for females in the construction industry.

“The idea that it’s just not likely that women would want to do this work - I think that it’s just public perception,” she said. “People forget that 20 years ago, women were overwhelmingly nurses and hardly any (were) doctors.”

Tradeswomen Inc. was one of the groups Maloney contacted while writing his report.

“When I started, there was open hostility to women in the trades. (Now) There’s more of an acceptance that boys or girls can go into whatever they want,” Youhn said.

Before becoming executive director of the group, Youhn worked as a crane operator in northern California for 25 years.

And there are training programs that actively reach out to women and minorities, especially in California and the Pacific Northwest, Youhn and Maloney said.

One example is run by Los Angeles-based Sheet Metal Workers union Local 105. Apprenticeship director Leslie Reinmiller said the training center she oversees in Garden Grove, Calif., has one woman graduating this month, one in her fourth year and two who have just started the program.


That’s out of 240 students at the facility, but Reinmiller said she and her staff are constantly working to attract more women. The state would like to see females represent 50 percent of apprentices - a goal they’re unlikely to meet, she acknowledged.

“I think everybody tries to get women in,” she said. “At least, if they’re smart.”

School representatives work with women’s career training programs in Southern California, attempting to expose participants to an industry that many women - and men, she added - know little about.

They also work with Helmets to Hardhats, the government-sponsored program to help military veterans returning from active duty find civilian careers in construction.

But it’s always a struggle.

“It’s hard work. And most women don’t want to do that kind of work. A lot of men don’t want to do that kind of work,” she said.

The full report is available at For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail