Construction may not be the first industry some people think of when they hear about job networking, but for officials with a training facility in Missouri, it’s helped boost the profile of HVAC construction and sheet metal work.

In St. Louis, Sheet Metal Workers Local 36’s training center has taken the strategy and used it to educate the business and academic communities about the union’s sheet metal education programs.

Officials said creating a line of communication opens doors for high school and college students to learn about the training center and for existing apprentices to further their educations.

It takes time and patience to attend events, meetings and discussions without immediate results, but it’s an investment worth making, said Steve Sneed, training coordinator at Local 36. 

“All those relationships, people I’ve met, have led to opportunities to get involved,” he said. “It’s finding the right relationship and building that relationship. That’s made all the difference in the world for us.” 

Three years ago, Sneed accepted an invitation to exhibit at a career fair for high school students. Through networking, he was invited to get involved in a school and business community partnership, which needed a new place to hold meetings. Sneed offered the training center. 

Since then, he’s picked up more leads, meeting and educating professionals and academics about sheet metal works and industry training. During tours of the union’s facility, career fairs, panel discussions and board meetings, business cards were exchanged and connections made with college professors, high school counselors, technical school instructors and high school students who thought a two- or four-year college or university was the only option for higher education. 

Making conversations 

Adding sheet metal training into the higher education conversation takes time because many people, including school officials, often aren’t aware of the opportunity, even though the International Training Institute — the Sheet Metal Workers’ education arm —-- provides curriculum to more than 150 schools nationwide and in Canada.

“Counselors think college is the only thing out there. The kids aren’t told any other options. They’re driven by college. They’re all college bound, ” Sneed said. “Counselors can put that in their school brochures.” 

In February, Sneed participated in a panel discussion for St. Louis Graduates Professional Development Institute, which welcomed more than 100 counselors and partners from middle and high schools, colleges, youth-centric nonprofit organizations and career advisers from across the state. Sneed served on the panel along with Rebecca Emerson, director of school and community partnerships at St. Louis Community College; and John Gaal, director of training and workforce development with the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. 

After the panel, Sneed and his staff guided three tours of the facility, answered questions and exchanged business cards. In the weeks following, he was in contact with many who reached out to him regarding the apprenticeship program. 

“It gets to the point where it’s about the kids, the future,” Sneed said. “Afterwards, I realized opportunities really do exist. This is a viable option for outreach.” 

Scouting for students

This school year, Local 36 also created an Explorer post in partnership with the Boy Scouts of America. The Explorer leadership-development program consists of youth ages 14 to 20 who delve into a career interest, receiving hands-on career experiences through partnerships with businesses, organizations and government agencies. 

Although Sneed won’t see any of these students apply for a sheet metal apprenticeship for a few years, the investment is worth it, he said. Sneed sees a shift in the community to one that includes sheet metal training in the higher education conversation. 

“The last six months, the recruitment has picked up,” Sneed said. “You’ve just got to do it. Many cities have school-business partnerships. For the training coordinators who have the time, it’s worth the effort. It’s going to be fabulous. I’m sure things will pay off.” 

Nearly 10,000 apprentices are registered at 153 training facilities like the Local 36 center in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART: the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly called Sheet Metal Workers’ union) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association. 

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com.