Last summer, as Jack Knox prepared for his term as president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), the SMACNA board of directors outlined four strategic initiatives that will guide the organization’s future: human resources, labor relations, member engagement and strengthening SMACNA chapter partnerships.

“Three of the four plans revolved around communications and marketing,” Knox explains. “I would say it’s definitely evolved over the last 18 months. We are seeing a much bigger push in how we communicate and reach people.” An underlying effort in that push is to change the conversation from filling “jobs” in the sheet metal industry to cultivating careers.

At this month’s 75th annual SMACNA convention in San Diego, California, a solution to an industry-wide shortage of labor shortage is the culminating focus of the event. But across the country, many SMACNA members are already meeting this challenge head-on by supporting initiatives that help diversify their sources of manpower. And so far, it’s working.

“We are seeing some SMACNA chapters that are really proactive in that area,” says Knox, who serves as president of the R.F. Knox, Company, Inc. in Smyrna, Georgia. “We are reaching out to folks coming back from the military, whether we are teaming up with Helmets To Hardhats or teaming up with the SMART Heroes program. The other thing that we are doing, to recruit more of the project manager and engineering type, is we are establishing SMACNA chapters at universities.”

Jack Knox, SMACNA President

The main message during this outreach being: “There is a path that can lead to a very successful career by just going through the trades,” says Knox.

Since 1976, the Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 Training Center has provided training and education for sheet metal apprentices in metro Detroit, Michigan. After noticing a dip in apprentices, Local 80 decided it was time to bring the training directly to the talent. Four years ago, the union established a pre-apprenticeship partnership with a local a career and technical education-focused high school in Fraser, Michigan.

Joe Pineiro, SMART Heroes graduate

For two hours after school, for two to three weeks, upperclassmen work with HVAC and architectural sheet metal professionals on everything from job site safety to punctuality. Upon completion of the program, many students can enter the Local 80 Training Center apprenticeship after graduation.

“It’s like labor is an apple, and you’ve got to take a bite out of it from many sides,” explains SMACNA contractor and president of Cass Sheet Metal in Detroit, Glenn Parvin. “We are noticing in our own Local 80 that we are starting to draw more applicants because we started doing the radio blurbs that talk about how valuable the sheet metal career can be. So that’s the hook, if you will.”

Vince Sandusky, SMACNA CEO

Parvin serves as board member for Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 Training Center, sponsored by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 80 and contractors of the SMACNA Metropolitan Detroit Chapter.

By working directly with students, they receive a real-world understanding of the what life is like in the sheet metal industry, Parvin explains.

“The trades are suffering from years of (people saying) you have to go to college. (Like) that’s the only thing,” he says, explaining that students often reconsider the trades once they are educated about opportunities available to them. “All off sudden this young kid starts to notice and see that this is a reasonable career path.”

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Yet in some cases, it is not a matter of how you recruit labor but from where. As a specialty sheet metal contractor in the construction of the new Little Caesars Arena, Detroit required that a certain percentage of the workforce be recruited from the city limits. 

“The problem is the people aren’t of the skillset and haven’t had the training,” says Parvin. “Finding help, and help has to be trained, it’s not just picking people off the street and saying get in that manlift. So it was very, very difficult.”

In a pinch, Parvin has entertained borrowing workers from noncompetitive shops.

“Sometimes you can develop relationships, which I have through SMACNA, where you borrow a couple of people so that you can have those people back in your court when you need them to help us through a moment of time where we need a little extra manpower,” he says. “Because we are not all busy at the same time.” 

sheet metal

Another option has been to recruit people who are willing to trade jump — or at the very least, apply their relevant skills to the sheet metal industry.

Joseph Pineiro, Spc., was an aircraft electrician in the military for 6 years when he entered the SMART Heroes sheet metal training after being honorably discharged. 

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“I was more interested in doing welding,” says Pineiro, who is completing an apprenticeship at a shop in Rochester, New York. He he had “no idea” what the sheet metal industry was when he signed up, he explains.

“After I found out a little bit about it, I really liked it. I liked that they were able to build almost anything out of metal,” he says. “Now that I am going through the apprenticeship, my ultimate goal is to go all the way up to project manager. Or even higher, if I can, and start a company.”

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The Seattle-based SMART Heroes program provides sheet metal industry training, free of charge, to enlisted men and women of the U.S. Military prior to discharge. SMACNA works with SMART through its International Training Institute (ITI) and jointly funds the SMART Heroes program through ITI.

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“SMACNA came in from the standpoint of making sure these graduates of the program would be available and contractors would be interested and available to hire them,” explains Vince Sandusky, who was recently named SMACNA’s CEO to help with labor-management relationships, education, research and public policy advocacy. “This was SMART’s initiative. They really championed this and did a lot of the leg work and the ground work to get this up and running.”

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Currently, Sandusky says, they are working with the military to expand the program to an additional location with a second training center.

“We’re excited about that. It means more people will come through the program. More very desirable candidates for our industry as we’ve seen so far,” Sandusky says. “These guys, we know they are mission oriented. We know they’re task focused. We know they know how to work and accomplish goals in a team setting and on their own. They are fantastic people to bring in the industry, and we expect them to be leaders at companies and job sites.”

SMART Heroes

SMART Heroes students watch a welding demonstration.

He adds, “From our perspective, too, we are getting to do good things for people who have done good things for our country. It’s a win-win.”

For some contractors, a shortage of labor has meant taking a step back and evaluating the types of jobs they can take on.

SMART Heroes

Upon completion of the SMART Heroes program, graduates select any one of the 148 SMART apprenticeship programs in the United States and are provided advanced placement as a second-year apprentice.

“I think what we are doing is we are being far more selective in what we bid because we know that we can’t field it all,” says Phil McShane of McShane Mechanical. “I think it’s also changed our perspective with how we bring people into the trade.”

“The downturn in ‘08 and ‘09 and the recession really impacted how the unions took new members in. They actually didn’t take anyone in for a number of years. It left this void of qualified workers in a certain age group,” says McShane. “Forty to 50 percent of the workforce and Detroit labor will be eligible to retire in the next five years, and we didn’t do anything in the past to pass on that intellectual property to a younger generation. This is our only moment right now to get young people in and get that last five years of real-word experience with the guys before they retire.”

SMART Heroes

He adds, “We’re bringing new people in the trade in a more pragmatic way, but we are also under the gun because we have to back fill what’s going to be a shortage of labor that’s projected out for at least the next five to eight years.”