Sheet metal apprenticeships prepare for a modern HVAC career
At the Sheet Metal Workers Local 88 Joint Apprenticeship & Training Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, an ever-evolving core curriculum ensures sheet metal apprentices have the tools they need to carve out a modern career in the skilled trades industry.
SHEET METAL WORKERS LOCAL 88 TRAINING DIRECTOR Ed Abraham was a third-year apprentice when he started drafting for one of the largest mechanical contractors in Las Vegas, Nevada.
His first job was the Bellagio Hotel, he remembers. “They brought me into the trailer and said here you go start drawing.” Then in 1995, the company told him he was out of a job because they were going to go computerized.
“Well, I said I am willing to learn it. So they pulled me into the office and gave me the computer and software,” says Abraham, who ended up running the company’s CAD department for 28 years. “So I was a one-man show for the largest mechanical contractor for a few years. I would slowly bring in people as jobs progressed, and I normally ran about a crew of 15 people.”
Early on, the experience taught Abraham to learn as many new skills as he could. Now, drawing on his more than 34 years of experience in the sheet metal trade, Abraham has made learning as much as you can a major part of the Joint Apprenticeship & Training Center’s core curriculum.
“That’s why we want a well-rounded sheet metal person,” he says. “Otherwise you are just going to be sitting around on the books not working.”
As training director, Abraham is responsible for running the apprenticeship school and hiring the instructors for the program. Currently that includes 22 male instructors and one female instructor, Nicole Baker, who teaches OSHA classes.
This semester the Local 88 apprenticeship program has a total of 114 apprentices. “That’s a 40 percent increase in the last two years,” says Abraham. They also recently accepted 30 new first-year apprentices to start the 2020-2021 school year. “Once they start the school year they will be up 50 to 60 percent.”
Prospective students come from all over and from a wide array of work backgrounds. “They’ve had the dead-end jobs, and they say they are looking for a career,” says Abraham. “A lot of it is word of mouth from friends that are in the trade. They see that they are doing well, and they get interested. We also do a lot of career fairs.”
The goal being to get people to understand what a sheet metal worker is and the quality of career you can have in the field.
“If you don’t want to get up and go excitedly to work, I think anybody should move on or find something different,” he says. “If you’re not happy, you need to move on.” The more skills you learn, he adds, the easier it is for you to find something that you truly love.
The following is an overview of what a sheet metal apprentice learns today from their first to final year in a sheet metal apprenticeship program.
YEAR I & II
In most apprenticeship programs, the first and second years focus on plans, specs and honing motor skills and fundamentals, says Ed Abraham, training director at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 88.
“Get them familiar with working with hand tools and reading the tape measure and reading prints. It’s not really about making the fitting, it’s everything that goes along with it,” he says. “Because we don’t make the fittings anymore, the plasma tables burn everything out in our shops. I’m not saying we’ve taken that away but we don’t stress as much on that.”
In addition to the core curriculum of locks and seams, a crucial portion of the first-year program involves engaging apprentices about the situations and set ups that they face at their daily jobs.
For an instructor, “It’s like herding cats,” says Steve Emery, a first-year fabrication instructor.
“Realistically, we usually like to start out the week off by asking everybody is there anything new going on at work or anything they are hearing at work,” he says. “For me I find it way more important to teach something that they can go back to work and use tomorrow instead of just going through the book itself. So that’s where we start every day.”
Overall, Emery says that apprentices are very interested in understanding how all the many different relationships work on a job site.
“The total structure of the companies and the business,” he says. “More so than what we are doing because we are taught how to do that all day long at work: What to do.”
How Things Have Changed
“The big technology when I was coming through was just the plasma tables themselves,” Emery says. “No emails. No phones. A one-way radio.” Last year, Nevada also adopted a new law that says first-year apprentices must complete a Fire and Life Safety Program to be certified to install fire dampers and inspect them.
Third year focuses on electives such as advance welding, food service kitchen equipment, drafting or BIM, service or testing or balancing.
“So they will pick up two of those programs and run those throughout the year,” explains Ed Abraham. “In the recent two and half years that I’ve been here, BIM and the CAD class have been overbooked. There was a shortage, it seemed like, in getting detailers so everybody was signing up for that. Then the advance welding class and service.”
The HVACR service portion of the apprentice program isn’t new, but the knowledge base of an HVAC service tech v. a sheet metal worker is often misunderstood because there are so many service-only HVAC training programs.
“That’s personal preference,” says Dave Heath, HVAC-R service instructor with more than 30 years of service experience in the union. “Some guys enjoy being out in the field hanging metal. Other guys enjoy the technical aspect of the service side of it.”
However, apprentices at Local 88 learn the fundamentals of how to cut sheet metal, fabricate duct, install the duct and service the HVAC system so that they are able to fulfill any role in the process.
In the service class, apprentices start on training boards then progress to servicing real, live AC units. “From there we progress on to checking compressors, fan motors, capacitors, everything, says Heath. “We try to cover everything.”
At year four, apprentices have the opportunity to take another set of electives or take advance courses in electives they’ve had previously.
“It’s the same classes but they all have an advanced part,” explains Abraham. “Or they can take an intro level in another service.”
Apprentices can take more than two electives as at a time, as long as they don’t conflict. But the most important service the training center provides is flexibility, says Abraham. As the popularity of electives rise and fall, according to the skills the market demands, he is able to change the curriculum to fit what is needed.
When a class for a new in-demand skill is available, journeymen are notified.
“We mail out letters to the entire membership and let them know what classes are available, and we can get them into the class and get them certified to take any job they need.” This ensures everyone stays working for as long as they want.
This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.