It all started when I took my pre-apprentice test in 1999 to get into the Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 104 Union. As a young 21-year-old with a newborn daughter, I needed a steady paying job to provide for my family.
My father, who was a lead engineer at ACCO Engineered Systems since I was 5 years old, encouraged me to join the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union and to become a sheet metal worker. Little did I know, it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made in my life.
Duct Fabrication and HVAC Construction Technology Boom
One of the reasons I feel very fortunate to have started my career as a sheet metal worker during this time is because it was the start of the technology boom in HVAC construction.
Don’t get me wrong. Autodesk’s AutoCAD came out in the early 1980s. Yet it wasn’t until the early 2000s when Autodesk acquired MAPP CC and created CAD Duct. This was one of Autodesk’s first tools to allow sheet metal workers to draw with 3D ductwork.
With the ability to utilize 3D CAD elements in a building, the next logical step would be to create a 3D virtual model of the building and run an algorithm to determine points of intersections known as clashes. Thus, introducing Navisworks in 2007, which would be the basis for the BIM process in HVAC contracting.
Walking in my father’s footsteps, my sheet metal apprenticeship also started at ACCO Engineered Systems. Back then, they were a small shop in San Carlos, California, with about 120 guys in the field and 15 guys in the shop.
Being the son of an engineer, I had a natural curiosity and would always try to dissect things to understand how they worked. Still, working for a company where my father was lead engineer wasn’t without its challenges.
Earning My Place In The Sheet Metal Shop
Working at the same company as my dad, I became a target early on in my sheet metal apprenticeship. Comments questioning whether I was working there based on my abilities or because of my dad gave me a chip on my shoulder that I still carry to this day. But I can honestly say that it drove me to be the best I can be and to quiet all the “haters.”
On the job, I made a point to learn everything I could in the shop and the field. Back then, the sheet metal apprenticeship didn’t have a rotation setup, so my entire sheet metal apprenticeship was with ACCO. I went back and forth between the shop and field. Overall, it was a great opportunity because I learned the tips and tricks to run a project to success.
My big break came when ACCO had purchased a new plasma machine and software, now referred to as Fabrication CAM. They hired a specialist named Bob who knew the new software, and I was fortunate to become friends with him.
I saw him as a very smart man who I could learn from, and back then, there was no documentation on Google or YouTube with “how-to” anything related to CAD for sheet metal. He was kind enough to teach me the software during lunches and after work, and this worked out well as I became his backup for anytime he was off or went on vacation. The experience and that trust in me was invaluable.
What Not To Do As A Sheet Metal Apprentice
Towards the later part of my apprenticeship, ACCO acquired a property in San Leandro, California, for expansion to a larger facility. With this purchase came new management and new shop foremen from their Southern California facility.
Still eager to learn everything I could, I saw this as another great opportunity. I worked with an efficiency engineer who would review and learn about each workstation to make each area of the shop run at optimal conditions. To this day, they push out over 125,000lbs of metal per week. I also learned a lot about patterns and behavior along with the new technology.
Although it was great learning all these new skills both in the field and shop, I was still a young, immature and cocky 24-year-old who thought he knew everything. The new shop foreman and I did not see eye-to-eye on many things, and he later laid me off.
For many reasons, this was a humbling experience. I could have turned to my father to get my job back, but then I thought about what the other guys said about nepotism and decided to carve out my own path.
At the time, it was one of the worst feelings in the world. But in the end it was a blessing and a lesson in disguise. I was able to internally reflect on my actions and understand how acting arrogant and being a know-it-all doesn’t help build a team.
Getting Into BIM, CAD & CAM
Lesson learned, I ended up getting hired at Critchfield Mechanical (CMI) in Menlo Park, California, as one of their CAM guys in the shop. To this day, CMI the best company that I have ever worked for because of the culture created by the former owner Joe Critchfield.
Joe, despite being the owner, took the time to get know each one of his employees. He was a leader, not a boss, and he taught us the difference and to care for our team.
Because of that culture, I met a lot of great people at the company. Many of which I am still friends with today.
I ended up leaving CMI to work for Broadway Mechanical as a full-time detailer with an incentive for higher pay, but this is where I learned that a good career is not always about the money. Broadway was a good company to work for, but the culture was different.
I was also different, too. I got married and moved to the South Bay and the commute was taking a toll on my relationship with my family. So, I ended up leaving to work closer to home at Southland Industries before they moved to Union City from San Jose. Since then, I have made my rotations working for big mechanical contractors such as Therma Holdings and United Mechanical. The lessons I learned on the way is something we don’t talk about enough in the sheet metal industry: politics.
Managers, Politics And Challenges In the Skilled Trades
In 2015, I left my former employer because a manager did not value my experience. I was shopping around and had several offers from different companies including my previous employers.
As I was getting a feel for my career as a sheet metal worker, the shops in the Bay Area were all still relatively small except for a couple like Therma. Along with the small shop mentality came small-minded thinking where racism was common in the field, making it much harder for minorities like me.
Many foremen were not open to listening to new ideas and workflows, saying: “If you want to work here, it has to be done my way.” It wasn’t only until later that I also realized that most of those people were just insecure. Among other things, the culture was that the older generation was afraid that the younger generation would take their jobs.
In one instance, I remember a foreman flat out saying: “Why do you want to go faster, are you trying to take my job?”
I bring up this situation because being treated unfairly opened my eyes to things we still need to work on in the sheet metal industry. It’s that type of thinking that keeps a majority of younger people out of the sheet metal trades today.
The experience taught me to meet people where they are at and to not make decisions based on emotions. I also learned to value relationships with my peers and recognized that our industry is small. You will encounter the same people over and over again.
The relationships forged during my sheet metal apprenticeship have been priceless. You never know who your boss will be someday, so treat everyone kindly and with respect. And in the end that is really the best sheet metal career advice you can have.
Now, of course, Silicon Valley Mechanical (SVM) is where I call home. I chose Silicon Valley because it was another opportunity to build from the ground up. After meeting the ownership group, I felt a connection. They told me their vision for creating a company that values their employees, and it shows in their culture.
After 5 years, I can say that Brian, who is the partner in charge of my department, has always been honest and always supports me in my ideas. My mindset is to build a team much like Joe did at CMI.
Silicon Valley hired me to build the sheet metal detailing department. Since then, I have been promoted to corporate BIM director, overseeing our plumbing, piping and sheet metal detailing departments along with our BIM process. I strongly believe the ownership group recognizes efforts to build a solid team and promote positivity.
I know it sounds cliché, but a big part of a successful sheet metal career is to find a company that aligns with your values. Whether you create that company yourself or work your way up at another company. Regardless of what people think they know about the career prospects of a sheet metal worker. The skilled trades is what you make it, and sheet metal workers know how to make a lot.