At sheet metal locals, the concentration of apprenticeships is still mostly, as the name implies, sheet metal-focused. Testing and balancing contractors do offer apprenticeships, but even though the trade’s gained increased visibility through energy crises and pandemics; it’s facing an unprecedented wave of retirements.
At SMACNA members like Fisher Balancing, there are more people heading into retirement than there are new union workers to fill their shoes. That pushes employers like Vice President Jennifer Lohr to think outside of the box with recruitment.
“We can’t do our job without sheet metal, and it’s almost like balancing becomes its own entity within the trade. Most members don’t get involved with TAB until further along in their career, and at that time, if they get picked up by a TAB contractor, they become a sort of apprentice journeyperson. We at Fisher Balancing have been bringing on more apprentices in the last few years to try and build our workforce,” Lohr says, noting she herself served her apprenticeship with a balancing contractor – she only ever learned sheet metal in school.
That’s part of the reason that they have been broadening their search for the next generation of TAB technicians. “We need to think outside of the box in regard to recruitment.”
“I recommend this trade to anyone who likes to do something different, likes to be out in the field, likes to think on their feet," Lohr adds. “Maybe you went to school to be a mechanical engineer, but at the end of the day, you're really a person that wants to work with your hands … we’re here to provide the training necessary to advance your career. Additionally, we want to affirm the benefits of collective bargaining and labor management cooperation and the impact it has on advancing the industry.”
SMACNA-member Tony Kocurek, owner of Energy Balance & Integration, is on a charter school governing board called ACE, which stands for architecture, construction and engineering. He says mid-career sheet metal labor is scarce compared to the waves of retiring talent and new laborers, pointing to the decline of vocational trade instruction in high schools as one of the main drivers. He says innovative schools like ACE that focus on the trades can help address this problem.
But it takes time to backfill a “void,” as Kocurek calls it. That’s why he started an internship program with the University of New Mexico 7 years ago to reach out to mechanical engineering students in their twenties. One student, who was having his tuition paid for by his Pueblo, said he would never had gone to the university and committed to paying his Pueblo back through 10 years of service had he been aware of the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing side of the sheet metal trade – instead joining a local as an apprentice.
Two other interns, after working for a year and a half part time as interns, joined Energy Balance & Integration LLC as full-time employees. They eventually went through the full sheet metal apprenticeship program in addition to obtaining bachelors in engineering and one getting his masters.
“I couldn’t be happier with them. This is the direction we’re going with hiring our TAB techs and getting them TABB Certified,” Kocurek says, referring to Testing and Balancing Bureau-certified technicians. “They’re good with math and computers, and a lot of the stuff we’re doing in the industry now requires math and computer skills.”
Kocurek works with his local union, Sheet Metal Workers Local 49, on curriculum for apprentices and says he sees the curriculum getting more of a testing and balancing focus.
“TABB techs are the eyes and ears for engineers now. They don’t get a chance to get out and climb through the ceiling like they used to,” Kocurek says, noting an experienced TAB contractor can assess what could be reused and replaced in HVAC system remodels without incurring the expense of a state-licensed engineer doing that field analysis. That data gathered can then be given to the design experts for the proper design.
“In the future, you’re going to see that TABB technician becoming more of an important person for job turnover,” Kocurek says, concluding more demand from schools for frequent TAB adjustments, in compliance with new federal regulations, is only the tip of the iceberg for the growing trade.