The phrase “lifelong learning” is a common one, but it can be especially important for the men and women whose work—and work-hours— can change all the time. Gaining special skills and certifying your expertise can be a vital mechanism to keep up with— and keep working in—the varied sheet metal industries.
In our fast-moving trade, the materials, tools and techniques evolve every day and the need for skilled labor does, too. As with anyone entering today’s volatile job market, the most highly-sought workers are those who not only master a subject or trade, but also continue learning so they expand their skills and keep the knowledge of their chosen career up to date.
For sheet metal workers, that ongoing education is as important for journeymen as it is for apprentices.
“No time on the bench.”
Jason Bowers is four years into his five-year apprenticeship at SM Local 206 in San Diego. He is eager to learn all facets of the trade, which means he takes as many classes—and earns as many certifications—as he can. He treats certifications like upper-level and graduate courses in college.
“It’s free, and it’s obviously a strength,” Bowers said. “It’s a good thing to have. It’s just as good, if not better, than college.”
Bowers currently is a certified Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB) technician and holds certifications in both AutoCAD and Title 24, California Acceptance Testing.
With nationwide demand soaring, he also is brushing up on his welding skills, because the work class for various specific certifications.
Bowers was working for an architectural sheet metal company when hours began to wane. Because he also holds TABB certifications, he was able to jump ship and go right to work for a local TABB firm.
“I want to lead by example,” he said. “I don’t spend any time on the bench, laid off.”
“As valuable as possible.”
John Roberts, currently the balancing division manager for APS Air Balancing, a division of Art Push and Sons, Inc. in Omaha, NE, started out as a sheet metal apprentice in Los Angeles, where he learned first-hand how certifications can not only save your job, but also jumpstart your career.
More than a decade ago, Roberts had been laid off from two jobs when he transferred to SM Local 3 as a third-year apprentice. Determined to never be laid off again, he took the opportunity to earn every available certification.
“I wanted to make myself as valuable to an employer as possible,” Roberts said. “If I was to get laid off or if the company was to fail, I would go back and take whatever was available. Whatever class I could take, I took. And it worked. I haven’t been laid off in nine years.”
Valuable for employers
Today, as a manager, Roberts also knows the employer’s perspective.
“If a contractor is looking at two equally qualified people, they aren’t going to lay off the person with a pile of certifications compared to the person without them,” he said.
“I don’t like our technicians to be pigeon-holed. The more certifications they have, the more valuable they are. That way, no matter what job comes up, I can take any guy on my crew and send him on any job. So I encourage people to get as many certifications as possible.”
Even as a manager, he hasn’t grown complacent about maintaining his own skills and certifications.
“If something happens, you could be back on the street with 50 other air balancers,” Roberts added. “I always want to stand out.”
“More and more jobs require more and more certifications.”
Even when work is slow, most contractors say they don’t enjoy laying off their workers. They want the work. They want the employees. So when contractors have a good reason to keep them, all the better.
“It gives our union sheet metal workers better opportunities to keep their jobs,” said Tim Martin, President of T.H. Martin, Inc. in Cleveland. “We always tell our employees the more certifications you have, the more likely you are to keep and maintain your position.
“From welding to safety to fire life safety,” he added, “more and more jobs are requiring more and more certifications. It’s advantageous of them to continue their educations.”
“The way things have been done is changing course.”
One highly visible example is how energy efficiency is now being required by code. Pat Pico, veteran TABB instructor for SM Local 104 in Northern California, said the way things have always been done is changing course. There now is a driving force behind certifications that was absent a decade ago.
“If you don’t take these classes and earn these certifications, you’re a sheet metal worker with one tool in your tool box,” he said. “Why not have more tools?”
When Pico took up the trade 25 years ago, there was one TABB certification. Today, there are 14: eight specialized certifications for technicians and six for supervisors. The certifications most in demand are Fire Life Safety Technician, Levels I and II; Energy Audit Technician; and Mechanical Acceptance Testing Technician (MATT). Although required for California only, the latter is being examined for adoption in other states across the country, Pico said.
“You definitely want to get it now,” he said of the MATT certification. “Once the opportunity shows up, you’re ready to go.”
Some certifications take less time than others. A journeyman sheet metal worker can complete an HVAC Fire Life Safety class in 8 to 16 hours, while the MATT program can take 20–160 hours of training, depending on experience, before the certification exam. After that, continuing education units are required to verify a technician or supervisor remains current in the industry.
“Keeping up to stay current and in peak performance.”
“A lot of these certifications can help generate more hours, more jobs,” Pico said. “Having certifications has allowed me opportunities to get more work. They’re door openers. You get [on a job] and you can find [other] issues that allow for job opportunities and increased hours. You can turn a 10-hour job into 100 hours” on multiple jobs.
Another booming market is health care. Curriculum and certification is currently being developed for Infectious Control Risk Assessment (ICRA), used in construction active areas where patients are nearby. ICRA standards were born out of high client demand for an ICRA‑certified work force.
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