In the spring of 1999, Greg Barnes was a senior at Columbine High School when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and one teacher and injured 24 others. Always good at math and problem solving, Barnes didn’t take to classroom learning, and when his last days of high school were marred by violence, he left, earned his GED and tried to get on with his life. (Barnes does not share any relation to the former Columbine basketball standout with the same name.)
He attempted community college, but going back to traditional schooling reminded him of the massacre. After a year-and-a-half, he left school again and went to work in a body shop. There, he was introduced to sheet metal, and his outlook on education officially changed.
Deciding to pursue sheet metal as a career, he became an apprentice at the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry. There, he realized he responded better to hands-on learning than classroom instruction. And where math and problem solving were once assignments he completed at a desk, they were now calculations he performed on a job site, in a testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) lab, or in a fabrication shop. Education no longer just meant school, it meant learning. It also was the form of higher education that fit him best.
“I was learning about what I was doing every day. I was learning in the classroom and in the field. And they coincided with each other,” Barnes said. “I could work and earn at the same time. It was perfect for me.”
Once sheet metal apprentices are accepted into an accredited program at one of 160 training centers across North America, they complete four to five years of education and training in the classroom and on the jobsite, where they are paid for their work. Apprentices can choose to study architectural sheet metal, industrial/welding, service, TAB, building information modeling and design, and HVAC, among others, and graduate from the program with a career and zero college debt. College credits earned can also be put toward a higher level degree.
After Barnes found his niche as a sheet metal worker with a knack for testing, adjusting and balancing the air flow in commercial buildings, he quickly progressed in the industry. He graduated from the apprentice program in 2009, and four years later is a vice president and project manager for Jedi Balancing in Erie, Colo.
“The old adage that labor work is for the uneducated has never been further from the truth, and Greg is proof of that. Instead of learning his best in a classroom, he made sense of the material better out in the field,” said James Shoulders, administrator of the ITI. “His intelligence and success as an apprentice is proven with his position. You don’t move up in a company that fast in four years without intelligence, a good work ethic and an education you can truly learn from.”
Today, he continues to learn as he’s hardly ever in the same building doing the same job two days in a row. “Everything we do is calculations or problem solving,” Barnes said. “It’s a new challenge every day.”
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