Sheet Metal Workers Local 20 training centers in Gary and Evansville, Indiana, are meeting industry demand for more service specialists with new five-year service-specific apprenticeship programs.
Sean Webb, who instructs general sheet metal apprentices four days a week in Indianapolis and service apprentices Fridays in Evansville, said the two cities have many contractors focused on service.
“They needed techs with more experience in service than we go over in our regular five-year apprenticeship,” he said. “So, we decided to start a five-year service apprenticeship. We normally hit on it during a regular five-year program in a couple of classes. But there’s not a heavy emphasis on it. But the service apprenticeship has a real heavy emphasis on it now.”
Webb said they still cover the basics on all aspects of general sheet metal training so that apprentices still qualify for a two-year associate degree when their apprenticeship is complete.
“They’re in school just as much and they learn a lot of the other aspects of the trade besides just service,” said Scott Bush, who oversees the service apprenticeship in Gary, adding, “They do a little bit of welding, not a lot. Just enough to make a repair if you have to.”
The needs in both Gary and Evansville are unique compared to much of Indiana. In Gary, with its proximity to Chicago, buildings are aging and undergoing renovation.
“Right now, we’re going through a period of retrofit,” Bush said. “So, there’s lots of equipment that’s being deemed obsolete. But instead of knocking buildings down, which they certainly still do, now they’re remodeling them because there’s more of an incentive to do that.”
He added there are tax incentives, abatements and substantial savings for businesses to upgrade to higher performance equipment.
“Energy auditing is a huge thing now,” he added.
With new systems that anticipate demand and carbon dioxide detectors that allow buildings to meet high capacity needs when the room is full versus empty, contractors interested in retrofitting have plenty of work.
“We’re at that precipice where we have to do it,” Bush said. “The equipment is at its end of life and it’s all happening at the same time.”
Service is substantially different than traditional sheet metal work, Webb said: “When you’re doing service, you need to be able to be by yourself. So, that’s why we tailor the first semester of our service apprenticeship to give the guys enough knowledge to be able to get out there.”
Basic maintenance — like filter changes — is taught right away while in-depth skills are saved for the second semester or even year-two lessons. Along the way, apprentices work on soft skills their traditional sheet metal counterparts may never have to tap.
“We talk about how to present yourself to a customer,” Webb said. “Appearance is a big thing. As a service tech you’re held to a higher standard than if you’re in a job site that is under construction where you don’t have people there.”
Bush ran a two-year concentrated service apprenticeship in Evansville a couple of years ago that started with eight students and narrowed to six. All but one of those is working full-time in service now. This time around, they’re getting curriculum help from International Training Institute (ITI) field representative Lisa Davis and ITI Testing and Balancing service specialist Darrell Garrison.
“Darrell has been a big help,” Webb said. “And Lisa gave me all her service program lessons, and that’s been amazing. Lisa is as sharp as they come. She has the best information I’ve found. She’s been a major help.”
Bush said it takes a certain kind of person to pursue a service career.
“It takes a certain mentality of problem solving,” he said. “It’s a person who craves that challenge and has a willingness to accept that everywhere they go when they pull up in the truck and put it in park to know that something is wrong here. Not everybody can do that.”
Webb said there’s predictability in standard sheet metal work that you don’t find in service. Although a service tech may be scheduled to go home at 3:30 p.m., a call could come in a unit is down at a hospital, and in order for surgery to go on as usual the next day, the service tech may have to work all night to make sure that happens.
“In the regular sheet metal industry, I’m going to the same job site, hanging the same duct that I ran yesterday for the most part, but in service, every day is different,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to be able to work by yourself. And you’re by yourself a majority of the time. It’s very different.”
Some, like Evansville apprentice Grant Wilmes, are attracted to that unpredictability.
“One of my favorite things is going to a different job site every now and again,” he said. “I’ll finish one and move on to the next. You’re not just sitting in the same building every day. I get to go up on a roof and work.”
Climbing on the roof is a huge contrast to what Wilmes’ work might have involved as a Purdue University mechanical engineering graduate. His uncle, Ross Fulton at Midwest Mechanical Service, convinced him to follow up college with a career in testing and balancing (TAB).
“I don’t regret going to Purdue,” Wilmes said. “I had a good time, and I have the degree, so that’s good for me. But I probably could have made more money starting out here.”
That said, he admits he uses about half of the math and engineering skills he built in college pretty much every day.
Gary service apprentice Jake Shevock said he has always been drawn to mechanical puzzles and the complexity of components.
“I’m ecstatic I went into this field,” he said. “It’s so much better than installs. I would highly recommend it to somebody who is mechanically inclined and would like to get into the details.”
The variety may be nice, but the customers aren’t always pleasant, and it can be challenging for contractors to teach on the job.
“Whenever you get to somebody it’s the worst day of their year so far because they’re either sweating or freezing,” Webb said. “They want you to get it fixed as fast as possible. They don’t necessarily have time for you to teach a class on their unit before you fix it. You’ve got to get it and go.”
More than 14,000 apprentices participate in 148 training centers across the United States and Canada, learning curriculum and using the free training materials provided by the ITI, the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, air conditioning and welding industry.
For more information about ITI and its available training curriculum for members covering sheet metal trade work, visit the website or call 703-739-7200.