Sheet metal workers find the commute is bigger in Texas

Workers drive hundreds of miles from home to work to stay on the job

FAIRFAX, Va. – Every morning, people across the nation drive to work, and in the current economy, driving to where the work is has added miles to commutes. In Central Texas, unionized sheet metal workers are working on job sites across the state, and they’re not complaining – even when their brand new trucks already have 70,000 miles on them. For unionized sheet metal workers in this part of the country, work can be hundreds of miles down the road with driving times of five hours, five days a week.

With two kids and one on the way, Max McDonald, 25, a first-year apprentice, took a job at Dynamic Systems, Inc. near Austin 75 miles away from his home in Kempner, Texas. With gas prices on the rise and a family to feed, McDonald decided to stay in a tent close to work instead of putting in the commute. For months, he cleaned up in area bathrooms and went home on the weekends.

“I’ve been doing what I can,” said McDonald, who worked at a fast food drive-in before his acceptance into the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning union. “I had to make money to support my family, and there were no companies in my town where I could work and make as much as I do here. I tried going back and forth, but by the time I got home, I didn’t have time to spend with my family.”

Combined with school at the training center in Austin, time away puts stress on a young family. When he graduates and becomes a journeyman, it will all be worth it, he said. In September, he accepted a job on site at the new Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas, where he can drive home 15 miles every night.

“As long as I have a job, and I don’t go without one, I’m good,” he said.

Denny Kapowitz is a test and balance supervisor with WPS Facilities Service, located 25 miles southeast of Austin and 150 miles from his home. He chose his hometown based on cost of living, home prices and taxes but paying for gas for travel to and from work balanced out the savings. During the week, he stays at the company’s apartment, located across the parking lot from the facility. He has a place to stay, and the company has someone on site in case anything goes awry.

“The good, skilled workers are worth keeping,” Kapowitz said. “If you’re a good quality testing, adjusting and balancing guy, you’re going to have a job.”

Michael Kramm, training coordinator for Sheet Metal Workers Local 67, drives all over Central Texas visiting contractors, job sites, apprentices and journeymen in his area. His work truck is five years old and already has 202,000 miles on it. Driving, for him, is part of the job. He also understands the plight of his apprentices and takes their commutes into consideration when placing them in jobs.

“If a guy is willing to live in a tent in Texas in the summer, that shows devotion and you have to take care of him,” Kramm said. “They do what they have to do. It’s a big district and guys have to travel.”

Kapowitz said it comes down to the core of a worker, like McDonald, who seeks a better life for his family. In this economy, you go where the work is. This summer, Local 67 had all available apprentices working on job sites and in fabrication shops across Central Texas.

“It’s a work ethic,” Kapowitz sad. “You either have it or you don’t.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Fairfax, Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about the contest or ITI, visit or call 703-739-7200.

Austin, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Construction, Denny Kapowitz, Doing what needs to be done, Kempner, Max McDonald, Michael Kramm, Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Industry, Sheet Metal Workers Local 67
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