In college, students take classes to achieve their degrees, and after graduation often participate in workshops and earn additional degrees and certifications to keep the knowledge of their chosen career fresh and current. It’s should be no different for sheet metal workers.

In a post-recession world when contractors can scale back when the work is low and hire when the demand is high, continuing education could be the key to employment.

Jason Bowers is four years into his five-year apprenticeship at Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 206 in San Diego and is eager to learn all facets of the trade, which includes taking as many classes, and earning as many certifications, as he can. He treats earning certifications like specialty classes needed to complete a major in college.

He currently holds certifications as a testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) technician, AutoCAD and Title 24, California Acceptance Testing. He also is brushing up on his welding skills.

“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 was working for an architectural sheet metal company when work began to wane. Because he also holds TAB certifications, he was able to jump ship and go right to work for a local TAB firm.

“I want to lead by example,” he said. “I don’t spend any time on the bench, laid off.”

John Roberts, currently the balancing division manager for APS Air Balancing, a division of Art Push and Sons, Inc. in Omaha, Nebraska, started out as a sheet metal apprentice in Los Angeles, where he learned first-hand how certifications can not only save your job, but they can jump start your career.

More than a decade ago, Roberts had been laid off from two jobs when he transferred to Local No. 3 as a third-year apprentice. Ready to not ever be laid off again, he set off to take every opportunity to earn every certification available to him.

“I wanted to make myself as valuable to an employer as possible,” he said. “If I was to get laid off or if the company was to fail, I would be left to go back and take whatever was available. So, whatever class I could take, I took. And it worked. I haven’t been laid off in nine years.”

Today, as a manager, Roberts sees it from 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.

“If something happens, you could be standing out on the street with 50 other air balancers,” Roberts added. “I always wanted to stand out.”

When work is slow, a company’s bottom line is at stake, which causes them to scale back the work force. Most contractors will say they don’t enjoy laying off their workers. They want the work. They want the employees. And when contractors have a 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, more and more jobs are requiring more and more certifications. It’s advantageous of them to continue their educations.”

With energy efficiency being required by code, Pat Pico, veteran TAB instructor for Local No. 104 in Northern California, said the way things have always been done is changing course. There is a driving force behind certifications 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?”

Twenty-five years ago, when Pico started in the trade, there was one TAB certification. Today, there are eight specialized certifications available for technicians and six for supervisors. The most in demand certifications are Fire Life Safety Technician Levels I and II, Energy Audit Technician and Mechanical Acceptance Testing Technician. Although it’s 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 Mechanical Acceptance Testing Technician certification. “Once the opportunity shows up, you’re ready to go.”

Some certifications are less time-consuming than others. A journeyman sheet metal worker can complete an HVAC Fire Life Safety class in eight to 16 hours. However, the Mechanical Acceptance Testing Technician certification, for instance, can take 20 to 160 hours of training, depending on experience, leading up to the certification exam. Once a certification is earned, continuing education units are required to verify a technician or supervisor remains current in the industry.

“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 in and you can find issues that allow for job opportunities and increased hours. You can turn a 10-hour job into a 100-hour job.”

Curriculum and certification is currently being developed for 2016 for Infectious Control Risk Assessment (ICRA), born out of high demand from clients seeking a skilled and certified work force to complete the work.

“As the industry evolves, people are keeping up in order to stay current out there and in peak performance,” Pico said. “Who is going to go after the opportunities and do this work?”