Skilled labor apprenticeships also a form of ‘higher education’

Five-year programs can be just as challenging as any college, university program

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The term “higher education” can take on many connotations. Where some believe it means attending a two- or four-year college or university, there is another side to higher education – the skilled labor trades.

Apprentices at more than 160 unionized sheet metal training centers across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico go to classes, attend labs, earn grades and receive on-the-job training in five-year programs. Apprentices are paid while they work to become journeymen, and, usually, they graduate debt free. While they don’t march down the aisle in caps and gowns for graduation, they are rewarded with hourly wages above and beyond those many university graduates can hope to make until they have “paid their dues” – if they ever receive comparable earnings.

Curricula for the country’s sheet metal workers are developed by the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry. The five-year apprenticeship program isn’t for people who failed at college or wanted to choose another route to a stable income. The program is for serious individuals who want to pursue an education, skill level and career in a trade such as the unionized sheet metal industry.

Just as the world needs doctors, lawyers and tax accountants to survive, it also needs heating, ventilation and air conditioning designers and technicians; welders to build schools and plants; certified fire life safety professionals to ensure a building on fire doesn’t place lives in jeopardy; designers to create building systems to keep occupants safe, comfortable and breathing clean air; industrial workers who build plants for power and sustainable energy,  installing conduits the size of football fields; and technicians to conduct energy audits to keep buildings operating efficiently.

These skills take education, dedication and talent. The labor trades aren’t reserved for the less-intelligent. They are necessary career paths important to the proper functioning of the country and are there for those who take interest in a different kind of work.

In May 2011, Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, calling for more attention to be paid to the jobs that need to be done by the skilled labor force. He told listeners these jobs should not be looked upon as “vocational consolation prizes” for those “not suited for a four-year degree.”

“We talk about creating millions of shovel-ready jobs for a society that doesn’t really encourage people to pick up a shovel,” Rowe added. “People are surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage, but they shouldn’t be. We’ve all but guaranteed it.”

Once the education is earned, jobs are available as well. At Boston’s Local #17, where there are currently 1,200 members in the Boston area alone, the testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) specialty currently has zero unemployment.

It varies by state, but jobs are available, and more are on the horizon.

In Pres. Barrack Obama’s State of the Union Address, he mentioned a worker in North Carolina who repurposed her skills with the help of a local community college partnership. Education as a means to a different career path happens in the labor trades all the time.

Currently, more than 100 welding jobs are available in the Southeast United States due to large federally funded projects. Some positions are tied to the ITI’s Comprehensive Welding Program, which takes non-union workers from other professions and turns them into journeymen welders.

Keith Patterson was installing cable when he was introduced to the sheet metal industry. He joined a concentrated welding class that operated for 10 hours a day, six days a week for three weeks last April. It’s not a five-year apprenticeship program, but Patterson found a job two months later.

“It was a gamble worth taking,” Patterson said. “I felt like if all else failed, I could go back to cable.”

Former mason Aaron Wilson relocated from Michigan to South Carolina to become a sheet metal welder. After the same three-week course Patterson completed, Wilson jumped at the opportunity.

“They’re good at helping you get the skills you need. I still go to the school and practice,” Wilson added. “I’ve told people if you can’t find work, it’s a great setup. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a career change. I’d recommend it to anyone.”

Irais Gandarilla in Portland, Ore. joined the sheet metal apprenticeship program because she liked the artistic side of welding and found a career she enjoys. While she’s finishing up the tail end of her education, she works in her field.

“Every time I go to the training center, I know I’m going to get to fabricate and build,” she said. “I love it. It’s dirty work, but I love it.”

These are only a few examples of the people who have found the higher education provided by the ITI essential to their career goals.

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in theUnited StatesandCanada. 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 theUnited StatesandCanada. Located inAlexandria,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 ITI, visit or call 703-739-7200.

building trades, Construction, higher education, JATCs, Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Industry, skilled trades, The Other Side of Higher Education
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