Tale of two cities: reopening sheet metal training centers in 2020

There are more than 140 union sheet metal training centers in the United States and Canada, and they vary in size — from city to rural, a few dozen apprentices to 1,000, and small geographic areas to entire states and beyond. Every training center, funded by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers (SMART) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), has its own fingerprint and its own set of challenges.

COVID-19 and the quarantine that followed shuttered all the United States centers and sent coordinators and administrators to their home offices and onto conference calls to figure out what was next.

March 13 was the last class held in person at Sheet Metal Workers Local 7, based in Michigan, and Local 104 in Northern California. Other than a shared union lineage, the two locals have another thing in common — they each serve a wide geographical area with multiple locations. Local 104 serves Fairfield, San Jose, San Leandro and Castroville, California, while Local 7 has training centers in Flint, Fruitport and Marquette, Michigan.

Since Local 7 serves 120 apprentices and Local 104 serves 1,000, that could be where the similarities stop. But it’s not.

In both cases, the locals’ leadership dove headfirst into the deep end of the technology pool, using everything in their reach to stay connected with students, staff and instructors.

At Local 7, flat screens and web cameras were installed in each classroom; apprentices received iPads (through the International Training Institute’s iPad reimbursement program); and online courses from the ITI and Miller were made available to students. Instructors taught via Zoom from home. Back in California, it was all hands on deck as staff put their heads together to create a COVID facility operational plan and put classes online.

“When apprentices came on, they agreed to come to class for five years, and we agreed to have class for five years,” said Tim Myres, Local 104 administrator. “So, we had to do what we could to make sure they advanced on.”

Travel also stopped.

“For us, to go from training center to training center, we’re talking anywhere from a 2 1/2-hour drive to a 6-hour drive between training centers. It’s pretty much the entire state of Michigan, except Detroit. Our instructors traveled to wherever we needed them to travel to,” said Darak Scarlavai, Local 7 training coordinator. “We learned so many ways to be more efficient in doing what we do.”

“An instructor can do a Zoom meeting and deliver the same information he could in person,” Scarlavai continued. “We are five years ahead, if not more, than we were six months ago. I’m happy to say I have a staff that’s open-minded and forward thinking. They embrace technology. I think that helped our organization on the training side.”

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work. Our instructors carried the ball. They worked hard and did a great job. They made my job easier,” Myres added. “They held mini-classes amongst each other, prepping and trying new things. They kept revising and revising and they’re still revising. It’s a completely different environment for an instructor, too. You can’t wander all over the classroom while teaching. It’s an adjustment.”

Once training facilities were allowed to reopen, Locals 7 and 104 welcomed students and instructors back with cleaning and pre-screening protocols and mask-wearing in place. Apprentices and instructors can’t come to class if they’ve been exposed or are feeling ill and are allowed to work from home.

In-person classes at Local 104 normally consist of 20 students, but due to COVID-19, classes were split into a maximum of 10-person groups, each with its own entrance to the training facility and portable restroom outside that entrance. Classes required to complete in-person training will take place at the facility, with one group alternating times or days with a group distance learning from home.

“Any instruction we can do distant, we do, trying to keep the minimum number of students in a facility at any one time,” Myres said.

The HVAC systems in the training center were assessed, filters upgraded and air balanced using “Building Ventilation and Efficiency Verification and Repair Program,” a white paper by NEMI and the University of California, Davis, and nebulizers were purchased to disinfect equipment. Two additional full-time instructors were hired to keep up the pace.

“My worst fear, and what keeps me up at night, is they are exposed here and they take it home and expose a family member,” Myres said. “How do we keep exposure to everyone as minimal as possible? That’s keeping them in their own small group. If they say they were exposed, it’s their class and their instructor only, not the rest of the building. We wanted our apprentices to come in and say they feel safe here, that this facility is taking every precaution possible.”

For Myres and Scarlavai, it’s not a matter of if COVID-19 hits their training facilities, it’s when.

“It’s a matter of time before we are dealing with a case, or with the bigger locals, more cases,” Scarlavai said. “This is all about what we can do to minimize risk.”

The plan is to keep these precautions in place through 2021, or until otherwise advised, at both locals.

“We’re coming up with new ways of doing things because we don’t know if we’ll be shut down again tomorrow,” Scarlavai said. “Our idea is to stay proactive, and if we never have to use it, we never have to use it.”

Even when the pre-screening protocols and special entrances to the building go away, Myres and Scarlavai agree the technology will stay.

Local 104 has shifted to using all iPads in the classroom and zero paper. Using PlanGrid Construction Software, Myres found that relying on technology inside the classroom mirrors life on a job site, from the drawing by the apprentice and digital stamp of approval by a supervisor to the actual build.

“You don’t have to walk around with a big roll of prints. It’s all on the cloud,” Myres said.

Scarlavai is seeing more building information modeling (BIM) projects, Trimble units, scanners and Microsoft HoloLens on Local 7 job sites, all of which the training center is acquiring in order to keep the technology train moving forward.

“We’re really starting to incorporate that technology. Even the basic functionality of tablets, we’re offering that training as well,” Scarlavai said. “We learned a tremendous amount of stuff in a short amount of time in how to be more efficient in how we do things. If we have an instructor who can’t come in, but they can chime into a class from home, they can. These are things we never would have considered before the shutdown.”

There is a silver, sheet metal lining on the process of distance learning and safe reopening — the pandemic pushed sheet metal professionals to their limits, and in the case of Locals 7 and 104, made them come out the other side better than when they went in.

“Let’s take this trade to a new level with this program,” Myres said. “We’re going to incorporate this technology into our program moving forward. I always try to look at the positive. That is the positive of this. We can implement certain technologies and that’s going to make the industry stronger through our training.”

Apprentices receive college-accredited training during four- or five-year programs in AutoCAD, air balancing, refrigeration/service, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) design, fabrication and installation. While they are learning in the classroom, they are gaining skills on the job site including installation of architectural sheet metal, kitchen equipment and duct for heating and air conditioning systems in residential and commercial buildings.

The goal is for apprentices to graduate with a college degree, zero college debt and a career to last a lifetime. 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 International Training Institute (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.

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