Across the country, schools of all types are trying to figure out how to operate while keeping employees and students safe from COVID-19. Training centers — each with their own challenges — are doing the same. How do you train the future’s sheet metal workers in classrooms and fabrication shops while maintaining proper safety protocols?
When California residents were given stay-at-home orders, Sheet Metal Workers Local 105 in Southern California worked through proper channels to take as many courses as possible online for more than 900 apprentices.
Since construction work was dubbed essential in California, apprentices were given the option to complete their schoolwork virtually without the requirement to take the day off work to attend school. Seven instructors worked hard to organize lesson plans — as many as 142 in a two-week period — and filter the apprentices’ questions, said Lance Clark, administrator for SoCal Sheet Metal Joint Apprenticeship and training Committee (JATC), Local 105 near Los Angeles.
“Our school was set up for apprentices to attend one day every two weeks, so if they were working, because we were essential, I let them work instead of taking that day off as long as they could get their work done,” he said.
Many apprentices had their own computers or tablets, but for those who didn’t, Clark and his staff loaned iPads to students. Clark estimates 90 percent of all apprentices took the opportunity to complete schooling online.
For first-, second- and third-year apprentices, the curriculum was adjusted to allow them to take electives typically reserved for their fourth and fifth years. Apprentices also were encouraged to take courses offered online by the International Training Institute (ITI) that could lead to certifications.
“We really had to think outside the box,” Clark said.
From the time students returned on July 1, those whose last names start with the letters A through L attend from 6 to 10 a.m. and those whose last names begin with M through Z attend from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The students then have two weeks until the next class to finish four hours of distance learning. Instead of 30 students to a class, there are 15.
“We’re satisfying a need to get these apprentices back to school,” Clark said. “It was a way of problem solving. It’s no different than being on the job. You just improvise.”
And each training center will have to figure out its own strategy, said James Page, ITI administrator.
“They’re going to have to recognize how many students they can have in the building at one time,” Page added. “To each of them is their own challenges. They’re going to have to come up with their own plan to keep people safe. The ITI understands the challenges they’re facing.”
Although it took a lot of time and hard work on behalf of his staff to make it work, Clark said it was worth it.
“I don’t want them to serve a five-and-a-half-year apprenticeship,” he added. “Was there a lot of time involved? Yes, but I have a lot of people working. They’re making money. It would have been easier to say, ‘no,’ but I didn’t think it was fair when the ITI has available the things they do.”
Local 105 lost a member to COVID-19, so it’s important to all involved to keep apprentices and instructors safe.
“It’s a new way of doing things. But we’re going to be better for it,” Clark said. “We’re going to be smarter for it. It made us problem solve. It was an adjustment, but just because you haven’t done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
Apprentices receive college-accredited training during the program 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.