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Sheetmetal workers make, install, and maintain air-conditioning, heating, ventilation, and pollution control duct systems; roofs; siding; rain gutters and downspouts; skylights; restaurant equipment; outdoor signs; and many other building parts and products made from metal sheets. They may also work with fiberglass and plastic materials. Although some workers specialize in fabrication, installation, or maintenance, most do all three jobs. (Workers employed in the mass production of sheetmetal products in manufacturing are not included in this section.)
Sheetmetal workers usually fabricate their products at a shop away from the construction site. They first study plans and specifications to determine the kind and quantity of materials they will need. They then measure, cut, bend, shape, and fasten pieces of sheet metal to make duct work, counter tops, and other custom products. In an increasing number of shops, sheetmetal workers use computerized metalworking equipment. This enables them to experiment with different layouts and to select the one that results in the least waste of material. They cut or form the parts with computer-controlled saws, lasers, shears, and presses.
In shops without computerized equipment and for products that cannot be made on such equipment, sheetmetal workers use hand calculators to make the required calculations and use tapes, rulers, and other measuring devices for layout work. They then cut or stamp the parts on machine tools.
Before assembling the pieces, sheetmetal workers check each part for accuracy and, if necessary, finish it by using hand, rotary, or squaring shears and hacksaws. After the parts have been inspected, workers fasten the seams and joints together with welds, bolts, cement, rivets, solder, specially formed sheetmetal drive clips, or other connecting devices. They then take the parts to the construction site where they further assemble the pieces as they install them. These workers install ducts, pipes, and tubes by joining them end to end and hanging them with metal hangers secured to a ceiling or a wall. They also use shears, hammers, punches, and drills to make parts at the worksite or to alter parts made in the shop.
Some jobs are done completely at the job site. When installing a metal roof, for example, sheetmetal workers measure and cut the roofing panels that are needed to complete the job. They secure the first panel in place and interlock and fasten the grooved edge of the next panel into the grooved edge of the first. Then they nail or weld the free edge of the panel to the structure. This two-step process is repeated for each additional panel. Finally, they fasten machine-made molding at joints, along corners, and around windows and doors for a neat, finished effect.
In addition to installation, some sheetmetal workers specialize in testing, balancing, adjusting, and servicing existing air-conditioning and ventilation systems to make sure they are functioning properly and to improve their energy efficiency. Some sheetmetal workers also remove asbestos and toxic materials.
Sheetmetal workers usually work a 40-hour week. Those who fabricate sheetmetal products work in shops that are well lighted and well ventilated. They stand for long periods and lift heavy materials and finished pieces. Sheetmetal workers must follow safety practices because working around high-speed machines can be dangerous. They are subject to cuts from sharp metal, burns from soldering and welding, and falls from ladders and scaffolds. They generally wear safety glasses and must not wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothing that could easily get caught in a machine.
Those doing installation work do considerable bending, lifting, standing, climbing, and squatting, sometimes in close quarters or in awkward positions. Although installing duct systems and kitchen equipment is done indoors, the installation of siding, roofs, and gutters involves much outdoor work, requiring sheetmetal workers to work in all kinds of weather.
Sheetmetal workers held about 100,00 wage and salary jobs in the construction industry in 1994. Three-fourths worked for plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors; most of the rest worked for roofing and sheetmetal contractors; and a few worked for other special trade contractors and for general contractors engaged in residential and commercial building. Unlike many other construction trades, very few sheetmetal workers are self-employed.
Jobs for sheetmetal workers are distributed throughout the country in about the same proportion as the total population.
Sheetmetal contractors consider apprenticeship the best way to learn this trade. The apprenticeship program consists of 4 or 5 years of on-the-job training and a minimum of 144 hours per year of classroom instruction. Apprenticeship programs provide comprehensive instruction in both sheetmetal fabrication and installation. They are administered by local joint committees composed of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association and local chapters of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors National Association, or by local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors.
On the job, apprentices learn the basics of pattern layout and how to cut, bend, fabricate, and install sheet metal. They begin with basic ductwork and gradually advance to more difficult jobs, such as making more complex ducts, fittings, and decorative pieces. They also use materials such as fiberglass, plastics, and other non-metallic materials.
In the classroom, apprentices learn drafting, plan and specification reading, trigonometry and geometry applicable to layout work, the use of computerized equipment, welding, and the principles of heating, air-conditioning, and ventilating systems. Safety is stressed throughout the program. In addition, apprentices learn the relationship between sheetmetal work and other construction work.
A relatively small number of persons pick up the trade informally, usually by working as helpers to experienced sheetmetal workers. Most begin by carrying metal and cleaning up debris in a metal shop while they learn about materials and tools and their uses. Later, they learn to operate machines that bend or cut metal. In time, helpers go out on the job site to learn installation. Those who acquire their skills this way often take vocational school courses in mathematics or sheetmetal fabrication to supplement their work experience. To be promoted to the journey level, helpers usually must pass the same written examination as apprentices.
Applicants for jobs as apprentices or helpers should be in good physical condition and have mechanical and mathematical aptitude. Good eye-hand coordination, spatial and form perception, and manual dexterity are also important. Local apprenticeship committees require a high school education or its equivalent. Courses in Algebra, trigonometry, geometry, mechanical drawing, and shop provide a helpful background for learning the trade, as does work experience obtained in the Armed Services.
It is important that experienced sheetmetal workers keep abreast of new technological developments such as the growing use of computerized layout and laser cutting machines. Workers often take additional training provided by the union or by their employer in order to improve existing skills or to acquire new ones.
Sheetmetal workers may advance to supervisory jobs. Some take additional training in welding and do more specialized work. Others go into the contracting business for themselves. Because a sheetmetal contractor must have a shop with equipment to fabricate products, this type of contracting business is more expensive to start than other types of construction contracting.
Opportunities should be good for individuals who acquire for apprenticeship training. Employment of sheetmetal workers in construction is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations reflecting the growth of that sector. Demand for sheetmetal installation should increase as more industrial, commercial, and residential structures are built. Growing demand for more energy-efficient air-conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems in the growing stock of older buildings, as well as other types of renovation and maintenance work, also should boost employment. In addition, the greater use of decorative sheetmetal products and increased architectural restoration are expected to add to the demand for sheetmetal workers. Despite this growth in demand, most job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation.
Job prospects are expected to be good for skilled sheetmetal workers over the long run, although workers may experience periods of unemployment when construction projects end and when economic conditions reduce the amount of construction activity. Because local economic conditions can vary so widely, there can be shortages of experienced workers in some areas and an oversupply in other parts of the country. The availability of training slots also fluctuates with economic conditions, so the number of openings may vary from year to year and by geographic area. Nevertheless, employment of sheetmetal workers is less sensitive to declines in new construction than employment of some other construction workers, such as carpenters. Maintenance of existing equipmentwhich is less affected by economic fluctuations than new constructionmakes up a large part of the work done by sheetmetal workers. Installation of new air-conditioning and heating systems in existing buildings also continues during construction slumps as individuals and businesses seek more energy-efficient equipment to cut utility bills. In addition, a large proportion of sheetmetal installation and maintenance is done indoors so these workers usually lose less work time due to bad weather than other construction workers.
Median weekly earnings for sheetmetal workers working full time were about $444 a week in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $317 and $692 a week. The top 10 percent earned more than $914 and the lowest 10 percent less than $283 a week.
According to the Engineering News Record, average hourly earningsincluding benefitsfor union sheetmetal workers were $29.40 in 1994. Wages ranged from a low of $19.92 in Birmingham, Alabama, to a high of $46.69 in New York City. Apprentices generally start at about 40 percent of the rate paid to experienced workers. As they acquire more skills of the trade throughout the course of the apprenticeship program, they receive periodic increases until their pay approaches that of experienced workers. In addition, union workers in some areas receive supplemental wages from the union when they are on layoff or shortened workweeks. Many sheetmetal workers are members of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association.
To fabricate and install sheetmetal products, sheetmetal workers combine metalworking skills and knowledge of construction materials and techniques. Other occupations in which workers lay out and fabricate metal products include layout workers, machinists, metal fabricators, metal patternmakers, shipfitters, and tool and die makers. Construction occupations requiring similar skills and knowledge include heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration technicians and glaziers.
For more information about apprenticeships or other work opportunities, contact local sheetmetal contractors or heating, refrigeration, and air-conditioning contractors; a local of the Sheet Metal Workers; a local of the Sheetmetal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association; a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee; or the nearest office of the State employment service or apprenticeship agency.
For general information about sheetmetal workers, contact:
The Sheet Metal National Training Fund, 601 N. Fairfax St., Suite 240, Alexandria, VA 22314.
Associated Builders and Contractors, 1300 N. 17th St. NW., Rosslyn, VA 22209.
The Sheetmetal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, 4201 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly, VA 22021.
The Sheet Metal Workers International Association, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20006.
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