Sheet metal workers fabricate, assemble, install, repair, and maintain ducts used for ventilating, air-conditioning, and heating systems. They also work with other articles of sheet metal, including roofing, siding, gutters, downspouts, partitions, chutes, and stainless steel kitchen and beverage equipment for restaurants. Not included in this group are employees in factories where sheet metal items are mass-produced on assembly lines. There are approximately 198,000 sheet metal workers employed in the United States.
History of Sheet Metal Worker Career
Sheet metal did not become important in many products until the development of mills and processes that form various kinds of metal into thin, strong, flat sheets and strips. The processes for making sheet metal have undergone a long series of improvements in the 20th century. As the methods were refined and made more economical, new uses for sheet metal were developed, and making sheet metal products became a well-established skilled craft field. Today, sheet metal workers are concerned with cutting, shaping, soldering, riveting, and other processes to fabricate, install, and maintain a wide range of articles. Heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems for all kinds of buildings—residential, commercial, industrial—provide the most important source of employment for sheet metal workers.
The Job of Sheet Metal Workers
Most sheet metal workers handle a variety of tasks in fabricating, installing, and maintaining sheet metal products. Some workers concentrate on just one of these areas. Skilled workers must know about the whole range of activities involved in working with sheet metal.
Many sheet metal workers are employed by building contracting firms that construct or renovate residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. Fabricating and installing air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration equipment is often a big part of their job. Some workers specialize in adjusting and servicing equipment that has already been installed so that it can operate at peak efficiency. Roofing contractors, the federal government, and businesses that do their own alteration and construction work also employ sheet metal workers. Other sheet metal workers are employed in the shipbuilding, railroad, and aircraft industries or in shops that manufacture specialty products such as custom kitchen equipment or electrical generating and distributing machinery.
Fabricating is often done in a shop away from the site where the product is to be installed. When fabricating products, workers usually begin by studying blueprints or drawings. After determining the amounts and kinds of materials required for the job, they make measurements and lay out the pattern on the appropriate pieces of metal. They may use measuring tapes and rulers and figure dimensions with the aid of calculators. Then, following the pattern they have marked on the metal, they cut out the sections with hand or power shears or other machine tools. They may shape the pieces with a hand or machine brake, which is a type of equipment used for bending and forming sheet metal, and punch or drill holes in the parts. As a last step before assembly, workers inspect the parts to verify that all of them are accurately shaped. Then they fasten the parts together by welding, soldering, bolting, riveting, cementing, or using special devices such as metal clips. After assembly, it may be necessary to smooth rough areas on the fabricated item with a file or grinding wheel.
Computers play an increasingly important role in several of these tasks. Computers help workers plan the layout efficiently, so that all the necessary sections can be cut from the metal stock while leaving the smallest possible amount of waste sheet metal. Computers also help guide saws, shears, and lasers that cut metal, as well as other machines that form the pieces into the desired shapes.
If the item has been fabricated in a shop, it is taken to the installation site. There, the sheet metal workers join together different sections of the final product. For example, they may connect sections of duct end to end. Some items, such as sections of duct, can be bought factory- made in standard sizes, and workers modify them at the installation site to meet the requirements of the situation. Once finished, ductwork may be suspended with metal hangers from ceilings or attached to walls. Sometimes sheet metal workers weld, bolt, screw, or nail items into place. To complete the installation, they may need to make additional sheet metal parts or alter the items they have fabricated.
Some tasks in working with sheet metal, such as making metal roofing, are routinely done at the job site. Workers measure and cut sections of roof paneling, which interlock with grooving at the edges. They nail or weld the paneling to the roof deck to hold it in place and put metal molding over joints and around the edges, windows, and doors to finish off the roof.
Sheet Metal Worker Career Requirements
Requirements vary slightly, but applicants for sheet metal training programs must be high school graduates. High school courses that provide a good background include shop classes, mechanical drawing, trigonometry, and geometry.
The best way to learn the skills necessary for working in this field is to complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships generally consist of a planned series of on-the-job work experiences plus classroom instruction in related subjects. The on-the-job training portion of apprenticeships, which last at least four years, includes about 8,000 hours of work. The classroom instruction totals approximately 600 hours, spread over the years of the apprenticeship. The training covers all aspects of sheet metal fabrication and installation.
Apprentices get practical experience in layout work, cutting, shaping, and installing sheet metal. They also learn to work with materials that may be used instead of metal, such as fiberglass and plastics. Under the supervision of skilled workers, they begin with simple tasks and gradually work up to the most complex. In the classroom, they learn blueprint reading, drafting, mathematics, computer operations, job safety, welding, and the principles of heating, air-conditioning, and ventilating systems.
Apprenticeships may be run by joint committees representing locals of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, an important union in the field, and local chapters of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association. Other apprenticeships are run by local chapters of a contractor group, the Associated Builders and Contractors.
A few sheet metal workers learn informally on the job while they are employed as helpers to experienced workers. They gradually develop skills when opportunities arise for learning. Like apprentices, helpers start out with simple jobs and in time take on more complicated work. However, the training that helpers get may not be as balanced as that for apprentices, and it may take longer for them to learn all that they need to know. Helpers often take vocational school courses to supplement their work experience.
Even after they have become experienced and well qualified in their field, sheet metal workers may need to take further training to keep their skills up to date. Such training is often sponsored by union groups or paid for by their employers.
Sheet metal workers need to be in good physical condition, with good manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and the ability to visualize and understand shapes and forms.
Exploring Sheet Metal Worker Career
High school students can gauge their aptitude for and interest in some of the common activities of sheet metal workers by taking courses such as metal shop, blueprint reading, and mechanical drawing. A summer or part-time job as a helper with a contracting firm that does sheet metal work could provide an excellent opportunity to observe workers on the job. If such a job cannot be arranged, it may be possible to visit a construction site and perhaps to talk with a sheet metal worker who can give an insider’s view of this job.
Most workers in this field are employed by sheet metal contractors; some workers with a great deal of experience go into business for themselves. Many sheet metal workers are members of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.
People who would like to enter an apprentice program in this field can seek information about apprenticeships from local employers of sheet metal workers, such as sheet metal contractors or heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration contractors; from the local office of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association; or from the local Sheet Metal Apprentice Training office, the joint union-management apprenticeship committee. Information on apprenticeship programs also can be obtained from the local office of the state employment service or the state apprenticeship agency.
People who would rather enter this field as on-the-job trainees can contact contractors directly about possibilities for jobs as helpers. Leads for specific jobs may be located through the state employment service or newspaper classified ads. Graduates of vocational or technical training programs may get assistance from the placement office at their schools.
Skilled and experienced sheet metal workers who work for contractors may be promoted to positions as supervisors and eventually job superintendents. Those who develop their skills through further training may move into related fields, such as welding. Some sheet metal workers become specialists in particular activities, such as design and layout work or estimating costs of installations. Some workers eventually go into business for themselves as independent sheet metal contractors.
Sheet metal workers earned a median hourly wage of $17.09 in 2004, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This amounts to a yearly salary of $35,550. Overall, hourly earnings ranged from less than $9.80 ($20,380 a year) to more than $30.78 ($64,020 a year). Earnings vary in different parts of the country and tend to be highest in industrialized urban areas. Earnings also vary by industry, with federal government jobs paying sheet metal workers the highest hourly rates. Apprentices begin at about 40 to 50 percent of the rate paid to experienced workers and receive periodic pay increases throughout their training. Some workers who are union members are eligible for supplemental pay from their union during periods of unemployment or when they are working less than full time.
Most sheet metal workers have a regular 40-hour workweek and receive extra pay for overtime. Most of their work is performed indoors, so they are less likely to lose wages due to bad weather than many other craftworkers involved in construction projects. Some work is done outdoors, occasionally in uncomfortably hot or cold conditions.
Workers sometimes have to work high above the ground (like when they install gutters and roofs) and sometimes in awkward, cramped positions (when they install ventilation systems in buildings). Workers may have to be on their feet for long periods, and they may have to lift heavy objects. Possible hazards of the trade include cuts and burns from machinery and equipment, as well as falls from ladders and scaffolding. Workers must use effective safety practices to avoid injuries and sometimes wear protective gear such as safety glasses. Sheet metal fabrication shops are usually well ventilated and properly heated and lighted, but at times they are quite noisy.
Sheet Metal Worker Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment for sheet metal workers will grow about as fast as the average career through 2014. Employment growth will be related to several factors. Many new residential, commercial, and industrial buildings will be constructed, requiring the skills of sheet metal workers, and many older buildings will need to have new energy-efficient heating, cooling, and ventilating systems installed to replace outdated systems. Existing equipment will need routine maintenance and repair. Decorative sheet metal products are becoming more popular for some uses, a trend that is expected to provide an increasing amount of employment for sheet metal workers. Still, most of the demand for new workers in this field will be to replace experienced people who are transferring to other jobs or leaving the workforce altogether.
Job prospects will vary somewhat with economic conditions. In general, the economy is closely tied to the level of new building construction activity. During economic downturns, workers may face periods of unemployment, while at other times there may be more jobs than skilled workers available to take them. But overall, sheet metal workers are less affected by economic ups and downs than some other craftworkers in the construction field. This is because activities related to maintenance, repair, and replacement of old equipment compose a significant part of their job, and even during an economic slump, building owners are often inclined to go ahead with such work.