New testing, adjusting and balancing labs pave way for progress

Industry proves faith in economy by training workers for jobs today, tomorrow

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The changing economy has led many workers across the country to re-educate themselves to allow for additional career opportunities. Members of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry are no different and continue to look ahead to emerging markets and new job opportunities.

Energy efficiency has been top-of-mind for architects, engineers and building owners since “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted in 2006. Testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB), which is the measurement and adjustment of air and water flow in buildings, has been a recognized specialty in the sheet metal trade since the mid-1980s, but it didn’t receive much attention until two decades later when the public began to realize that testing and adjusting system flows can lead to sustaining building energy efficiency in new and existing buildings.

The International Training Institute (ITI), the educational branch of the unionized sheet metal industry, is at the forefront of the energy efficiency initiative, creating leading edge standardized training curricula to prepare skilled workers for 21st century jobs. Through its resources and support, ITI invests heavily in its training centers, empowering members to learn, grow and become better employees. It’s an investment that’s really paying off.

“With the high demand to operate and maintain energy efficiency in buildings, the call for trained and certified technicians in testing adjusting and balancing has never been greater. A lot of the specified scope of work falls to ICB/TABB (International Certification Board/Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau) certified TAB technicians, supervisors and contractors,” said Jim Page, ITI-TAB specialist and regional field representative for ITI. “Certifications afford local unions the ability to provide a highly educated, safe and marketable workforce. Much of the increased demand is for total building energy audits, as well as HVAC fire life safety assessments on existing buildings.”

ITI’s plan to fulfill the needs of the industry is an aggressive one, Page added.

“Individuals who train to become certified TAB technicians are working to create future opportunities,” he said. “Over time, they can become foremen or supervisors on projects because of their system installation knowledge and understanding of protocols and procedures. They know how to do things right.”

In the last three years, as a commitment by local unions to the future of the industry, new JATC (joint apprentice training center) TAB Labs have been constructed at training centers in Las Vegas; Boston; Minneapolis; Madison, Wis.; Carol Stream, Ill.; and St Louis.

JATC TAB Labs that have been upgraded or are in the final stages of completing their upgrades in the past 18 months to continue to provide certifications to their local members include Philadelphia; Chicago; Bellwood, Ill.; Hartford, Conn.; Portland, Ore.; Denver; Phoenix; Detroit; Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; and Indianapolis. A past certified lab in Kirkland, Wash., was relocated to the new training center in nearby Everett. Cleveland is currently designing its new TAB training and certification lab.

The investment in TAB Labs is paying off because of the high employment rates for certified TAB workers. For example, out of 1,200 active Bostonian members at Local #17, only 600 are working; however, there is no unemployment in the TAB specialty.

“It means a lot to Local #17 to retrain the journeymen and get the ones who are out of work back to work and make existing journeymen more employable,” said Bill Bulens, lead TAB instructor at Local #17.

The local, which also services Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine, recently completed construction on a new TAB lab that includes a total HVAC system, multiple air handler work stations, an exhaust system with fume hood, hydronic systems inclusive of a gas fired boiler heating hot water coil piped system, along with chilled water piped coils and condenser water piped system served by a chiller and cooling tower. The 1,000-square-foot lab was constructed inside the current training center.

Before, members of Local #17 had to travel out of state for their TAB certifications. With the new lab, all coursework, hands-on training and testing can be done in-house.

“Hiring a guy is a lot easier if you know he’s trained,” said Tom Boussy, owner and president of Massachusetts-based THB Company, a member of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association (SMACNA). “A lot less basic training on TAB is expected from an owner in the beginning for a new hire and more time can be focused on the companies’ mission statement on how to best serve the customer. Up until now, we had to do all of that. It took several years to train a guy properly in just the field. Having a local TAB lab for members to train in is going to speed up the process of getting certified technicians working out in the field.”

A five-year apprentice in Boston will spend 10 out of 200 hours annually in the TAB lab. With the opening of the new lab, the hopes are to increase the amount of time each apprentice spends learning TAB work. No matter their specialty, sheet metal workers are better for it, Boussy added.

“He or she is going to have a much better idea of how everything works and the effects of installation and actual performance. It’s going to make much better all around sheet metal workers,” he said.

The lab, like others around the country, is an investment in the future, whether internally or using it to educate the public and other professionals on the benefits of TAB. In 2007, there were approximately 300 certified TAB technicians. In 2011, there were 820, and the numbers are expected to increase just as many of TAB’s veterans are cashing in their retirement.

“A reality that we recognize today is that the experienced members in the TAB workforce are getting closer to retirement age. A lot of experienced workers in our industry as a whole in recent years have chosen to retire with the downturn of work, which has left the dilemma of how to address training new apprentices in the field,” Page said. “There has to be a point where you emphasize the need to start doing top-down mentoring. You want to have younger members and experienced members working together in order to pass down the knowledge.

Page added that all the classroom training in the world doesn’t allow a committed worker to move forward unless contractors are willing to take them on and give them needed on-the-job experience.

“The whole process of becoming a successful contractor with a competent workforce is a two-way street of understanding between labor and management,” Page said. “With this work-together attitude, we can best prepare to serve the industry customers when they call.”

Like other areas, TAB specialty training in Boston was more difficult to attain because, after an ITI assessment, it was determined that the training center needed to upgrade its testing instruments and equipment to provide improved training. The new labs across the country open doors, as well, for sheet metal workers to learn additional skills, shift career paths and find new opportunities.

“This gives another career path for someone coming up in the apprenticeship,” said Stephen McKenzie, who covers the Northeast for the ITI. “Before, they knew they had balancing but didn’t fully understand it. Now, they have a visual on a much larger scale. It may be a journeyman who’s been working and now sees another opportunity. Those career people are looking for another tool in their tool box.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at more than 160 training facilities in the United States and Canada. 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. Located in Alexandria, 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 www.sheetmetal-iti.org or call 703-739-7100.

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