Sheet metal workers make union life the family business for generations

U.S. families tell tales of family, changes in work, training dating back 100 years

FAIRFAX, Va. – These days, the thought of carrying on the family business can be an antiquated one. With the advent of technology and the evolution of commerce over the last 100 years, the number of families still in the same business they were a century ago — let alone attending the same training center — isn’t as common an occurrence as it once was. But for many U.S. families, the unionized sheet metal industry and the training centers that prepare them are a part of their family business, and it has been for up to four generations.

The industry’s official birth was in 1888, and since the first seven locals were established in America, skills have been passed down from parent to child. Many times, a single family name can be tied to a local for 100 years, and when the next generation enters, the timeline and history of the local continues with it. Four generations in the industry – such as the Williamses in Memphis, the Thraps in Iowa and the Nestas in Cleveland ­– also illustrate the evolution of the industry and its training over the years.

“I used to see all the fancy fittings and my father’s drawings. I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Robert Williams, the third in four generations of sheet metal workers in Memphis.

With the invention of three-dimensional building information modeling software, e-readers and other computerized tools, today’s industry and its training is much different than just a decade ago.

“They told my father, ‘if you can be as good a mechanic as your father, you’ll be good,’ and they told me the same thing,” he said. “When I started, they didn’t have computers. We cut everything out by hand. Nowadays, it’s all computer operated. It’s faster, so it helps the contractor and the customer. We had to stay ahead of the game, keep ahead of technology.”

The Williams’ family relationship with the industry began in 1910, when John T. Williams started his apprenticeship out of Local 100 in Roanoke, Va. The family moved to Memphis and Local 4 in 1940 after Bill Williams, John’s son, completed his apprenticeship. Today, the family name lives on with John E. Williams, the business representative and training coordinator for Local 4, and his youngest brother, Ryan, who is currently a second-year apprentice. When Ryan graduates, his certificate will go on the wall next to that of his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother.

“I’m proud of it,” John E. Williams said. “It’s my heritage, my family. I’m proud to be a part of the union. The Williams family has always been good sheet metal workers.”

Four generations of sheet metal workers at Local 45 in Des Moines, Iowa started in the late 1940s with Ralph Thrap, a boilermaker and railroad union worker who repaired steam engines at the rail yards. Thrap migrated his family to Southern California during World War II to work on airplanes and returned to Iowa in the late 1940s to work at Blackman Sheet Metal. Before he retired in 1960, the elder Thrap worked on the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River and the National Animal Disease Lab, the project his great-grandson, Shaun Thrap, is working on today.

The industry runs in the family, but what also runs deep is the heart behind the work.

“I started with my grandfather working on furnaces when I was 6 years old,” said Kenny Thrap, the third generation sheet metal worker in the family. His father, Kenneth E. Thrap, began his apprenticeship at age 19. “I went to job sites with my dad on weekends, cleaned up and picked up screws from when I was 8 until I was 14.”

Kenny Thrap, general superintendent at Waldinger Corporation, also shares his workplace with his family. His son, Shaun, is a foreman at the company, and his father worked there, too.

“With the exception of about six months, my father’s whole career was at the same place,” he added. “I guess you can call it a family business.”

At 112 years old, the Waldinger Corporation is an illustration of how the industry has evolved and why keeping an eye on technology is important for future generations. What was once done painstakingly by hand is now done with the use of computers.

“The technology that is evolving and that has been since I joined the trade in 1980 is staggering. And where we’re going from here is exciting,” Kenny Thrap said. “There is no repetition. Everything is new. The people are good to work with and work for. Heating, air conditioning and ventilation are always going to be there. Every day is a challenge, and we have fun doing it.”

The trade has changed by leaps and bounds since John V. Nesta graduated from his apprenticeship from Local 33 in Cleveland in 1983. Back then, if a worker was good at layout, his or her career was set for life. As he worked off a sheer list blanking off pieces, John V. Nesta often heard, “Learn layout. You’ll never miss a day because those computer things will never do what I do.”

A lot has changed since his father, also named John Nesta, was an apprentice. Safety regulations create a healthier workplace and technology, although efficient, also lessens the toll on workers’ bodies.

“The progression has made individuals more productive. It’s raised the caliber of worker we need. Today, six guys’ jobs would have taken 20. Just being a good worker now isn’t enough. You have to troubleshoot, problem solve,” John V. Nesta said. “You’re not picking up and lugging what you used to, either. You think back and think I could’ve lost fingers, hands.”

The Nesta family is well known at Local 33 as John V. Nesta is the training coordinator, his brother, Paul, is a member and his son, Victor, is currently the conductor/warden for Local 33.

One thing his father always told him: get involved, John Nesta said. And this is a sentiment shared by others in the multi-generations club.

“I think we’ve tried to uphold a good family reputation,” he added. “If someone knows you and doesn’t know the other guy, you have a better shot at getting hired.”

John E. Williams became an instructor to give back to the training center that had given so much to his family.

“It’s always about giving back to the local,” he said. That’s the one thing our family has always wanted to do is give back.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) 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 throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Fairfax, 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 703-739-7200.

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