Jobs increase on the horizon for sheet metal workers

Welding certification a valuable asset on job sites across the United States

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – It’s no secret that people throughout the nation are still feeling the pinch from the country’s high unemployment rate. For sheet metal workers, research, training and ingenuity can make all the difference.

“Sheet metal workers have always been more employable if they can weld,” said Steve Kowats, industrial welding specialist with the International Training Institute (ITI) for the sheet metal and air conditioning industry. “There are other skills in the trade that require certification, but they are few and far between and they’re not this stringent. It’s a big deal.”

Kowats works with union members nationwide to educate them, as well as contractors, about the value-added benefits a trained and certified welder adds to a job site. The days of stereotyping are over, he added. Today, workers are unaware of the opportunity just as much as contractors are unaware of the number of skilled sheet metal workers trained in welding available to allow them to bid on welding jobs or portions of larger jobs where welding is required. ITI is trying to change the way many workers think about welding certification.

“Most sheet metal workers don’t see the industry as a welding craft,” Kowats said, adding that welding positions are often left for pipefitters and iron workers. “But it’s changing. They’re starting to realize they’re missing out on welding work.”

Welding work is out there. Although it’s most prevalent in Southern and Midwest states such as Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, there are jobs to be found in the Northeast as well. Power and nuclear facilities and automobile manufacturing plants are the most prevalent, with jobs coming online in the next six months to few years. Kowats said the key is to maintain current certifications, or attend training, and look to the future.

“Sheet metal workers with welding skills are working in these areas, especially compared to those who don’t have welding skills,” Kowats said. “The point is, they need to be aware of what their work is and not neglect it. Be ready to take that work when it arises.”

Charles Mulcahy, chief international representative and director of the department of jurisdiction for the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA), outlined jobs expected to come online for certified welders in the next 12 months.

The Savannah River site, located in Georgia, hosts six employers who expect full operation by spring 2011. Once completed, the site will decommission nuclear warheads, so the plutonium can be used to create energy. Mulcahy dubs the project a “huge scientific undertaking,” and the site is estimated at tens of thousands of acres. Approximately 400 certified welders would be needed at the peak of the project, which is expected to last from seven to 10 years.

In Tupelo, Miss., an auto assembly plant for Toyota is scheduled for construction by the end of this year, whereas in Nashville, Nissan will begin building a plant to manufacture its electric vehicle in mid-2011. At the peak of each project, 75 to 100 welders will be needed per site with each project expected to last one year.

Also in Georgia, the Vogtle nuclear power plant is set to begin construction in 2012, putting 300 to 400 welders to work by 2014. There are other nuclear plants in Southern Maryland and Texas, near Houston, currently awaiting federal loan funding.

“The men and women required to work at an auto plant are skilled, but they are different certifications that can work on a nuclear power plant or something like Savannah River,” Mulcahy said. “They are completely different.”

Mulcahy also predicts the “boomers,” or traveling workers of the 1970s, will make a return, especially in the Southern states where union participation is at a lower density than other portions of the United States. Mulcahy sees the very likely idea of needing to bring skilled workers from out of the area to fill the need once the automobile manufacturing and energy plants begin hiring and construction.

More than 15,000 sheet metal apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The International Training Institute (best known as ITI) is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI offers apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. 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.

Sheet metal workers interested in positions for certified welders can visit the job bank on the SMWIA website at or call 800-251-7045.

Those interested in training to earn welding certification can visit their local Joint Apprenticeship Training Center (JATC). Additional information on ITI, and JATC locations, can be found by visiting or calling 703-739-7200.