Sheet metal apprenticeship programs focus on recruiting women

Opportunities in unionized labor trade affords careers, not just jobs nationwide

FAIRFAX, Va. – On many job sites across the country, women in the construction and labor trades are few and far between. Although apprenticeship programs have been open to women since 1978, many women seeking a rewarding career are simply unaware of the opportunities afforded by the unionized sheet metal industry.

In the last few years, unionized sheet metal training centers across the country have focused on the recruitment of women to the trade to diversify the workforce and open the industry up to female influence.

While some have found success with the program, others are just beginning to recruit women into the training centers.

At Western Washington’s Local No. 66 training center in Everett, recruiting women into the trade is an active process. There are currently 33 female apprentices, who account for more than 10 percent of the apprenticeship class.

Offered at 153 training centers across the United States, the accredited, five-year apprenticeship program allows students to learn in the classroom, while they are paid to work and build their skills on the jobsite. All students attend on what is similar to a full-ride scholarship, so they graduate with zero college debt. Students can also earn college credits, which they can use to earn their associate or bachelor’s degree.

In total, the International Training Institute, the members’ education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, reports 200 out of 7,263 active apprentices across the country are female, based on 142 out of 150 training centers reporting. Seventeen female apprentices graduated in 2013. Although women account for only 2 percent of the apprenticeship classes across the country, the numbers are improving.

“The wages and benefits are attractive during their apprenticeship, as is the training provided,” said Eric Peterson, training coordinator for the Western Washington Sheet Metal training center at Local No. 66. “They like the nature of the work we’re creating out of a flat piece of sheet metal. Some of the apprentices are moms trying to support their families, and some just like to work with their hands and try something different.”

Liz Fong, 32, earned her bachelor’s degree in Christian theology and was heading for her MBA when she decided she didn’t want to be in an office for the rest of her career. She found sheet metal work fit her goals, and she is currently working on her third year in the apprenticeship program at Local No. 66.

“I’m treated like a little sister,” Fong said. “It would be nice if women knew it was an option – and a lucrative option. We can do it. It’s not about being super strong. It’s about working smart.”

The industry isn’t easy – make no mistake. But safety requirements level the playing field between men and women, tall and short, fit and unfit, she added.

“We all – men and women – have strengths and weaknesses. Heavy lifting is just a small portion of what we do as sheet metal workers. With the right training, equipment and teamwork, we can work smarter and more safely than we have in the past,” Fong said. “If you show up with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and to work, that’s what makes you successful in sheet metal or anywhere you go.”

In Queens, NY, training coordinator Leah Rambo works with local agencies to bring women into the trade. Currently, women make up 8.5 percent of the students in the current apprenticeship class – 34 females in a class of 403 apprentices.

“I believe that outreach is very important. I use my free time to visit with women’s organizations and high school, so I can talk to the students,” Rambo said. “Many women don’t realize these career opportunities exist. If you start early enough – in middle school – they realize that the trades are a viable career option. Some don’t recognize they have the capability to do the work until they see another woman who is doing it.”

Word of mouth has benefitted her program, Rambo said, as “women of a feather flock together.” At her training center, the most successful advertisement comes from women in the program promoting it to their female friends and family members. Making sure “women are encouraged to apply” is printed on the apprenticeship application makes a big difference in the center’s female recruitment, she said.

“It’s about how you present it,” Rambo added.

Two years ago, Local No. 46’s training center in Rochester, NY retired its first female journeyman, which got training coordinator Don Steltz thinking about recruiting female apprentices. He attends trade shows, career and other events to recruit women to the trade. He lets them know sheet metal work has many facets.

“Being in the sheet metal industry is more than being a sheet metal worker,” he said. “It’s welding. It’s architecture. It’s testing, adjusting and balancing.”

In his training center, women in the apprenticeship class have a maturing effect on their male peers.

“My three apprentices bring calm to the group. Women are more mature. When we do small group projects, the women are always taking the leadership roles and getting the guys to talk. They are actually helping the guys with school, and I think the guys have respect for them,” Steltz said. “They can make a decent living and work side-by-side along with the men. I think it makes for a better work environment. They put the guys on their toes. I wouldn’t mind having three or four more female apprentices next year.”

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at 160 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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