Apprentices employed, contractors are happy with training in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Going back to the drawing board is a strength, especially when something clearly isn’t operating to its highest potential. At Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 23 in Anchorage, although the service technician training was on par with the rest of the United States, it wasn’t a fit for the local contractors.

So, Bruce Bold, training coordinator for Local No. 23, went back to the drawing board and invited the service contractors to go with him.

“First- and second-year apprentices didn’t know enough to go out in the truck, on jobs, alone, but contractors couldn’t afford to pay a journey person to go with them,” Bold said. “For those one-man jobs, contractors were losing money on apprentices. Service is a different beast. You have to have a pretty qualified person right from the start.”

Bold and the contractors, with the help of training coordinators at Local No. 66 in Washington, reinvented the service technician apprenticeship program, front-loading it to teach skills contractors requested at the beginning of training. Instead of sending Local No. 23 apprentices to Washington for training, they also developed a plan to gradually bring it back to Alaska.

“We’re getting good feedback from the contractors and a lot more interest from them as well,” Bold said. “That’s the coolest part about putting this program together is the input. I haven’t had an out-of-work service tech apprentice in a long time.”

As part of the restructure, first-year apprentices attend a five-week electrical class and a five-week refrigeration class as well as training in customer service. During their first two years, schooling doubled, but in the third and fourth years, less time is required. Classes also take place in the off season, when contractors aren’t as busy.

The new program seems to be gaining steam and popularity among contractors and interested future apprentices. Where Bold typically sees one or two new service apprentices every year, the last two years, he’s enrolled four. Today, he as 12 total.

“If we can see three to four apprentices a year, if we can triple the number of apprentices and keep them all working, that’s phenomenal,” Bold said. “In a down economy like it is now in Alaska, service technicians’ work ticks up. People want work done instead of replacing their old units. We’ve been busy.”

Good service techs are hard to find, especially in an area as remote as Alaska, said Garret Travers, service manager at Superior Mechanical Service in Anchorage.

“We’re a unique market in that we’re isolated. There isn’t a lot of exposure to schools and training,” Travers said. “A huge portion of the work force is going to be retiring in the next few years. Local No. 23 is the only true service tech apprenticeship program in Alaska.”

Because of the size of the state, and remoteness of some of the villages and towns, a service call could take a technician 700 miles away.

“Alaska is huge, and most of it isn’t accessible by roads. We have to put a service tech on a plane with tools,” Travers said. “It’s not just tools and parts sometimes. Some of the places we go are unmanned stations. They have to bring food and water and be prepared to lay down a sleeping bag in the boiler room because they’re stuck there because of weather. You don’t have the luxury of jumping in the van, going down the street to get parts.”

Training helps make it possible for technicians to remain steadily employed and for contractors to seek new business. What is good for the contractors is good for the apprentices.

“There’s a huge demand, but it’s a tough market,” Bold said. “They want qualified people, but that’s a compliment to sheet metal workers. We can cross train, and they can go where the work is.”

More than 14,000 apprentices are registered at over 150 training facilities across the United States and Canada. The International Training Institute for the sheet metal and air conditioning industry 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 heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), welding and industrial, architectural and ornamental, and service and testing, adjusting and balancing industry throughout the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, the ITI develops and 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 and its available training curriculum for members covering sheet metal trade work, visit the website or call 703-739-7200.