Sheet metal workers learn their trade through both formal and informal training programs. To become a skilled sheet metal worker usually takes between 4 and 5 years of both classroom and on-the-job training. While there are a number of different ways to obtain this training, generally the more formalized the training received by an individual, the more thoroughly skilled become, and the more are likely to be in demand by employers. For some, this training can begin in a high school, where classes in English, algebra, geometry, physics, mechanical drawing and blueprint reading, and general shop are recommended.
After high school, there are a number of different avenues that one can take to obtain the necessary training. One of the ways is to obtain a job with a contractor who will then provide training on the job. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. Most begin by carrying metal and cleaning up debris in a metal shop while they learn about materials and tools and their uses. Later, they learn to operate machines that bend or cut metal. In time, helpers go out on the jobsite to learn installation. Employers may send the employee to courses at a trade or vocational school or community college to receive further formal training. Helpers may be promoted to the journey level if they show the requisite knowledge and skills. Most sheet metal workers in large-scale manufacturing receive on-the-job training, with additional class work or in-house training as necessary. The training needed to become proficient in manufacturing takes less time than the training for construction.
Some employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with union membership, offer formal apprenticeships. These programs combine on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. Usually, apprenticeship applicants must be at least 18 years old and meet local requirements. The length of the program, usually 4 to 5 years, varies with the apprentice’s skill. Apprenticeship programs provide comprehensive instruction in both sheet metal fabrication and installation. They may be administered by local joint committees composed of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association and local chapters of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors National Association.
On the job, apprentices learn the basics of pattern layout and how to cut, bend, fabricate, and install sheet metal. They begin by learning to install and maintain basic ductwork and gradually advance to more difficult jobs, such as making more complex ducts, commercial kitchens, and decorative pieces. They also use materials such as fiberglass, plastics, and other nonmetallic materials. Some workers may focus on exterior or architectural sheet metal installation. In the classroom, apprentices learn drafting, plan and specification reading, trigonometry and geometry applicable to layout work, the use of computerized equipment, welding, and the principles of heating, air-conditioning, and ventilating systems. Safety is stressed throughout the program. In addition, apprentices learn the relationship between sheet metal work and other construction work.
Sheet metal workers need to be in good physical condition and have mechanical and mathematical aptitude as well as good reading skills. Some additional skills needed are good eye-hand coordination, spatial and form perception, and manual dexterity also are important. Courses in algebra, trigonometry, geometry, mechanical drawing, and shop provide a helpful background for learning the trade, as does related work experience obtained in the Armed Services.
It is important for experienced sheet metal workers to keep abreast of new technological developments, such as the use of computerized layout and laser-cutting machines. Workers often take additional training, provided by the union or by their employer, to improve existing skills or to acquire new ones.
Sheet metal workers in construction may advance to supervisory jobs. Some of these workers take additional training in welding and do more specialized work. Workers who perform building and system testing are able to move into construction and building inspection. Others go into the contracting business for themselves. Because a sheet metal contractor must have a shop with equipment to fabricate products, this type of contracting business is more expensive to start than other types of construction contracting. Sheet metal workers in manufacturing may advance to positions as supervisors or quality inspectors. Some of these workers may move into other management positions.