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Sheet Metal Careers, Jobs and Training Information

Metal Worker Career and Job Highlights

  • The construction industry employs about 65% of all sheet metal workers; the manufacturing industry employs about 25%.
  • Most employers recommend completing a formal apprenticeship.
  • Job prospects will be best in the construction industry.

Metal Worker Career Overview

The work of sheet metal workers consists of manufacturing, installing, and repairing many different things that use sheet metal. Most workers are versatile and can perform all kinds of jobs: installation, manufacturing, or repairs. However, some workers choose to specialize in just one area. Workers work with air vents, climate control ducts, roofing, siding for houses, machinery, traffic and warning signs, car bumpers, railway car, manufacturing equipment, and many other items that use sheet metal. Sheet metal workers also work with other synthetic materials like fiberglass or different kinds of plastics.

Workers who are employed in the construction industry work with sheet metal in building new structures. Those who work in the manufacturing industry generate large amounts of sheet metal or objects made using sheet metal.

To begin a job in construction, sheet metal workers examine blueprints and instructions closely. They then decide how much and what type of materials the job requires. After that they actually measure, shape, and slice sheet metal to manufacture ducts, siding, or other items that workers custom make. It is becoming more and more common use automated machinery or computers. Using computers allows workers to try different arrangements to maximize efficiency and material use. They also use computerized equipment like saws, scissors, compressors, and lasers to shape sheet metal.

Sheet metal workers don’t always use computers, however. Some facilities don’t have modern equipment; other times certain jobs can’t use computers. In such cases sheet metal workers need to be able to use tape measures, calculators, yardsticks, and other hand tools. They can then manually mark, cut, or attach the sheet metal piece to its tool or product.

Before putting together the final product, however, sheet metal workers thoroughly inspect each piece to make sure it is sound, safe, and conforms to the specifications. They use tools like calipers, rulers, levelers, or micrometers, and if there is any problem they fix it by hand using tools like shears, saws, or other tools. Once each piece has been evaluated and corrected, sheet metal workers seal seams using solder, cement, press-studs, bolts, clips made especially for use with sheet metal, or other adhesive devices. From there they transfer everything to the jobsite so they can make finish assembly of the product and put them in place.

Sheet metal workers are also involved in the installation of piping or ductwork. They fasten the lengths of pipe or duct together and then install metal brackets to the ceiling from which they suspend the tubing. They use many tools like heavy scissors, hammers, power and hand drills, and punches for either assembly at the jobsite or to quickly fix pieces that were already manufactured.

Many projects are done at the worksite from start to finish, and don’t use any products made at a sheet metal shop at all. For instance, making a metal roof necessitates that workers take measurements, shape, and cut the plates of roofing material at the site. They start installation at the bottom of the surface and work up, positioning overlapping plates that are ridged in such a way that the ridges interlock to create a solid surface. After each plate is put in place, workers bolt or solder the unattached edge of the plate to the building. They continue this procedure until the entire roof is completed. To finish, workers use molding, which was manufactured with special machinery, along the seams, intersections, corners, and openings to make a smooth, sound surface.
Sheet metal workers don’t only install control or air circulation systems. They also inspect, repair, and maintain climate to make sure they are functional and cost- and energy-efficient. Buildings have to have well-maintained ductwork in order have proper heating, cooling, and air circulation systems. Workers who specialize in this area are sometimes called HVAC technicians (Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning). Good ductwork leads to uniform allocation of air, makes sure air doesn’t escape which is economically inefficient, and makes a building a comfortable and consistent temperature. Ductwork can also be used in storage facilities to make sure that damp doesn’t get it and that the air is circulated.

Many sheet metal workers work in manufacturing facilities like factories. They produce sheet metal for use in the automotive, aircraft, or other industries. They also make sheet metal parts that are used in other manufacturing equipment or machinery. This work is usually done on a much larger scale and requires heavier equipment and more automated machinery than work that is done in a small sheet metal shop. Workers often use computerized or automated machines like conveyor belts, presses, or many other types of machinery used in a factory. This means that workers often perform the same tasks over and over again, which can become tedious. However, many sheet metal workers become involved in other aspects of the process. For example, they might program the computerized control systems on the machinery.

Over 65% of all sheet metal workers are employed by the construction industry. Of that 65%, almost 50% worked as HVAC technicians or in plumbing. The majority of the remainder were employed by sheet metal contractors or roofing contractors. A few were employed by specialized trade contractors or for general construction contractors.

25% of all sheet metal workers were employed by manufacturers. They were employed by manufacturers who make metal products, construction or manufacturing equipment, automotive parts, airplane parts, etc. Some of these workers were employed by the federal government.

Relative to other jobs in the construction industry, fewer sheet metal workers work for themselves.

Metal Work Training and Job Qualifications

Some sheet metals workers learn on the job, while others complete formal apprenticeships. Most employers agree that an apprenticeship provides the best training. Most apprenticeship programs last from four to five years and involve both practical, hands-on experience; coursework; and a written examination. They authorize workers to both manufacture and install sheet metal. Apprenticeships are often sponsored by boards that consist of regional representatives from both the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Organization and the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors National Association.

Apprentices spend a lot of their time on actual jobsites where they can gain practical experience. They learn how to make layouts and plan jobs; how to shape, cut, and manipulate sheet metal; how to manufacture sheet metal or sheet metal products; and how to install it. They start out by working on basic installation or repairing of piping or ducts. As they learn they are given more responsibility, like manufacturing more difficult ductwork, purely decorative objects, or even large jobs like installing large kitchens for commercial use. Apprentices become thoroughly conversant with many materials aside from sheet metal, like fiberglass or different types of plastic. Some apprentices specialize in one area like exterior siding or architectural features.

In addition to their practical training, apprentices also have to complete 144 hours of classroom instruction. This consists of mechanical drawing, layout, reading blueprints, math like trigonometry and geometry, computer science, computer applications, soldering, and all about HVAC systems. Also, a lot of the classroom time is concerned with safety equipment and procedures. During this time apprentices also learn about how sheet metal work fits in with other areas of construction.

Many workers gain their skills on the job. They generally start out as assistants to professionals. At the beginning they perform only the simplest tasks like transporting or unloading materials, tidying up shops, or disposing of waste materials. This time is valuable as they observe professionals and learn about materials and techniques. Eventually they will be given practice under close supervision until they have enough experience to do more complex jobs like using equipment that cuts or shapes sheet metal. They also begin to go to worksites with professionals to observe and help. These workers don’t complete apprenticeships but they might take complementary courses in trigonometry, geometry, or sheet metal production. To become journeymen, assistants generally need to be able to pass the same written test that apprentices take. Many employers, especially heavy manufacturers, provide practical training that involves supplementary classes as well.

Prospective apprentices or assistants need to be in excellent physical shape, be mechanically adept, good at math, have good manual dexterity, and excellent reading comprehension skills. Coordination, depth perception, and good conceptualizing are also very helpful. Most apprentices need to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. High school or vocational classes in drafting, metal shop, or advanced math are also an excellent background. Applicable experience gained in the military is also looked on very favorably by employers.

It is imperative that sheet metal workers stay up to date with innovations in technology like new computer programs, computerized equipment, lasers, and new layout techniques. Employers often provide or encourage continuing education programs to make sure their employees know all of the newest technological advances.

Opportunities for advancement differ according to where workers are employed. Those who are employed in construction can become supervisors or managers. Some become specialized welders. Other workers start their own contracting business and open a sheet metal shop. Starting one’s own business is more difficult for a sheet metal worker than it is for other workers in the construction industry. This is largely due to the fact that opening a sheet metal shop requires a lot of capital to buy equipment and manufacturing machinery. Those who work in manufacturing could be promoted to supervisory or managerial positions. Many become inspectors.

Job and Employment Opportunities

Employment prospects are anticipated to be excellent for sheet metal workers who work in construction or sheet metal manufacturing for construction purposes. Many job openings will be caused by retirements or career shifts by professionals. Also, there will be good opportunities as there is often little competition for positions since many workers want jobs that are less physically demanding. Prospects will be especially good for people who have completed apprenticeships, since apprenticeships provide such thorough training.

There will be fewer job openings for sheet metal workers in manufacturing areas. A lot of the work done by sheet metal manufacturers requires a lot of labor, and so employers often transfer their facilities to areas of the world where wages are lower.

Job growth for sheet metal workers who are employed in construction is projected to proceed at the rate of the average for all jobs in coming years. Most new jobs will be created as there are increasing amounts of construction generally. Growing populations and economies will lead to higher demand for the work of sheet metal workers in houses, offices, factories, and other buildings. This new construction requires new climate control systems, ventilation, and other things that require sheet metal. HVAC technicians will also be in high demand in remolding work in older buildings. Also, more jobs will be created as more people appreciate the aesthetic qualities of sheet metal. Interior designers are using sheet metal in new, decorative ways. However, fewer positions for sheet metal workers will be available in the manufacturing industry.

As with most construction occupations, employment was be unstable. Most projects are short-term and fluctuate with the economy. However, this instability is tempered by the fact that maintenance and repair work is called for even when there is little new construction. Also many people want sheet metal workers to install more modern HVAC systems, even during recessions, to make their homes, offices, or other structures more energy- and cost-efficient. Sheet metal workers also have more stable employment than other construction professionals as they lose less work to inclement weather since they do most of their work inside buildings.

Historical Earnings Information

Most sheet metal workers are paid by the hour. The majority of sheet metal workers made between $12.20/hour and $23.00/hour in 2002 with a median income of $16.60/hour. The lowest tenth of the pay scale made under $9.50/hour and the highest tenth made over $29.50/hour.