What is the best way to attract new talent into the sheet metal and HVAC trades?
That’s a question SMACNA members and their union partners have been wrestling with for years. With little improvement to the nationwide labor shortage, the search for recruiting solutions is ongoing.
Many SMACNA chapters and their member firms are focusing on attracting the attention of our nation’s largest living adult generation—millennials. Many times, even targeting younger into the Gen Z world of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Connecting with millennials and to lesser degree, Gen Z’s, has become a major goal for a growing number of recruiting efforts. Some state-wide trades initiatives have been operating for years and are now incorporating social media strategies to reach these target audiences. Similarly, other recruiting programs—everything from multi-trade collaborative projects to grant-funded activities at individual union shops—are reaching out to young talent.
Apprenticeships are “Built to Succeed.” Catie Rogers, a 25-year-old apprentice at Sheet Metal Workers Local 20 in Indianapolis, Indiana, has become a celebrity of sorts, thanks to her involvement in Built to Succeed, a marketing initiative with the Indiana Careers in Construction Association, which increases awareness among high school and college students on educational and career opportunities in the building trades.
Rogers, who works at Poynter Sheet Metal in Greenwood, Indiana, is part of a group of young apprentices known as Built to Succeed cast members. All passionate about their career choices, they participate in Built to Succeed marketing and social media campaigns, talking about the training, pay, pension, and other benefits of apprenticeships.
Rogers is featured in several Built to Succeed YouTube videos and has been interviewed by news organizations including Snips magazine. She also spends time talking to prospective sheet metal apprentices.
“I didn't consider construction until very soon after I graduated (high school),” Rogers said. “During welding night classes, I really started to consider it.”
She wholeheartedly loves her job and her union, she says, and shares this love with other millennials. “I just have a lot of passion because this trade didn't only make me the woman I am today. It's honestly changed my life,” Rogers explained. “I don't only recruit for sheet metal. Of course, sheet metal is very easy for me to recruit for, because I know the program inside and out. But if I talk to someone about careers in construction, I tell them it's not for everyone. But if they are still interested I will help them get information on any apprenticeship programs—pipefitters, electricians, ironworkers—whatever they are interested in.”
Rogers said a big selling point is earning while you learn. “I just graduated with a college degree, every one of my girlfriends my age has $10,000-plus in student loans before they even know they have a job. I feel for them,” she said. “They are behind before they start. I don't have the same struggle because I was blessed to find the Local 20 apprenticeship program.”
High school shop classes are booming. SMACNA Sacramento Valley is also reaching out to teens—students at Sacramento's Rosemont High School. Due to state budget cuts over the years, there hasn't been any vocational training for local high school students. So SMACNA and their partners from the electrical and plumbing trades created the Rosemont High School Engineering, Construction, and Design Academy.
“We're bringing back the shop class,” said Cheryl Sprague, executive vice president for the SMACNA Sacramento Valley chapter.
The joint venture used an empty school building near the high school as a shop. Volunteers from participating trades worked over the summer of 2017 to retrofit the building with training stations, including welding booths. Area supply companies also donated needed tools and supplies. After just one year, academy was a great success. With 160 students enrolled, the academy nearly doubled their 90-student goal for the launch.
“The school has been very appreciative,” Sprague said. “We are now raising money to expand to other school districts.”
She said targeting a younger audience is important, because many apprenticeship applications come from 28 to 30-year-olds, some who have never even used a hand tool. They may have some helpful life experiences, but since they are older, they are starting to pay into the pension later.
“Anytime there's new blood coming into the trades, it's a win-win,” Sprague continued. “Our contractors need manpower to accept jobs. It's also the right thing to do for the community.”
Targeting youth with social media. Kyle Tibbs, communications and marketing manager with the SMACNA Mid-Atlantic chapter. is developing a recruiting program with contractors and local union representatives focused on careers in the sheet metal and HVAC construction industry. The initiative, TRADE–Technology, Recruitment, Advancement, Deliverability, and Evaluation, which is still in the early stages, will focus on recruiting through new channels.
“The old way of handing out brochures at high schools and career fairs isn’t enough,” said Tibbs. “Not to say that it doesn’t help; rather that method is less effective. Young people communicate differently from past generations. New technologies allow us to market our trade programs via social media, geofencing (location-based advertising), mobile channels, and other technologies.”
The new TRADE website is already up and running and has information for young people to learn about sheet metal and HVAC apprenticeship programs.
“You can watch a video, view yearly pay and benefits, and apply for the test program,” Tibbs said. “This allows quick and easy access to information. This is key to targeting youth. Young people are accustomed to information at their fingertips.”
Tibbs is working with contractors and union reps to redevelop the process of being accepted into an apprentice program. “We have to spice up our tactics,” Tibbs said. “Kids are accustomed to being catered to. Our program must match the enthusiasm of other careers if we are to succeed. This is an evolving process, but we hope to do signing days, provide speakers, offer tours, and even show up with giant checks at award ceremonies for high school seniors.”
Celebrating teens’ career choices with a special signing day has already proven to be a successful strategy in Virginia, where Henrico County Public Schools recently held its first “Career and Technical Letter-of-Intent Signing Day.” Twelve high school seniors were recognized as they signed letters of intent to work as machinists and apprentices with local and national companies.
With so many creative recruiting ideas, Catie Rogers may soon have plenty of company as a sheet metal apprentice celebrity.