Joint apprenticeship and training committees, more commonly known as JATCs, are nothing new for the sheet metal industry. For decades, tradespeople have relied on them for training and continuing education.
Over time, however, JATCs have grown more sophisticated. To help workers stay on the leading edge of best practices in the construction sector, administrators are beefing them up with new technology and training.
A partnership between the local chapter of SMACNA and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Local #33 union has produced a top-notch JATC training center in Cleveland, Ohio. A closer look offers an example of how stakeholders can maximize the benefits of these training centers to help the entire sheet metal sector in a market thrive.
“There are many labor management organizations in the sheet metal industry that are extremely jealous of our strong relationship between labor and management here in the city of Cleveland,” remarked John E. Sickle, president of Cleveland-based Duct Fabricators Inc. and co-chair of the management side of JATC leadership. “This is a labor-management collaboration to better our industry and better our contractors and better our union employees,” SMACNA Cleveland President Tom Martin says.
The SMART Local 33 Cleveland Training Center contains 32,000 square feet of classrooms and shop fabrication and lab space. The JATC moved out of its old facility in downtown Cleveland and into the current one in the suburb of Parma, Ohio, in the early 2000s. “At that time, we went from just a standard sheet metal apprenticeship school atmosphere of learning the trade to teaching the latest and greatest technology that is available to an individual to not only learn the HVAC and sheet metal trade, but to become the best possible journey person that’s available,” says Sickle.
Enrollees in the union’s program attend classes and workshops there as part of a five-year apprenticeship. Each class of apprentices includes approximately 20 people, so there are typically between 100 and 120 apprentices overall enrolled in the five-year program at a given time.
The application process is open to anyone who is at least 17 years old and holds a high school diploma or GED. Applicants must take a standardized test to receive an interview. Workers get paid in the process of completing the apprenticeship, and they owe no tuition once they’ve completed the program. Through a partnership with Cuyahoga Community College, trainees can even earn credits towards an associates’ degree.
In addition to welding and metal fabrication courses offered at the facility, the Cleveland JATC also includes computer-aided drafting and manufacturing, architectural sheet metal and project management. Martin, who has been a member of the Cleveland JATC for more than 10 years, says the committee makes a point of investing in equipment that reflects the future of construction work, such as virtual-reality technology for welding.
“We are always looking at revamping the curriculum on a year-to-year basis,” Martin says. “We’re very proactive in identifying future trends in our industry and then making adjustments to the curriculum.”
The daytime curriculum at the Cleveland JATC is taught four times per year at one-week intervals of 40 hours, adding up to a total of 160 hours of classroom and shop instruction per year. The day classes generally consist of sheet metal fabrication and installation for HVAC and architectural applications, as well as detailing and CAD and mathematics. The night curriculum includes six to eight classes for three hours per class, sprinkled throughout the year. The night classes typically cover safety, infectious control risk assessment, welding and HVAC services.
In addition to schooling new trainees, Journey person workers can come to the Cleveland JATC for retraining and learning new skills. Sickle points out that the JATC has grown from focusing strictly on sheet metal duct work to installing HVAC units to servicing and maintaining the HVAC units. The center’s TAB Lab includes a mock-up with air handler units, duct work, exhaust fans, safety features and more.
“We always tell the journey person, ‘Besides the tools in your pouch, you want to make yourself the tool that’s not only vital to the contractor, but to your community and to your union,’” Sickle says.
A Model of Collaboration
John Sindyla, CEO of SMACNA Cleveland, serves as an alternate trustee for the Cleveland JATC. Sindyla says he looks at the training center as a powerful tool to educate policymakers about the realities of the work attendees do there and on the job. SMACNA Cleveland has hosted prominent politicians from both sides of the aisle for tours of the training center. Sindyla says he has yet to hear any criticism from the high-profile visitors.
“They’re extremely impressed because every single thing in that facility is paid for by money from both of our organizations and donations of equipment from our associate members, vendors, and suppliers,” Sindyla notes. “So there’s not one dollar coming from federal, state or local entities.”
According to Sickle, the objective of taking prominent figures such as U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on tours of the training center is to give them a true-to-life picture of what the apprentices are learning and what their jobs entail. “We take pride in the fact that we put a quality product out there,” Sickle says. “This contributes to good, quality craftsmanship and craftspeople.”
The JATC also gives stakeholders in the industry a powerful recruitment tool. Relationships with area vocational schools enable the union to bring in students from local high schools to tour the facility. Additionally, the training centers are used to recruit military veterans into the industry. Martin also emphasizes the role that the Cleveland JATC can play in grooming new leaders to step into roles now being vacated due to retirement. Meanwhile, Sickle points out that other associations and trade groups visit the center to take notes on how it is set up and equipped.
The Cleveland training center is funded by contributions from contractors and union dues. Representatives of both contractors and laborers work together to decide how best to allocate those resources within the center.
Sindyla praises the endeavor as a model of collaboration between the labor and management sides of the construction industry.
“People see labor and management as Godzilla versus King Kong, and it’s exactly the opposite here in Cleveland,“ Sindyla remarks. “This JATC is a perfect example of what a partnership between labor and management should be.”