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Tackling the Talent Gap

When there’s more exit than entry and more work than hands, what’s the answer? Tell the sheet metal story — to everyone. 

It’s scary math. Up to half of the industry’s talent will retire in the next five to seven years. For every four to five people who retire, one person is hired, creating a significant talent gap. 

This from Angie Simon, advisor to the board of Western Allied Mechanical in Menlo Park, California, and co-founder of the workforce development nonprofit, Heavy Metal Summer Experience. “The average age of workers in our industry is older than it has been in a long time,” she adds. In conversations with some of Western Allied’s leadership and longtime team members, Simon hears, “I’m three years from retirement. I’m retiring at the end of the year,” and so on. “We are going to lose a lot of really good people.” 

That’s the story across the industry and in construction trades overall.

While serving as SMACNA’s first female president from 2019 to 2021, Simon visited contractors across the country. “The No. 1 concern everywhere was and is workforce development and succession planning because people who own the companies are getting ready to retire, too,” she adds. 

There are multiple factors built into the labor pain equation. 

Scarier yet opportunistic numbers: federal megaprojects valued at upwards of $35 million will require qualified, trained labor. 

The trades aren’t alone in the juggle to fill empty seats, understaffed projects and vital roles. Employers of all kinds are competing for talent and working harder to retain the workers they have. While 2023 closed with a steady unemployment rate of 3.7%, this low number also means the industry must ramp up recruitment to introduce sheet metal careers to young people entering the workforce and expand the hiring pool to individuals who are in jobs but looking for a better path and those the sheet metal trade has not traditionally attracted. 

It’s a daunting reality — but it doesn’t need to be that way. In Simon’s words, “It’s time to stop complaining, do something about workforce and get some skin in the game.” 

That’s exactly what she did when starting Heavy Metal Summer Experience in 2021 in partnership with Rick Hermanson, CEO of The Hermanson Company in Seattle, Washington. The program grew from two camps of 28 students to 21 participating companies and locations across North America with 325 students ages 15 to 19. It’s working. “It’s inspiring — the participation has floored me,” Simon says. 

SMACNA Mid-Atlantic organizes summer tours for vocational school students at local sheet metal companies, with hosts like W.E. Bowers in Beltsville, Maryland, and Southland Industries in nearby Laurel. Exposing young people already on a trades track to specialty industries like sheet metal opens their eyes. 

Some of those “tourists” have become apprentices. 

“Once more people are educated about the industry, they might be very surprised at how good of a career they can have,” says Dale Sheppard vice president of sheet metal at W.E. Bowers, speaking from the perspective of a second-generation sheet metal worker who, in his 42-year career, has climbed the ranks. The reason he pursued the trade is because he saw his father rise and provide for their family. 

He says, now more than ever, it’s time to multiply and amplify this kind of story to recruit and retain talent to the sheet metal industry. 

Amping Up the Sales Pitch
The reasons for lagging employment in the sheet metal industry are varied and many of them a byproduct of a good, old-fashioned hope for the next generation to “do better.” Of course, there’s fallacy in this belief, and also a slight U-turn in how young people are pursuing post-secondary education following the pandemic. 

Sheppard followed his father’s footsteps, and now his son is a third-generation sheet metal worker. “It’s not as generational now as it used to be,” he says, wishing that weren’t the case. “There were a number of years when people would not even recommend to their kids to do what they do.”

During a safety meeting, Simon once asked Western Allied’s leads, “How many of you want your kids to be in the trades?” Not many raised hands. “How many of you want your kids to go to college?” she followed up. Almost every hand shot up. 

But college doesn’t have to mean a four-year liberal arts institution. Sheet metal workers who have established successful careers in the industry understand that. But what about others?

Lately, there is more bucking the idea of lecture halls and reconsidering the legacy family university these days, notices Kurt Snyder, executive director of SMACNA Mid-Atlantic. “We’re seeing more students who want to work with their hands,” he says.
The pandemic kind of helped, shining a light on what it means to be an essential worker getting a regular paycheck. 

“Also, with the high inflation and rising prices, you start lopping that on top of higher education costs, which have soared, as well,” Snyder relates. “A big change for many people was a move to do more with less, and not graduate with $180,000 in debt and take 15 years to work it off.”

And in some ways the workplace evolution amid COVID hurt the industry.     

“With so much remote work, there are a lot of people who are driven to get into that environment, and that’s definitely not construction,” Sheppard says. “You can’t work from home and install something on a jobsite.”

Some find out after going off to campus or taking some community college classes that the academic environment is a swing and a miss. It’s just not their thing. Or, they gain employment with an hourly wage, no benefits or no real promise and decide to pursue a stable career in the trades instead. “These are some reasons why the average apprentice age is about 30, says Sheppard, who served on a joint apprenticeship committee. “When I started, most of us were 18 to 20 years old,” he says. 

Still, there is a layer of dust on the construction trades’ reputation. Despite highly technical processes, tech innovation and the range of industry positions from engineering to management and even marketing, public perception is somewhat antiquated. 

“It’s not where we’d like it to be,” Simon says. “It’s thought of as a dirty, blue-collar job, and we need to change that idea because it’s far from that. Kids need to understand it’s probably not what their parents think of as construction. We need to focus on showing young people that this is a very viable career, not just a job.”

Simon also encourages kids in Heavy Metal Summer Experience camps to think beyond field work. “About 60% of SMACNA contractors have come through the trades and now own their own companies,” she points out. 

Busting Barriers to Entry
Aside from general knowledge of industry opportunity, there are other barriers to entry that employers can address to attract talent. But it requires a mindset shift. 

Transportation is a big one. Sheppard says, “It’s definitely a huge hurdle,” in his area where public transportation is available, but not always running to suburban jobsites. “To me, it’s personally surprising how many people do not get a driver’s license until they are 19 or 20,” he says. “And with public transportation, there can be issues with timing.” 

Snyder adds that mass transit is a solution for young students vs. buying a car and paying insurance and costly parking fees in urban markets like Washington, D.C. “Public transportation is provided there for anyone who needs it, but if you have to get from Washington, D.C. and drive 40 minutes out of the beltway, you need a vehicle,” he says. 

Some companies arrange carpooling. Others have organized shuttles or busing for large projects. 

Snyder reminds: “A student may perform really well and get a job offer, but without transportation, you can have the castle, but you can’t cross the moat.”

And today, childcare is a diverse issue shared by single mothers, single fathers and dual-income families, noted SMART General President Mike Coleman in a labor forum. Childcare could cost 20% of a household’s income, and he says SMART is working on an initiative to relieve some of those costs and is “almost there.” 

Early start times can make daycare drop-off a challenge. “We’re trying to offer some flexibility in start time but, unfortunately, the trend in this industry has been to go to work earlier and earlier,” Sheppard says. “I have people starting anywhere from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m.”

Snyder adds that providing benefits such as more “open-ended PTO time to use” would appeal to younger workers and all employees who, he says, “are not looking for outrageous benefits but need a favor from time to time, and that can make all the difference.” 

Back to the mindset shift, the ability to do meaningful work and make a difference is important to younger workers — and really, all of us, given a universal re-evaluation of what’s important in a career amid the pandemic. 

“Work-life balance is important, but what they are really looking for is a sense of involvement and belonging, and while pay comes into that, it’s not as important as being fulfilled, appreciated and having opportunities to grow,” says Julie Markee, business consultant and owner of Key Process Innovations. 

She shares how one of her clients, Enoch Machining, created a FastTrack: Learn More, Earn More program for new machinists combining weekly classroom sessions, hands-on instruction and production responsibilities. Upon completing, participants meet certification requirements designated by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), gain employment and speed toward promotions and pay raises. 

Also important, the program builds a culture of continuous learning, which is valued by the young workforce, Markee points out. 

Adopting a modern mindset is not only important for recruiting talent, it’s key for retaining hard workers. 

The sheet metal industry talent gap isn’t widening because workers are leaving the industry to do something else. It’s not about attrition, it’s about retirement, Sheppard says. But young people who come on board are looking for a different type of workplace than the generations before them. 

Retention is mission critical to retain great workers who can climb the ranks, mentor new employees and help companies grow. 

“There are plenty of companies with a business model of bringing people in for a certain project, and when that project is over, ‘We no longer need your services,’ and those individuals are out looking for other positions,” Snyder says, adding that Millennial and Gen-Z workers actually do not want to job hop. “They want to put down roots and establish themselves.” 

If a company hires 30 team members for a project, “There will be a few who stand out, and we need to make room for them for the long-term,” he adds. 

Out-of-the-Box Strategies
Recruiting creativity can give companies a leg up with hiring efforts. Heavy Metal Summer Experience is just one example, and now the nonprofit offers a playbook of resources with 100-plus pages of sample projects, release forms, media and marketing materials. It’s a plug-and-play program for any sheet metal company that wants to participate. 

“We rely on finding host contractors and host training centers, and we provide every kid in camp a set of Red Wing boots and a bag of tools from our partners, DeWalt and Milwaukee Tool,” Simon says, adding that the organization provides participating companies with stainless steel metal, T-shirts and support. “We hold their hands the first year they are running it, and we update our playbook every year to add more projects.” 

A sign of recruiting success for companies who host a camp: All 21 camps that ran last year are offering the program again this summer, with more coming on board. 

Not only does the camp boost recruiting efforts, but also it’s a benefit for employees, who get a morale hit from sharing their knowledge and experience. “The employees love giving back — and they really do want to give back because they see this is a good cause,” Simon says.  

Facility tours like the ones SMACNA Mid-Atlantic hosts introduce technical schools with already “all-in” candidates to promising jobs. “By aligning technical high schools with participating companies that want to grow, we have seen great success,” Snyder says.

“The schools are so appreciative,” he adds, noting that many teachers are evaluated on the number of students who attain jobs after graduation as a mark of the school’s success. “They have a vested interest in getting those kids placed.” 

Snyder also suggests capturing student talent in the way college athletics sign incoming freshmen. “If you have a female high-school soccer player who is great at the game and signs a commitment letter to a university, why can’t we do that for technical students, maybe those who have completed a summer internship?” he relates. “If there are stand-out students and they are motivated and their attendance record is spotless, they collaborate, it’s a great future hire. Make an offer to hire them upon graduation.” 

Aside from students, the sheet metal industry is a fulfilling career path for others who might not know about it. Coleman speaks about creating opportunities for Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATC) to attain grants — “free money to improve your workers and employees.” 

Another avenue for talent: SMART Heroes, which Coleman calls a “best-kept secret and unbelievable program.” It provides a seven-week, free sheet metal industry training program to active-duty U.S. military men and women and recent veterans at any JATC. Coleman says, so far, 547 graduated and 374 are in apprenticeships. “These are our heroes, and we are able to give them a path,” he says. 

Approaching recruiting with an open mind and open doors is equally important, as promoted by the BE4ALL initiative — Belonging and Excellence for All. “Locals should look like the communities we live in,” Coleman says.

As for promoting the industry, Sheppard points to a need for more social media exposure, “because it’s where the world is now, and we need to be more proactive,” he relates. 

Spread the word about SMART/SMACNA’s social media outreach effort on Facebook, where posts promote aspects of the industry that can attract talent. For example, one says, “I get to build with my hands whether in the shop or the field. I enjoy quality visual work. I’m an artist, so I have a vision for it.” 

Above all, tell the story. 
Simon’s challenge to contractors: “Sell our industry to people, sell it to the next generation.”