Sheet metal workers cut and shape sheet metal for heating, air-conditioning, and ventilating systems. They also make gutters, downspouts, skylights, restaurant equipment, railroad cars, tailgates, and any other product that can be made with sheet metal fiberglass and plastic materials. Unlike many other craft workers, sheet metal workers employed in manufacturing or metal fabrication plants work in well-lit and well-ventilated shops. Common tasks include laying out, measuring, cutting, and fabricating sheets of metal. Before starting any project, workers study plans and specifications. They may operate computerized equipment to cut, drill, saw, or press metal.
Other sheet metal workers perform their work at construction jobsites. They use tools such as tape measures, calipers, and micrometers to check the manufactured part before fastening pieces together. Manufactured sections of metal must be trimmed and seams must be fastened together. Once fastened, sheet metal workers join sections of metal ductwork, piping, or tubes and attach them to walls or ceilings. Metal roofs are made completely at the jobsite. Roofing panels are measured and cut onsite. After the first panel is positioned and secured, each new panel is fastened to the existing panel. To finish the job, machine-made molding is attached at the joints and along the corners.
Some sheet metal workers work on maintaining and repairing metal sheets and structures. They may test, balance, and adjust ventilating systems to improve their efficiency.
Most workers receive their training on the job, some attend vocational schools or take specialized courses, and others become apprentices. Those who begin with on-the-job training will usually start as a helper or an assistant to an experienced worker. They will usually start by carrying metal, cleaning up debris, and learning about tools. They will then learn to operate the machines that cut and bend metal before advancing to more complex tasks such as installation. Helpers who have the necessary skills and knowledge can be promoted to journeymen.
In order to be accepted into an apprenticeship program sponsored by local joint committees of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association and local chapters of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors Association, applicants should have a high school diploma or GED, be at least 18 years old, possess a driver’s license, and be legally authorized to work in the United States. Apprenticeship programs last approximately four to five years. Each year of the program requires classroom training focusing on the particular sheet metal career path chosen. Courses address topics such as computer-aided drafting, reading plans and specifications, trigonometry and geometry, welding, and principles of heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation systems.
Once trained, sheet metal workers are encouraged to continue their education and keep their skills up to date by learning about new technological advancements such as computerized layouts and laser-cutting machines. Obtaining certifications in special applications is valuable if workers hope to advance in their careers or move on to more advanced or specialized work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook predicts slower than average growth and good job opportunities for sheet metal workers. The growth in employment is expected to be about 6 percent over the next 10 years. Growth will be driven largely by the need to install energy-efficient air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems in older buildings. The number of industrial, commercial, and residential structures that will be built over the next decade is expected to be significant, something which will also translate into opportunities for sheet metal workers. The slower than average growth rate is due to automation and the increase in manufacturing work being performed offshore.
Salaries vary depending upon experience and industry. The median hourly wage for sheet metal workers is $19.37 per hour. The middle 50 percent earn between $14.39 and $27.03 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $11.43 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $35.36. Sheet metal apprentices receive 40 to 50 percent of the wages earned by experienced workers. The rate increases steadily as workers acquire additional skills.