Terry Victor – vice president, Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local #3 (sheetmetalworkerslocal3.org); union member since 1989

What are the best resources locally and online for our local workforce to advance their careers?

We’re a labor union; we’re not an employer. If you don’t know much about labor unions, we provide labor for our contractors. We provide skilled labor; we educate that labor and then we send them out to our employers to fill the jobs. It’s a partnership. Our apprenticeship is (also) a partnership: the JATC (joint apprenticeship training committee) is a committee of half contractors and half union members. We work in collaboration with each other to advance our educational program, to run our educational program, and to solve any problems we have for the future and move forward.

We accept applications at Local 3 and put your application on file, and once a year around May/June, we start the application and interview process. We go through all the applications and make sure everyone has their applications done so they can advance to the interview process. The committee is half the people you’d be working for and half your brother members who would be in charge of your training.

We’ll have request from our contractors (about) how many apprentices they want for our upcoming class. Then we have to decide how many people we can educate at one time, and a lot of that has to do with the size of our facility—the equipment, the welding booths, like that. We look at our contractors and their upcoming work and labor demands, and we decide as a group with the contractors how many people we’re going to take in a year. That number has been averaging between 20 and 28 apprentices in a year. 

There’s no cost to the apprentice throughout the apprenticeship and you’ll end up making around $200,000 to $230,000 over a five-year apprenticeship program now. But what I like to explain to people as I’m trying to promote our educational program and our apprenticeship is that right now, the average college student with a bachelor’s degree has $30,000 in debt when they come out of school; that’s just an average. And the average bachelor’s degree (salary) coming out of school is right around $35,000 to $45,000 a year. Here you work the whole time you’re in school, you get raises, and over this five years you’re making over $200,000 instead of going into debt. Not only do you have zero debt, you’re making a wage right now at about $70,000 per year.

What is the future of work in this area? 

The economy is wonderful right now and we’re directly affected by the economy in our business. When things are good, we’re all working and when the economy is down, things slow down. But in our line of work, the sheet metal industry, we’re pretty fortunate that everybody still needs our work whether the economy’s good or not. 

My personal opinion is that a problem we have is not many people know what a sheet metal worker is. Everybody knows what an electrician is, everybody knows what a plumber is, a lot of people know what a steamfitter is. We don’t really do anything to market ourselves. We’re nonprofit and we’re local, and a lot of our money is put into education. We’ve been trying to do more outreach with junior high and high schools, and hopefully in a few years we’ll see the impact of that. 

How do we market ourselves? We’re a nonprofit and we don’t have a lot of money to go to a big marketing firm and say, “Make us look great.” 

I’m very proud of and passionate about what I do. I might go home dirty some days, but that’s okay–I can take a shower, I can launder my clothes. I get paid a respectable wage, a living wage. I have really good insurance, I have a 401K, I have a pension and other benefits. We’ve worked really hard as a union and our contractors with us to get where we are now. 

Where are the jobs and how do we get ready for them?

I’ve always wondered why we’ve had this roadblock at the high school level where all they want to do is point kids toward the direction of college, a two-year college or a four-year college. But they never they try to point a kid in the direction of a four- or five-year apprentice program with a trade.

The biggest thing we’re looking for in our applicants, the one thing we’re looking for is math. Math is 80 percent of what we do, so if you can figure out the math part of, the rest of it comes really easy.

Schools will have career fairs and that, and they’ll invite us. When we go them, it’s more geared toward college. The kids come up and talk to us and then they move on. This mindset that was put in Americans, that our kids have to go college and that’s how you get a good job. I think that’s going away because of the cost of education and the cost of student loans. Wages have been stagnant and they haven’t made up for the kid who has $100,000 in debt and is only going to start out at $40,000 a year. I hope something changes, but for us in the trades, it’s an opportunity for us to get a lot of good help. How do I find them, though?

What are the biggest challenges holding the workforce back from career advancement? 

A lot of it some people have to take a cut in pay when they enter the program (from another field); a lot of people who’ve been in the workforce for a while might be making $20 an hour and if they have to take a cut in pay and wait six months for their insurance to kick in; that’s really hard for them. 

We increased the starting wage to make that leap not as hard for the older apprentice, the more established person coming in to our field. And then what we did is decreased the raises you receive every six months’ semester of your apprenticeship, you start out at more but the raises aren’t as much.

This is all negotiated with our partners; it’s all part of the contract. We need them and they need us. 

What do you wish job-seekers knew better as they aim to advance their careers?

Metalworkers, we are a skilled trade and as far as in my mind, we’re one of the last skilled trades because we actually take a piece of raw steel and custom fabricate it into anything the customer wants. We have a very technical trade and the biggest part of our trade is trigonometry and algebra. When people think that I’m just some guy that wears a hard hat and swings a hammer and pushes a broom all day, well it’s a lot more technical than that. How to make people see that? I don’t know. 

Our trade has changed so much; that’s another thing that we keep doing for our workforce even out of the apprenticeship: we have continuing education that is ongoing through your whole career. I just took a supervisor training course last week. Great class, I learned a lot. One thing we keep focusing our funds and time and effort on is continuing education.

What do you wish employers knew better as they seek talent?

We work with, I believe, 27 contractors. And the biggest thing they’re looking for is young, ambitious kids who are ready to learn a career and not just a job, and are ready to make a commitment. Is that who they always get? No. Some of the older apprentices have just done marvelous…it shows a lot of drive and desire by the older people who come into an apprenticeship. They’ve worked their whole career and it was just the way their (former) trade went; it went away and they had to find something new. That’s one really nice thing about belonging to a labor union, is that whoever I work for, I still have the same benefits and the same pay. 

What are employers doing to retain their current staff?

It isn’t money that will make you change from one contractor to the next; a lot of it has to do with the work environment. I’m starting to see that change in our contractors. I’ve belonged to Local 3 since 1989 and people always ask who have I worked for. I always say, “Let’s go through the list of who I haven’t worked for, because it’s a lot shorter.” I came back to work for a larger company I hadn’t worked for in 13 years and I talked to the foreman who I worked for 13 years ago, and said I don’t know if the company changed or if I changed, but it’s a better place to work. It’s the way you are treated, and I think the old-school management style of fear and intimidation doesn’t work. And maybe the management style of giving somebody a pat on the back and showing them appreciation for the work they do gets a guy to give the extra effort for them. That’s how you’re going to retain your workforce. I just took a supervisor class and the guy said they just did a study of what made guys said they wanted from their work, and money was fourth on the list. Recognition was number one or number two. I understand that. A lot of companies are advancing employees sooner to keep them around, moving the top-notch guys quicker into supervisory or manager positions. 

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