Architectural: Demand for Specialists Up

Architectural articleArchitectural: In-demand skills mean work — and pride


Above all else, what makes Union workers better—and worth better wages—is skill. Union members have the abilities and knowledge that let them do any job and get it right every time.

Union expertise is especially valuable (and visible) in Architectural Sheet Metal work. That demanding market also embodies a trait at least as important as top-level skill: pride.

All Union workers rightly take pride in their work. But no matter their location, what projects they’ve worked on or their years in the trade, the architectural specialty gives pride a different meaning.

This pride goes beyond a job well done and the solidarity of being a union member. It goes beyond crafting a visible end-product. Architectural work is both tangible and publicly visible, something friends, family and anyone else can readily understand. That visibility generates more work opportunities, too.

Be it a beautiful office building, a professional sports stadium, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, architectural work is a 24/7/365 display of union skills.

That public showcase of craft and expertise not only generates a well-earned pride, but also—especially with ever-changing materials and design—creates growing opportunities for work.

In short, architectural work demands skills that the non-union sector simply doesn’t provide. And that means even more work and more pride for SMART members.

That’s because unlike many elements of the trade, which are equally demanding but are hidden from the public eye, architectural work is something members not only create but also point to and say, “I did that.”

Holding onto history

Union sheet metal workers have been sharing that pride for 128 years. The union was conceived in 1888 as the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers’ International Association, all crafts with roots in architectural sheet metal.

“It is a large part of the work we want to do, and we need to pursue it. That’s how Manhattan started. There wasn’t any duct work back in the day,” said Frank Tamboles, architectural sheet metal instructor at SM Local 28 in Queens, New York who worked as an architectural sheet metal journeyman for 19 years. “All the finishing was copper.”

A concern of architectural sheet metal workers is their abilities will retire when they do.

“If you lose it and you don’t train it, all that’s left is the book—and you can’t learn it all from a book.” Tamboles said. “You have to see it. Feel it. You can’t teach it in one class. It takes experience. But if you don’t get people to do it, it’s going to be gone.”

Efforts to maintain and expand this in-demand expertise are in high gear at the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal industry, which includes architectural and ornamental.

The ITI builds curriculum and hosts training for instructors and coordinators so that schools that are currently offering architectural programs will raise member interest and those without these programs will offer them.

“Extreme demand…more work than we can handle”

The ITI programs are part of the push by SMART to remind sheet metal workers of their craft origins in a specialty that is currently low on qualified members and high in demand from contractors.

“We have more work than we can handle. Right now, [other trades] are getting a lot of it. Non-union is getting a lot of it,” Tamboles said. “There’s an extreme demand and not enough companies and skilled people available.”

“Almost 90 percent of what we do as sheet metal workers is HVACrelated. It’s the bread and butter of our industry,” added Chris Caricato, training coordinator at San Diego SM Local 206 and an architectural sheet metal worker for more than 20 years. “But [for architectural], there’s always a deficiency. They can’t find enough good architectural sheet metal workers. It’s hard to find the people with the experience.”

In Southeastern Michigan, only 10 to 12 percent of union sheet metal workers specialize or can skillfully work in architectural sheet metal.

“They’re a special breed,” said Glenn Parvin, President and owner of CASS Sheet Metal in Detroit. SMART’s members “in the field, they have a way of knowing what can and can’t be done and what should be done. Architectural sheet metal workers like their trade. They want to be outside. They don’t want to be inside hanging ductwork.”

Variety and creativity

CASS Sheet Metal has worked on everything from modern work like the new Detroit Events Center, future home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, to historical restoration projects. When a church steeple nearly toppled during a wind storm, the company was called on for the repair. Not only did they have to figure out how to fix it, they had to secure it safely interim.

“Every job is so unique, and we involve ourselves in such a variety of installations. They’ve only gotten more challenging,” Parvin said. “I think the creative side comes in as problem solving in how you implement the project.”

Restoration work on the Michigan state capitol required more than 2,300 custom cut and stamped pressed ornament balls created to match the process used for the originals in the 1800s. The challenge was to research and perfect the craftsmanship while keeping the job efficient and on time.

“You have to figure out how to do it. Then, you have to figure out how to do it competitively,” Parvin said. “And we did it.”

Like any industry and every trade, sheet metal has its specialties, and architectural sheet metal is suited for certain interests and skill levels. It’s seen as the creative side of the trade, but where those skills are most useful is in the creation and installation of other people’s work.

“Every building has its unique feature the architect is trying to incorporate, and that’s usually done by sheet metal workers,” Caricato said. “A lot of times, the architects know how to draw it, but they don’t know how to build it. There’s a first time for everything with an architectural project. You have to take the vision and create it.”

Apprentices “get hooked”

Knowledge and experience are what separate today’s apprentices from current journeymen on the job. While the true architectural sheet metal education comes from hands-on experience, interest is piqued in the classroom.

“The way to get hooked is the pride of when you’re done,” Tamboles added. “You have to get them young when they first come in, and you have to catch their attention. Once you bring them outside and you assemble something—when they see it come together—they take photos and show it to their friends.”

During a recent class, Tamboles emphasized detail work by teaching his class how to hand-cut and create copper flowers. Light bulbs went off. Students started to understand the creativity, detail and craftsmanship it takes to do the work.

“I’ve taught them miters. I’ve taught them siding. They want to know how to make flowers to take home and show off,” he added with a laugh. “Once they see it come together, they get serious about it and focus on it. All of a sudden, these tough guys from rough neighborhoods are making roses and lilies. They lost their minds.”

Tamboles pointed out that although crafting copper flowers seems funny, and small, it speaks to the heart of pride. And the exercise wasn’t too far off from actual projects. While working his current project—the restoration of the famous Dakota apartments in New York City—Tamboles will hand-craft 250 copper clad dormers over a nearly four-year period.

“Sense of accomplishment” spreads on social media

“It’s nice to look at something you’ve built,” said Jason Bowers, who is nearing his fourth year of apprenticeship at SM Local 206. “There’s a college downtown, and I’ve put my hands on every panel on the outside of that building. I can show people and say, ‘I built that.’”

The sense of accomplishment architectural sheet metal workers have always felt when pointing out their work to others has been updated with the advent of social media. In San Diego, Caricato has seen his apprentices gravitate to the work because of the instant gratification—not only for themselves, but for what they can share instantly with their circle.

“You have immediate recognition of what you did that day. You’re going to see it,” Caricato said. “At that point, it’s not about the paycheck. It’s about passion.”

“You feel that sense of accomplishment every day when you’re done,” Tamboles added. “We all work on different jobs, but we know everyone in our specialty. We’re sending photos back and forth.”

Jesse Spencer, field superintendent with A. Zahner Co., has moved 40 times in 18 years with the company, overseeing projects from Alaska to the Bahamas. The company has worked on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, among other notable buildings. Recently, Spencer finished up work on the Peterson Auto Museum in Los Angeles, where the outside metal skin of the building was renovated with 318 stainless steel ribbons that wrap the facade.

In architectural sheet metal, the work is part of the structure’s overall visual. When people walk into a building, they often don’t think about ductwork or how the HVAC system is designed (and union work keeps things comfortable). In architectural sheet metal, the work is the visible finished product.

“Zahner is very driven with the visual aspects of architecture, where other facets of the trade maybe not so much,” Spencer said. “We make these monumental projects, but not everything we do is necessarily at such a large scale. It doesn’t have to be for a building that is a big monument. It can be something on somebody’s house. It’s creative and rewarding to look and see what you built.”

ITI training is a path to an industry sector that’s “growing again… finally.”

“It’s a meticulous trade. You have to pay attention to detail because everyone else sees it, too,” Caricato added. “It’s like a billboard every time you finish something. You’re advertising what you do every time you install something.”

For a growing specialty, the craftsmen of today are seeking the journeymen of tomorrow.

“That’s the beauty in architectural sheet metal—when someone can notice the beauty in it,” Parvin said. “It’s a growing industry. It’s growing again. Finally.”

Future Focus


Our varied crafts train us to think and work short term—this minute, an hour, today. But members have long term goals, too, like building an upward career path and a more secure future.

This section covers just a few of the tools SMART members can use to open up new options and opportunities—to earn more, have a better retirement, or simply learn skills and expand expertise.

pp. 10–14

p. 15

pp. 16–17

pp. 18–22

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