Career Guide for Sheet Metal Workers

Sheet metal workers use metal sheets for a variety of purposes including creating duct systems, roofs, siding, rain gutters, and more. Most of the works in this industry learn through on the job training.

In this free career guide, learn how to become a successful sheet metal worker.

Sheet Metal Worker Summary

  • Sheet metal workers are primarily employed in construction and manufacturing industries.
  • Workers learn through informal on-the-job training or formal apprenticeship programs.
  • Job opportunities in construction should be good, particularly for individuals who have apprenticeship training or who are certified welders; applicants for jobs in manufacturing will experience competition.

Working as a Sheet Metal Worker

Sheet metal workers make, install, and maintain heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning duct systems; roofs; siding; rain gutters; downspouts; skylights; restaurant equipment; outdoor signs; railroad cars; tailgates; customized precision equipment; and many other products made from metal sheets. They also may work with fiberglass and plastic materials. Although some workers specialize in fabrication, installation, or maintenance, most do all three jobs. Sheet metal workers do both construction-related work and mass production of sheet metal products in manufacturing.

Sheet metal workers first study plans and specifications to determine the kind and quantity of materials they will need. They measure, cut, bend, shape, and fasten pieces of sheet metal to make ductwork, countertops, and other custom products. Sheet metal workers program and operate computerized metalworking equipment. They cut, drill, and form parts with computer-controlled saws, lasers, shears, and presses.

In shops without computerized equipment, and for products that cannot be made with such equipment, sheet metal workers make the required calculations and use tapes, rulers, and other measuring devices for layout work. They then cut or stamp the parts with machine tools.

Before assembling pieces, sheet metal workers use measuring instruments such as tape measures, calipers, and micrometers to check each part for accuracy. If necessary, they use hand, rotary, or squaring shears and hacksaws to finish pieces. After inspecting the pieces, workers fasten seams and joints together with welds, bolts, cement, rivets, solder, or other connecting devices. They then take the parts constructed in the shop and assemble the pieces further as they install them. These workers install ducts, pipes, and tubes by joining them end to end and hanging them with metal hangers secured to a ceiling or a wall. They also use shears, hammers, punches, and drills to make parts at the worksite or to alter parts made in the shop.

Some jobs are done completely at the jobsite. When installing a metal roof, for example, sheet metal workers usually measure and cut the roofing panels onsite. They secure the first panel in place and interlock and fasten the grooved edge of the next panel into the grooved edge of the first. Then they nail or weld the free edge of the panel to the structure. This two-step process is repeated for each additional panel. Finally, the workers fasten machine-made molding at joints, along corners, and around windows and doors, for a neat, finished effect.

In addition to installation, some sheet metal workers specialize in testing, balancing, adjusting, and servicing existing air-conditioning and ventilation systems to make sure they are functioning properly and to improve their energy efficiency. Properly installed duct systems are a key component of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems; sometimes duct installers are called HVAC technicians. A growing activity for sheet metal workers is the commissioning of a building—a complete mechanical inspection of the building’s HVAC, water, and lighting systems.

Sheet metal workers in manufacturing plants make sheet metal parts for products such as aircraft or industrial equipment. Although some of the fabrication techniques used in large-scale manufacturing are similar to those used in smaller shops, the work may be highly automated and repetitive. Sheet metal workers doing such work may be responsible for reprogramming the computer control systems of the equipment they operate.

Work environment. Sheet metal workers usually work a 40-hour week. Those who fabricate sheet metal products work in small shops and manufacturing plants that are usually well lighted and well ventilated. However, they stand for long periods and lift heavy materials and finished pieces. Those performing installation at construction sites or inside buildings do considerable bending, lifting, standing, climbing, and squatting, sometimes in close quarters or awkward positions. Working outdoors exposes sheet metal workers to various kinds of weather.

Sheet metal workers must follow safety practices, because this occupation has a relatively high rate of nonfatal injuries. Some sheet metal workers work around high-speed machines, which can be dangerous. Others are subject to cuts from sharp metal, burns from soldering or welding, and falls from ladders or scaffolds. They often are required to wear safety glasses and must not wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothing that could easily be caught in a machine. To avoid repetitive-type injuries, they may work at a variety of different production stations.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Sheet metal workers learn their trade through both formal apprenticeships and informal on-the-job training programs. Formal apprenticeships are more likely to be found in construction.

Education and training. To become a skilled sheet metal construction worker usually takes between 4 and 5 years of both classroom and on-the-job training. Although there are a number of different ways to obtain this training, generally the more formalized the training received by an individual, the more thoroughly skilled the person becomes and the more likely he or she is to be in demand by employers. For some, this training begins in a high school, where classes in English, algebra, geometry, physics, mechanical drawing and blueprint reading, and general shop are recommended.

After high school, there are a number of different ways to train. One way is to get a job with a contractor who will provide training on the job. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. Most begin by carrying metal and cleaning up debris in a metal shop, learning about materials, tools, and their uses as they go about their tasks. Later, they learn to operate machines that bend or cut metal. In time, helpers go to the jobsite to learn installation. Employers may send their employees to a trade or vocational school to take courses or to a community college to receive further formal training. Helpers may be promoted to the journeyman level if they show the requisite knowledge and skills. Most sheet metal workers in large-scale manufacturing receive on-the-job training, with additional classwork or in-house training as necessary. The training needed to become proficient in manufacturing takes less time than the training for proficiency in construction.

Apprenticeship programs combine paid on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. Usually, apprenticeship applicants must be at least 18 years old and meet local requirements. The length of the program, typically 4 to 5 years, varies with the apprentice’s skill. Apprenticeship programs provide comprehensive instruction in both sheet metal fabrication and sheet metal installation. They may be administered by local joint committees composed of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association and local chapters of the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors National Association.

Sheet metal workers can choose one of many specialties. Workers can specialize in commercial and residential HVAC installation and maintenance, industrial welding and fabrication, exterior or architectural sheet metal installation, sign fabrication, service and refrigeration, and testing and balancing of building systems.

On the job, apprentices receive first safety training and then training in tasks that allow them to begin work immediately. They use materials such as fiberglass, plastics, and other nonmetallic materials. Workers focus on a particular sheet metal career path. In the classroom, apprentices learn computer aided drafting; reading of plans and specifications; trigonometry and geometry applicable to layout work; welding; the use of computerized equipment; the principles of heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation systems. In addition, apprentices learn the relationship between sheet metal work and other construction work.

Other qualifications. Sheet metal workers need to be in good physical condition and have mechanical and mathematical aptitude and good reading skills. Good eye-hand coordination, accurate perception of spaces and forms, and manual dexterity also are important. Courses in algebra, trigonometry, geometry, mechanical drawing, and shop provide a helpful background for learning the trade, as does related work experience obtained in the U.S. Armed Services.

Certification and advancement. It is important for experienced sheet metal workers to keep abreast of new technological developments, such as the use of computerized layout and laser-cutting machines. In addition, new software, called B.I.M., which stands for “building information modeling,” allows contractors, architects, and engineers to coordinate their efforts and increase efficiency at worksites.

Certifications in one of the specialties also can be beneficial to workers. Certifications related to sheet metal specialties are offered by a wide variety of associations, several of which are listed in the sources of additional information at the end of this statement.

Sheet metal workers in construction may advance to supervisory jobs. Some of these workers take additional training in welding and do more specialized work. Workers who perform building and system testing are able to move into construction and building inspection. Others go into the contracting business for themselves. Because a sheet metal contractor must have a shop with equipment to fabricate products, this type of contracting business is more expensive to start than other types of construction contracting.

Sheet metal workers in manufacturing may advance to positions as supervisors or quality inspectors. Some of these workers may move into other management positions.

Employment as a Sheet Metal Worker

Sheet metal workers held about 170,700 jobs in 2008. About 63 percent of all sheet metal workers were in the construction industry, including 46 percent who worked for plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors; most of the rest in construction worked for roofing contractors and for building finishing contractors. Some worked for general contractors engaged in residential and commercial building and for other special trade contractors.

About 23 percent of all sheet metal workers were in manufacturing industries, such as the fabricated metal products, machinery, and aerospace products and parts industries. Some sheet metal workers work for the Federal Government.

Compared with workers in most construction craft occupations, relatively few sheet metal workers are self-employed.

Job Outlook

Slower than average employment growth is projected. Job opportunities should be best for individuals who have apprenticeship training or who are certified welders. Applicants for jobs in manufacturing will experience competition.

Employment change. Employment of sheet metal workers is expected to increase by 6 percent between 2008 and 2018, slower than the average for all occupations. This change reflects anticipated growth in the number of industrial, commercial, and residential structures to be built over the decade. In addition, it reflects the need to install energy-efficient air-conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems in older buildings and to perform other types of renovation and maintenance work on these systems. Also, the popularity of decorative sheet metal products and increased architectural restoration are expected to add to the demand for sheet metal workers.

Sheet metal workers in manufacturing, however, are expected to experience a moderate decline in employment as the industry becomes more automated and some of the work is done in other countries.

Job prospects. Job opportunities are expected to be good for sheet metal workers in the construction industry, reflecting both employment growth and openings arising each year as experienced sheet metal workers leave the occupation. Opportunities should be particularly good for individuals who have apprenticeship training or who are certified welders. Applicants for jobs in manufacturing will experience competition.

Sheet metal workers in construction may experience periods of unemployment, particularly when construction projects end and economic conditions dampen construction activity. However, because maintenance of existing equipment makes up a large part of the work done by sheet metal workers, they are less affected by construction downturns than are some other construction occupations. Installation of new air-conditioning and heating systems in existing buildings is expected to continue as individuals and businesses adopt more energy-efficient equipment to cut utility bills. In addition, a large proportion of sheet metal installation and maintenance is done indoors, so sheet metal workers usually lose less worktime because of bad weather than do other construction workers.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Sheet metal workers 47-2211 170,700 181,800 11,100 6
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Sheet Metal Workers

In May 2008, median hourly wages of sheet metal workers were $19.37. The middle 50 percent earned between $14.39 and $27.03. The lowest 10 percent of all sheet metal workers earned less than $11.43, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $35.36. The median hourly wages of the largest industries employing sheet metal workers were as follows:

Federal Government $23.37
Building finishing contractors 21.35
Building equipment contractors 19.98
Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors 17.67
Architectural and structural metals manufacturing 17.32

Apprentices normally start at about 40 to 50 percent of the rate paid to experienced workers. As apprentices acquire more skills, they receive periodic pay increases, until their pay approaches that of experienced workers.

About 32 percent of all sheet metal workers belong to a union. Union workers in some areas receive supplemental wages from the union when they are laid off or experience shortened workweeks.

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