A person using virtual welding technology

As the millennium appeared on the horizon, International Training Institute (ITI) leadership knew a change in training was needed for instructors and apprentices.

For apprentices, the curriculum in place wasn’t matching the zeitgeist of the sheet metal industry in the mid- to late 1990s. The core curriculum was created to train sheet metal workers in overall industry skills with the ability to specialize in proficiencies such as welding, architectural sheet metal, commercial and residential service and testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB). It identified core skills and values for every sheet metal worker first with specialties to follow.

“They needed to think ahead. The industry was getting so diverse in its skill sets. Leadership knew if they were going to gain the hours, that’s what they needed to do,” said Mike Harris, current ITI program administrator. “No single sheet metal worker was going to be an expert at everything, every skill set in the industry. The curriculum had to reflect that industry shift.”

For instructors, the relationship the ITI had with Ohio State University for instructor training was coming to a close, and Ted Kuczynski, ITI administrator at the time, was inspired by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters facility in Las Vegas, which was used to gather members from around the country for training. After Kuczynski toured the facility with trustees, it was decided to approach Sheet Metal Workers Local 88’s training center in Las Vegas with a plan to retrofit the existing building to meet the ITI’s needs.

The partnership was a turning point in the education of instructors across the country. The existing building was renovated to house large ITI classes in a central location as well as store equipment needed for training. Instead of 12 classes offered in three years, 20 classes were offered in that time frame at 20% what it had cost to host the classes in various locations at hotels and training centers nationwide.

Not only was the collaboration easier on the ITI’s pocketbook, but training also improved. Equipment could be housed at the training center instead of shipped, and, thanks to relationships with vendors such as Lincoln Electric and Miller, the most up-to-date equipment was available for hands-on learning at any time, which was also a benefit to Local 88 members.

“It turned out to be a win-win for everyone,” Kuczynski said. “Instead of holding instructor training in a banquet room somewhere, we could have it with machinery, and they felt their time was worthwhile.”

Around this same time the welding program had matured, and it became clear to ITI staff six nationwide welding assessors were not going to be the most efficient way to train and certify its members. In 2001, ITI trustees empowered local American Welding Society (AWS) accredited testing facilities (ATFs) to do more by creating welding supervisors, who would conduct audits every three years and liaison for local contractors dealing with engineers on job sites. In the vein of working smarter, not harder, welding assessors were then free to work on a nationwide level, on projects such as curriculum and training suited to fill the current welder shortage.

Harris, a field staff representative at the time, was on the staff of professionals sent to pilot the first concentrated training class in welding to help members acquire welding skills and certifications needed at the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, and other facilities. The three-week concentrated training class often took people who had never welded before and turned them into certified welders within a month’s time.

Not only was this one way to deal with the welder shortage, it also was a way for the ITI to prove concentrated training was a means to bring welders up to snuff and pass the certification. It also demonstrated welding was a large part of the market share for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers. More than 15 years later, concentrated training like this would be affectionately known as Strike Force Training.

This model was also used a decade later in a push for welding certifications at Savannah River Site and the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant as well as for apprentice recruitment.

“If you look over ITI’s history, welding has been a continual part of our history, just trying to meet needs and shortages throughout time,” Harris said. “It seems like we have had welder shortages since I was an apprentice. And we still do today in various locations, depending on different things.”

The Great Recession, one of the worst economic declines in American history, officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, but the effects on the unionized sheet metal industry were felt for years. Potential apprentices once lined up around the building to apply for a place in the next apprenticeship class. During these lean years, not only did commercial construction come to a screeching halt, leaving journeypersons out of work, but the pipeline for apprentices slowed to a trickle, leaving leadership concerned about the future post-recession, when they would really feel the impact of prolonged low apprenticeship numbers.

In 2010, the ITI was awarded the largest grant in its history — $5 million in Energy Training Partnership grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) — to train approximately 1,200 unemployed or underemployed sheet metal workers for energy efficient building construction, retrofitting and manufacturing jobs.

One example of the type of training that came out of the grant was 120-hour introductory TAB technician training in Michigan, which allowed sheet metal workers such as Matt O’Rourke — a fourth-year apprentice at the time — to not only become certified but to find work because of those certifications.

Today, as a training coordinator at Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 in Detroit, it’s a story O’Rourke tells his apprentices all the time to encourage them to take night classes. The TAB class changed his career, he said.

“I didn’t know what TAB was before the class. Once I got through it, I realized it was something I enjoyed doing,” said O’Rourke, who worked in TAB until he was hired as training coordinator in 2017. “It gave me a whole ton of responsibility I’m not sure I would have had working in the shop or hanging duct or something like that.”

By the mid-2000s, technology was progressing in giant steps. In what seemed like a blink, personal technology advanced from the flip phone to the Blackberry to the release of the iPhone/smartphone in 2007. ITI staff was painfully aware there was a need to track apprentices across the country — beyond the spreadsheets and individual processes developed by each training center. Although the ITI had developed databases for training coordinators to use, two staff members had the job of helping coordinators develop forms and reports, and software was the responsibility of each training center. There was no way to link everything together.

Until TotalTrack.

Officially released in 2011, TotalTrack was developed to be a comprehensive database system that put all apprentice and journeyperson training information in one place with an easy-to-use interface. By the end of 2011, approximately 70 training centers had been transitioned to TotalTrack — 30 centers beyond the original goal.

Data Research Group out of Culpeper, Virginia, began the development of TotalTrack in March 2010; beta testing began four months later. Because it was web based, TotalTrack didn’t require additional software purchases and allowed coordinators and instructors to create forms and tests, receive curricula updates, track apprentices and journeyperson training, text message students, create course plans, input grades and track work hours.

“It’s like going to QuickBooks from having a hand-written ledger,” said Ken Lavigne, training director of Sheet Metal Workers Local 206 in San Diego, in 2011. “It gives us what we had before and a lot more, and we’re still learning. It’s tailored directly to us, which is great.”

Four years ago, the welding database was incorporated into TotalTrack, allowing for searches and queries of types of certifications and how many have been earned by a particular member.

“With the welding database housed within TotalTrack, it makes it easier for the locals as everything is housed in the same system,” Harris said.

By the time the 125th anniversary of SMART rolled around in 2013, the effect technology had on the industry was coming into focus. The e-reader was launched, allowing for textbooks to be viewed on computers and mobile devices. Introducing this method of delivery saved the ITI money on printing — new books and large orders became a thing of the past — and put the newest versions in the hands of those who needed them. If students or instructors still wanted printed copies, they could print them from the e-reader.

TotalTrack had also welcomed 129 training centers to its platform, surpassing benchmarks, and through an agreement with Autodesk, the industry leader in the three-dimensional design of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, training centers were granted a significant discount on licenses for software such as AutoCAD and Revit used for training.

Starting in 2015, the use of online learning management systems allowed the ITI to offer online courses, and in 2018, an ITI grant program allowed virtual welders to make their way into many locals and thereby into the training experience of apprentices.

The virtual welder creates a job site environment with real sounds, looks and feelings. The welding helmet is equipped with virtual reality glasses that allow the student to look around in any direction. The screen makes it easy for the instructor, or the whole class, to follow along and make any corrections. After the weld, the student’s performance is reviewed and scored.

With the virtual welder, all materials are virtual and therefore expendable, without an associated cost.

“The students are motivated to get on the machine because it looks like a game,” said Al Blanco, training coordinator for Sheet Metal Workers Local 359 in Phoenix and one of the early adopters of the technology, in 2018. “It turns into a competition.”

Technology also transformed how SMART recruited apprentices from the military. Although there was already a partnership with Helmets to Hardhats, a nonprofit organization that connects transitioning active-duty military service members, veterans and National Guard and reservists with the skilled trades, a technology bridge from the organization’s software to TotalTrack allowed training coordinators to directly receive the forms filled out on the Helmets to Hardhats website by service members in their area interested in the industry.

“Why would you pick up someone off the street when you have people who are already skilled at their jobs?” said Larry Lawrence, veteran and former ITI field staff member who worked on the bridge. “The transition from their military job to sheet metal work will be easy for them.”

SMART Heroes first class of graduates posing for a group shot

That mindset led to the creation of the SMART Heroes program, which launched in August 2017 at Western Washington Sheet Metal in Dupont, near Seattle, and provided free sheet metal industry training to military service members who planned to enter civilian life within a year. All participants complete a seven-week course to earn the equivalent to their first-year apprenticeship training (224 hours). Upon honorable discharge from service, graduates can choose to enter any of the 148 SMART apprenticeship programs across the country and be provided direct entry and advanced placement as a second-year apprentice, including a high probability of obtaining second-year apprentice wages and benefits.

In 2019, a second location for SMART Heroes was launched at Sheet Metal Workers Local 9 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The curriculum for the SMART Heroes program was crafted by the ITI, and, in collaboration with SMART and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association (SMACNA), they created the program with input from the two locals, their training centers and SMACNA local chapters as well as Helmets to Hardhats.

The first apprenticeship graduates of the program, Joshua Buckley and Richard Quintana, cohorts from the first SMART Heroes class in 2017, are set to graduate in November 2021 and January 2022, respectively.

All the technology developed and adopted in the early to mid-2000s paid off in unexpected ways in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. With all members grounded, in-person training became impossible. But because years of advances had unknowingly prepared them for such a circumstance, ITI staff pivoted quickly, offering courses online early into quarantine.

Training centers, their staffs and committees were left to problem solve — something they do best — and although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) had released universal mitigation protocols, when it came to training, each center was different. One thing was certain — the show must somehow go on.

“When apprentices came on, they agreed to come to class for five years, and we agreed to have class for five years,” said Tim Myres, Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 administrator. “So, we had to do what we could to make sure they advanced on.”

In a hands-on trade with hands-on training, technology such as Trimble units, scanners, Microsoft HoloLens, and building information modeling (BIM) software, in addition to telecommunication software, showed Darak Scarlavai, Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 training coordinator, even after the pandemic, technology could drastically change how they do things.

“We’re really starting to incorporate that technology. Even the basic functionality of tablets, we’re offering that training as well,” Scarlavai said. “We learned a tremendous amount of stuff in a short amount of time in how to be more efficient in how we do things. If we have an instructor who can’t come in, but they can chime into a class from home, they can. These are things we never would have considered before the shutdown.”

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