Sheet Metal Workers - What They Do

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 held about 135,400 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of sheet metal workers were as follows:

  • Specialty trade contractors - 60%
  • Manufacturing - 20%
  • Government - 6%
  • Construction of buildings - 4%
  • Employment services - 2%

Sheet metal fabricators usually work in manufacturing plants and small shops, where they often lift heavy materials and stand for long periods of time.

Workers who install sheet metal at construction sites must bend, climb, and squat, sometimes in close quarters, in awkward positions, or at great heights. Sheet metal installers who work outdoors are exposed to all types of weather. The work environment may be noisy or dusty, and job tasks may create vibrations.

Injuries and Illnesses

Sheet metal workers risk injury on the job. Common injuries include cuts from sharp metal, burns from soldering or welding, and falls from ladders or scaffolding.

Some sheet metal fabricators work around high-speed machines, which may be dangerous and also may carry risks of loud noise, dust particles, and vibrations. To reduce injuries resulting from these hazards, workers often must wear safety glasses, ear protection, and dust masks and must not wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothing that could easily get caught in a machine. To avoid repetitive strain injuries, sheet metal workers may rotate through different production stations.

Work Schedules

Most sheet metal workers work full time.

Education & Training Required

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 Skills Required (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.

Sheet Metal Workers - What They Do - Page 2

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