Heavy Metal Summer provides teens with hands-on intro to union sheet metal trade

October 16, 2023

Throughout the summer of 2023, more than 300 high school students and recent graduates participated in the Heavy Metal Summer Experience (HMSE), a free summer camp that introduces them to jobs and careers in the unionized building trades.

At signatory contractor R.F. Knox in Atlanta in June, SMART Local 85 journeyperson Antonio Albarran walked students through creating a sheet metal dustpan. He demonstrated a laser cutter, showed them how to measure and cut flat metal, how to bend it on a press, and how to drill holes for attaching the dustpan handle.

“They’re coming into an actual work environment,” said Albarran. “So, yeah, it is different for them. It does get a little bit loud, it is a little bit hot. But they get the actual experience.”

Students relished the opportunity to get that real-world experience, as well as an introduction to the range of work done in a sheet metal fabrication shop.

“Tuesday was my first time welding, so I thought that was really cool,” said Lizbeth Chavez, who attends Osborne High School in Marietta, Ga. “And we got to do things from scratch. So, that was fun.”

“I learned how to bend sheet metal,” said Allison Flores, who also attends Osborne High School. “I’ve never worked with sheet metal before.”

The project is the brainchild of Angie Simon, past SMACNA national president and recently retired from Western Allied Mechanical, headquartered just north of San Jose, Calif. As SMACNA president, Simon said she would often hear from union contractors that workforce development and recruitment were top problems.

“They would always say, ‘We don’t have enough people, we’re worried about the future.’ So, I started challenging contractors to stop thinking that somebody was going to take care of it for them, and it was time for them to get some skin in the game.”

In 2021, Western Allied teamed up with the Hermanson Company in Washington state and piloted two six-week-long summer career exploration camps, with the intention of replicating the program across the United States.

The project grew from 28 students in two locations in 2021, to more than 170 students in 2022. In the summer of 2023 — now incorporated as a 501c(3) — HMSE enrolled 325 students in 21 locations, including 10 states and one Canadian province.

“I’m very interested. I want to pursue this as a career,” said Nicholas Brown, who participated in the program at R.F. Knox in Atlanta and attends Osborne High School. “I knew they were going to have welding, and I’m really passionate about that. But I was also interested in learning about the other stuff, like sheet metal and ductwork.”

R.F. Knox Safety Director and Local 85 journeyperson Bill Kessler says an emphasis on safety is integrated into all aspects of the camp. From classroom instruction to specific tools and techniques, he works to ensure students learn best practices for avoiding workplace hazards, while having fun along the way.

“They’re making something that they can use at home and they’re proud of it,” said Kessler. “And the enthusiasm on the first day was ‘Wow! Isn’t this cool!’ And every one of them looked at me and smiled and said ‘Yeah, this is cool.’”