Local 12 retiree tells BE4ALL contest-winning sheet metal story

December 5, 2023

Local 12 (Pittsburgh, Pa.) retiree Jeff Matthews was recently announced as the winner of the Belonging and Excellence for All (BE4ALL) fall challenge, which asked members to answer the question: “How did you become a SMART member?” Read Brother Matthews’ story below:

“When I was in high school, I knew I was not cut out for college, nor could I afford to go. Trade school for junior and senior years was an option. Of all the class options available, I thought about auto mechanics or auto body repair. Both would be fun for a hobby, [but] not a career, unless I had my own business. There was a heating and air conditioning class I felt was interesting and could lead to a career.

“In my senior year, my instructor was impressed with my aptitude and progress. He suggested for another student and myself to take both the steamfitter and sheet metal apprentice tests.

“I must admit: At age 17, I was not really interested in spending a Saturday of my time and paying a fee to take a test for a sheet metal union I knew nothing about. (At that time, I was unaware of union versus nonunion.)

“Something told me I needed to go through with this. The test was in a University of Pittsburgh lecture hall and filled to capacity. It was a timed test. At the conclusion, I was surprised that there were many participants that did not finish all the questions.

Matthews won a commemorative golden hardhat and a $100 gift card for his story.

“Several weeks later, I received my acceptance letter, which pleased my trade school instructor greatly. During orientation, they asked how many sons, daughters or friends of sheet metal workers there were. I was in the minority of people that didn’t know and/or were not related to a union member. (So goes the myth that you need to be related to or know someone to be accepted into the union.)

“I graduated high school in May and started working for Local 12 on July 1st. Apprentice school started in the fall, and one of the layout books we were using was the same one I used in trade school, so I was familiar with the beginning.

“I worked with great journeyworkers who took time to show me procedures and answer my questions. When I showed interest in following the blueprints and not just the task at hand, they would show me and challenge me to figure out the next step. This, along with my apprentice school training, prepared me to become a foreman once I became a journeyman.

“I have had a very successful career as a sheet metal worker. I was able to provide for my family, take yearly vacations and send my daughter to college (with the help of a union scholarship).

“Without my teacher’s recommendation, this all could not have happened. I’m sure I could have made a living in heating and air conditioning, but it would not been as fulfilling as it has been as a union sheet metal journeyman.

“I am enjoying my retirement thanks to the union pension I paid into throughout my career.”