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.’”

Waters Mechanical was founded by Brandon Waters in 2000. His father was the owner of a union signatory firm, so he had some familiarity with the union. The company was struggling to grow its sheet metal workforce, which had dwindled to six sheet metal workers. They could not find enough qualified, experienced sheet metal workers, and it was impacting the company’s ability to grow and perform more projects.

As part of their organizing efforts, SM Local 85 (Atlanta, Ga.) contacted Waters to explain how the local could solve the company’s qualified sheet metal workforce shortage through its hiring hall, apprenticeship training program, continuous worker recruiting, turnkey benefit programs and more.

After a series of meetings between the company and the local, Business Manager Steve Langley signed an agreement with Waters Mechanical on February 14th, 2022.

The local began providing all classifications of sheet metal workers to the company. The company’s six existing sheet metal employees were offered membership in Local 85. Waters also joined Local 85 as an owner-member because he saw the value in participating in the union’s benefit programs.

Waters Mechanical successfully performs projects in the outlying areas of the huge Atlanta metro markets, as well as projects in smaller cities in middle and southern Georgia, like Savannah, Macon/Warner Robbins, Valdosta, St. Simonds Island and Augusta/Fort Gordon.

The partnership with Waters Mechanical is helping Local 85 to expand its market presence in these areas on schools, government buildings and light commercial/retail projects. These projects are mostly in outlying areas where the local previously had little to no presence.

Waters Mechanical opened a second office in the Atlanta area to focus on the northern part of the state. In addition to supplying sheet metal workers, Local 85 also assisted the company with finding the leadership personnel needed to run the expanded operations.

Today, the company has more than quadrupled its number of sheet metal workers and continues to steadily land new projects — which call for more sheet metal workers from Local 85’s hiring hall and apprentice program.

Because of the positive experience with Local 85, the company also became signatory to the UA locals in the area and is in conversations with Lance Fout, business manager of Local 435 in North Florida, about expanding operations into the Jacksonville market.