Back when Nathan Allred attended high school in Georgia all he ever heard about for his future was college, college and college. So he went … for about a year.
“It just wasn’t for me,” he says.
He enrolled in a community college program in fire science since he thought about being a firefighter or, maybe, working in the insurance industry to investigate fires.
“I think the big problem for me was that I didn’t understand the point of having to take core classes that really didn’t have much to do with my major,” he explains. “That’s what I liked and what I was there to learn. It doesn’t make sense to me to study literature when I wanted to be a firefighter.”
But, of course, he’d already paid for a couple of semesters. After sticking it out as best he could, he left but admits to going for one dead end job to the next.
Luckily, Nathan’s dad worked as a foreman at R.F. Knox Co., a sheet metal contractor in Smyrna, Ga., that can trace its origins back to 1914.
There, Nathan started out as “the clean up guy.” But even custodial work paid better than his last job managing a retailer’s warehouse.
However, he quickly impressed everyone at Knox. Just three weeks after starting, his superintendent called him into his office.
“When I walked in, my dad was sitting there, too, and I thought I was in trouble,” Nathan adds.
Instead, the superintendent said Nathan wasn’t meant to just sweep floors, and he was asked to join the local union and, more importantly, enroll in its apprentice program.
Nathan was wrapping up his final year in the program when we talked to him.
“What I love about trade school is everything we learn is something you can apply towards the job,” Nathan adds. “It’s all real life. Nobody thinks about how much work goes into a line of ductwork. You’re learning something new every day and once you master that, they put you on to the next thing.”
Not that he’s bragging, but Nathan is earning enough to support his wife and their 2-year-old son and is getting paid just as much while still an apprentice than many of his friends are who earned a four-year college degree. And in a couple of years, he’s likely to surpass their paychecks all while learning on the job and not having to pay for expensive college tuition.
“I wish I’d got into this as soon as I turned 18,” he adds. “I’d be a journeyman by now. It’s such a good opportunity that you don’t want to wait on it.”
Ignite Your Career
Nathan shares his success story on Ignite Your Career, a campaign started by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association two years ago to promote career opportunities in the skilled trades and attract the next generation of talent. The trade group represents more than 3,500 member contracting firms and 100 chapters throughout the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia and Brazil.
For Jeff Henriksen, executive director of communication and marketing at SMACNA, the reason to start the Ignite campaign is an all-too-familiar one to anyone in the skilled trades, no matter what that trade may be.
“We know that employees at all of our contractor members are aging out of the workforce,” Henriksen says. “More than a third will be gone in a few years. When we consider the challenges that our members are likely to face in the coming years, having enough qualified workers to satisfy customer expectations is by far at the top of the list for many.”
While we’ve heard laments about the labor shortage many times before from plumbing and heating contractors, Henriksen did add a new spin we hadn’t heard of before for his particular market.
“When consumers think about plumbers, electricians and carpenters, they instantly know what these trades do – they are household names,” Henriksen adds . “However, consumers don’t have as clear a picture of what a sheet metal worker does and we are trying to change that. At the same time we are one of the highest-salaried trades, so we have to raise awareness of both the trade and the benefits we bring to the table.”
The Ignite Your Career website (www.igniteyourcareer.com) serves as a digital hub and is chockfull of pull-down menus on career recruitment news and information ranging from salaries to types of careers and job resources to how to get in touch with a local training center and find out about apprentice programs to learn more about available opportunities.
“We hadn’t really addressed this at a national level before,” Henriksen adds. “We have great leadership at our local chapters and they routinely partner with their local training centers to promote the trades and do what’s best for their contractors in their immediate areas. But when we saw that about a third of the labor force was going to age out in five years, we knew we needed to drive awareness on a national scale to get new people interested in the sheet metal trade.”
New marketing materials, including handouts and infographics are also available for member companies to enhance their own recruitment programs and activities.
While all that is solid information for anyone looking to get into the sheet metal trade, the site also shares feel-good stories like Nathan’s from member firms all over the U.S. His story is just one of 35 such testimonials uploaded onto the Ignite YouTube, which feature not just apprentices, but stories from project managers, estimators and project executives, even customers.
“I travel the country and bring a video crew with me,” Henriksen adds. “The videos are mainly to talk to people like Nathan and ask them to say how they got their start, what they love about the work, the excellent pay and benefits that apprentices can get while learning – all basic questions that turn into great video stories. Plus, since we’re on site at the sheet metal shop, the videos also double as a great video tour of the real facilities that people are learning and working at every day.”
While he professes to have no favorite videos among the bunch, Henriksen does think “Nathan has a story that really resonated with a lot of people. He’s open about where he was before and how happy he is to be where he is now. And he discusses what he earns compared to his peers. I just don’t think a lot of people realize how lucrative it can be to go into the trades – especially to do so with no college tuition debt.”
This comprehensive industry-focused marketing plan for Ignite includes not just the website, but strategic partnerships with other organization to spread the word. For example, SMACNA is also collaborating with career and technical education programs, as well as partnering with the National Association of Workforce Boards to align on recruitment opportunities.
SMACNA is also encouraging its member companies to embrace diversity and inclusion as an integral part of the growth and success of the industry. The association launched the Women in Construction Leadership Council, working with local chapters on diversity roundtables.
“Facilitating the connection between job seekers and our members is something our entire industry can get behind,” Henriksen adds.
Along with the website, SMACNA has also been busy building its social media presence for the Ignite campaign on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and more recently, TikTok.
“Instagram and TikTok have been really significant for us,” Henriksen adds. “I think when we first started out doing social media marketing, we were tending to reach an older demographic. But we made a pivot and with TikTok in the mix, we reached the age demographic we wanted to get young people into the trades and that drove a lot of traffic to the website.”
While SMACNA does its own TikToks, Henriksen says what has really surprised him the most about the platform is “the number of people that hop on there and record themselves while working. That’s a fascinating way to share the trade for sure.”
While Henriksen says the pandemic had some effect with local face-to-face engagement on account of the pandemic, the social media marketing efforts have brought in 8 million engagements this year to the site and all its various information.
“So we’re reaching a pretty significant audience that drives a lot of interest, and the most interested ones become jobseekers ready to join the trade,” he adds.