Sheet metal workers fabricate or install products that are made from thin metal sheets, such as ducts used for heating and air conditioning.
Sheet metal workers typically do the following:
- Select types of sheet metal or nonmetallic material
- Measure and mark dimensions and reference lines on metal sheets
- Drill holes in metal for screws, bolts, and rivets
- Install metal sheets with supportive frameworks
- Fabricate or alter parts at construction sites
- Maneuver large sheet metal parts to be installed, and anchor the parts
- Fasten seams or joints by welding, bolting, riveting, or soldering
Sheet metal workers fabricate, install, and maintain thin sheet metal products. Although sheet metal is used to make many products, such as rain gutters, outdoor signs, and siding, it is most commonly used to make ducts for heating and air conditioning.
Sheet metal workers study plans and specifications to determine the kind and quantity of materials they will need. Using computer-controlled saws, lasers, shears, and presses, they measure, cut, bend, and fasten pieces of sheet metal.
In shops without computerized equipment, sheet metal workers make the required calculations and use tapes and rulers to lay out the work. Then, they cut or stamp the parts with machine tools.
In manufacturing plants, sheet metal workers program and operate computerized metalworking equipment. For example, they may fabricate sheet metal parts for aircraft or industrial equipment. Sheet metal workers in those jobs may be responsible for programming the computer control systems of the equipment they operate. Additionally, they may make custom pieces and operate equipment that is manually controlled.
Before assembling pieces, sheet metal workers check each part for accurate measurements. If necessary, they use hand rotary or squaring shears and hacksaws to finish pieces.
After inspecting the metal pieces, workers fasten seams and joints with welds, bolts, rivets, solder, or other connecting devices. Then they take the parts constructed in the shop and further assemble the pieces as they install them.
Most fabrication work is done in shops with some final assembly done on the job. Some jobs are done completely at the jobsite. When installing a metal roof, for example, sheet metal workers usually measure and cut roofing panels onsite.
In addition to installing sheet metal, some workers install fiberglass and plastic board.
In some shops and factories, sheet metal workers maintain the equipment they use.
Sheet metal workers do both construction-related work and the mass production of sheet metal products in manufacturing. Sheet metal workers are often separated into four specialties: fabrication, installation, maintenance, and testing and balancing.
The following are examples of types of sheet metal workers:
Fabrication sheet metal workers, sometimes called precision sheet metal workers, make ducts, gutters, and other metal products. Most work in shops and factories, operating tools and 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. Many fabrication shops have automated machinery, and workers use computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) and building information modeling (BIM) systems to make products.
Installation sheet metal workers install heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) ducts. They also install other sheet metal products, such as metal roofs, siding, or gutters. They typically work on new construction and on renovation projects.
Maintenance sheet metal workers repair and clean ventilation systems so the systems use less energy. Workers remove dust and moisture and fix leaks or breaks in the sheet metal that makes up the ductwork.
Testing and balancing sheet metal specialists ensure that HVAC systems heat and cool rooms properly by making sure that air is transferred through sheet metal ducts efficiently. Information on workers who install or repair HVAC systems can be found in the profile on heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers.
Sheet metal workers held about 142,300 jobs in 2012. About 59 percent worked in the construction industry and 27 percent worked in manufacturing.
Sheet metal fabricators usually work in small shops and manufacturing plants that are well ventilated. They often must lift heavy materials and stand for long periods.
Workers who install sheet metal at construction sites must bend, climb, and squat, sometimes in close quarters or in awkward positions.
Sheet metal installers who work outdoors are exposed to all kinds of weather.
Injuries and Illnesses
Sheet metal workers have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Common injuries include cuts from sharp metal, burns from soldering or welding, and falls from ladders or scaffolds.
Some sheet metal fabricators work around high-speed machines, which can be dangerous. Because of these hazards, workers often must wear safety glasses and must not wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothing that could easily get caught in a machine. To avoid repetitive-type injuries, sheet metal workers may work at a variety of different production stations.
Nearly all sheet metal workers are employed full time.
Although most sheet metal workers, particularly those in construction, learn their trade through an apprenticeship, those who work in manufacturing more often learn on the job or at a technical college.
Those interested in becoming a sheet metal worker should take high school classes in English, algebra, geometry, physics, mechanical drawing and blueprint reading, and general shop.
Many technical colleges have programs that teach welding and metalworking. These programs help provide the basic knowledge that many sheet metal workers need to do their job.
Some manufacturers have partnerships with local technical schools to develop training programs specific to their factories.
Most sheet metal workers learn their trade through 4- or 5-year apprenticeships. Each year, apprentices must have at least 1,700 to 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and a minimum of 246 hours of related technical instruction. Apprentices learn construction basics such as blueprint reading, mathematics, building code requirements, and safety and first-aid practices.
After completing an apprenticeship program, sheet metal workers are considered to be journey workers, qualifying them to do tasks on their own.
Apprenticeship programs are offered by unions and businesses. The basic qualifications for entering an apprenticeship program are reaching the age of 18 and having a high school diploma or the equivalent.
Although most workers enter apprenticeships directly after finishing high school or getting their GED, some start out with a job as a helper before entering an apprenticeship.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Although not required, sheet metal workers can earn certifications for several of the tasks that they perform. For example, some sheet metal workers can become certified in welding from the American Welding Society. In addition, the Sheet Metal Institute offers certification in building information modeling (BIM), welding, testing and balancing, and other related skills.
Computer skills. Designing and cutting sheet metal often requires the use of computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) programs and building information modeling (BIM) systems.
Customer-service skills. Because many sheet metal workers install ducts in customers’ homes, workers should be polite and courteous.
Manual dexterity. Sheet metal workers need good hand-eye coordination to make precise cuts and bends in metal pieces.
Mechanical skills. Sheet metal workers use saws, lasers, shears, and presses to do their job. As a result, they should have good mechanical skills in order to help operate and maintain equipment.
Physical strength. Sheet metal workers must be able to lift and move ductwork that is often heavy and cumbersome. Some jobs require workers to be able to lift 50 pounds.
Spatial relationships. Airplane manufacturing requires the placement of structural metal pieces to be precise. Using hand-held tablets, for example, workers must be able to compare the installed sheet metal to the design specifications.
The median annual wage for sheet metal workers was $43,290 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,310, and the top 10 percent earned more than $74,740.
The starting pay for apprentices usually is between 40 percent and 50 percent of what fully trained sheet metal workers make. As they gain more skill, their pay increases.
Nearly all sheet metal workers are employed full time. Those who work in manufacturing are more likely to participate in profit sharing, work overtime, and receive output incentives to supplement their basic wages.
Compared with workers in all occupations, sheet metal workers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. Although there is no single union, the largest organizer for sheet metal workers is the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.
Employment of sheet metal workers is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.
Employment growth reflects an expected increase in the number of industrial, commercial, and residential structures that will be built over the coming decade. It also reflects the need to install energy-efficient air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems in older buildings and to maintain these systems.
Sheet metal workers in manufacturing are expected to experience faster-than-average employment growth as some work that was previously outsourced to other countries returns to the United States.
Job opportunities should be particularly good for sheet metal workers who complete apprenticeship training or who are certified welders.
Some manufacturing companies report having difficulty finding qualified applicants. Workers who program equipment, possess multiple welding certifications, and show commitment to their work will have the best job opportunities.
In addition, workers at smaller firms are less likely to be laid off when demand for products slow down.
Employment of sheet metal workers, like that of many other construction workers, is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. On the one hand, workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, peak periods of building activity may produce shortages of sheet metal workers.
For more information about apprenticeships or other work opportunities, contact local sheet metal contractors or heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning contractors; a local of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association; a local of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association; a local joint union–management apprenticeship committee; or the nearest office of your state employment service or apprenticeship agency. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, and Employment and Training Administration.
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