Arizona Building and Construction Trades Council


An active member of SMART Local 359 for 33 years, Thom Morrison is excited about his new role as a BIM (Building Information Modeling) instructor at the JATC.

Thom Morrison

He says even though as a product, sheet metal itself hasn’t changed much over the years, everything from the way it’s drafted in building plans to the way it’s fabricated has become faster and less labor-intensive due to advances in technology.

Not only does the sheet metal industry need people who can operate these machines, but also those who can repair and maintain them. As a result, Local 359 JATC has made some huge investments in state-of-the-art equipment.

Apprentices learn how to use robots in the field using the Trimble RTS (Robotic Total Station), a field layout and scanning software that provides precise measurements to help plan a building’s layout. Instead of measuring by hand with tape measures and calipers, the Trimble operator takes a robot into a building where the measurements are recorded.

Trimble allows accurate drawings of planned ductwork and hangers, enabling the sheet metal worker to shoot the hanger spots with a laser. Augmented reality goggles allow the user to “see” the building.

Sheet metal is sent to a plasma table where it is burned into the required shapes.

These technological advances are helpful in establishing new buildings and in retrofitting older ones more quickly and accurately than ever before.

“Using Trimble, the operator can plot 300 to 500 points in a day,” said Morrison. “Prior to this technology, we would use plumb bobs, chopping lines and marking to determine maybe a couple dozen points in a day.”

Apprentices practice their welding skills by using a virtual welder, a system that works a lot like virtual reality games. It’s an exciting time to be an apprentice or a journeyman SMART Local 359 member because the opportunities to learn hands-on in the field and in the computerized realm are not available at this scale anywhere else, says Morrison.

He says when he began his career in sheet metal, computers in the construction industry were rare. Over the years, Morrison has seen the work transform with intricate computerized model design and virtual construction in every field. By creating a virtual building design, the trades catch potential conflicts prior to building a structure, saving possibly thousands of dollars in actual construction work, wasted materials and time.

With his history as an apprentice and journeyman sheet metal worker, CAD (Computer Aided Design) operator, BIM detailer, and BIM Manager, Morrison shares real-world examples and knowledge with apprentices who will be on the cutting edge of next-level technologies. Morrison realized the need to train more upcoming sheet metal workers with the skills required to build the future, which is why he decided to become a BIM-specific instructor with Local 359 JATC.

“There’s such a shortage of BIM workers right now,” says Morrison. “We’re training everyone from apprentices to journeymen who can then take on huge jobs with the big contractors who have come to our state. All the large construction companies use BIM, so they need workers who are skilled with the hardware and software.”

Morrison adds that even though technology is changing the nature of several aspects of the job, any student who excels at trigonometry is a great fit for the trade. At this point, sheet metal work offers 15 different career paths apprentices may choose to take.

“We even have a 3D printer in the classroom that we’re using as a teaching tool because the ability to print your own parts for a job isn’t too far in the future,” says Morrison. “Right now, we 3D print these plastic trinkets, such as keychains, but even the plastic can be imbedded with materials that make it stronger.”

As the son of a union sheet metal worker himself, Morrison said he recalls the day he happily surprised his dad by telling him he was following in his footsteps. Over the years, Morrison has served on SMART Local 359’s executive board and has volunteered for a variety of union events.

The Local 359 JATC Sheet Metal apprenticeship is a five-year program, and new apprentices currently start at $19.19 an hour plus benefits. Morrison says the JATC is truly an earn-as-you-learn opportunity where the demand is high. High school graduates or sheet metal workers who have experience working for non-signatory contractors are encouraged to apply for a spot in the respected program.