By SHERI GASSAWAY
Four years ago, Serena Lewis was working as an automotive technician. She enjoyed the work and was good at it, but she was barely able to pay the bills.
Then one of her regular customers – a Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 member – noticed what a hard worker she was. He said, “If you can work this hard at what you do here, you could be a union sheet metal worker.”
Lewis knew the benefits of Organized Labor because her father, grandfather, sister and uncles had all worked in various unions. So, the single mom of two took the advice to heart and applied for an apprenticeship at Sheet Metal Workers Local 36. She tested fifth out of 432 people.
She then learned there was a union closer to her home in Illinois, Sheet Metal Workers Local 268, and applied there where she tested in the top of her class again. Today, she is a proud fourth-year apprentice with the union and works at Hock, Inc., a commercial HVAC and architectural sheet metal contractor.
‘CHANGED MY LIFE FOR THE BETTER’
“It’s changed my life for the better,” Lewis said. “The pay is amazing, I have great healthcare and a pension. I now own a nicer home and car, can afford to buy things for my kids and don’t have to depend on anyone.”
For women considering entering the building trades, Lewis suggested doing a lot of research online and joining as many women in trades groups as possible on Facebook. She said the jump into sheet metal work wasn’t as tough for her since she had already been working in what is traditionally considered to be a man’s trade.
“Going on a construction site is a completely different work environment, and it can be very intimidating as a woman,” Lewis said. “You don’t get to start your day with a woman holding your hand.”
On her first day on the job, the foreman, a 55-year-old man, made it clear to her that he didn’t think women should work in construction.
“It’s an adventure, and it’s not easy,” Lewis said. “But I proved myself and today he says, ‘I’m eating those words now.’”
NEED FOR QUALIFIED WORKERS
Lewis noted that over the next 10 years, about 40 percent of all sheet metal workers will retire, creating a need for qualified workers. She said you have to be good at math, enjoy working with your hands and not be afraid of heights.
“It’s physically demanding,” she said. “You also have to not mind working in extreme heat or cold because we are the ones putting in the heat and air conditioning systems.”
For more information on becoming an apprentice at Sheet Metal Workers Local 268 in the Metro East, call 618-397-1443 or visit local268.com.
On the Missouri side of the river, contact Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 at 314-534-9680 or visit smw36jatc.org.