Patrick Schlaefer rolls sheet metal for use in air ducts at Sun Mechanical. Schlaefer went through the apprenticeship program at Sun Mechanical. “When the program presented itself, I realized it is school — college-level classes for construction,” he said.

A local contractor is responding to the shortage in skilled laborers by growing them internally.

Sun Mechanical Contracting Inc. offers sheet metal, HVAC and plumbing apprenticeships to its employees who then graduate from the program as journeymen.

“As the economy in Arizona rebounds from the recession, the construction industry faces a challenge in hiring skilled labor,” said Marc Kinseth, president of Sun Mechanical. “We started the apprenticeship program in an effort to close the skilled labor gap while giving employees an incredible opportunity for advancement.”

For 25-year-old Patrick Schlaefer, it was a way to learn a trade that could become a career.

“I got into the trade because I didn’t fully graduate high school and my father drilled into me, ‘If you don’t go to school you need something to fall back on,’” he said. “When the program presented itself, I realized it is school — college-level classes for construction.

“I learned formulas and layout skills.”

The program takes about four years to complete and was created with the cooperation of the Arizona Department of Commerce Apprenticeship Office and the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are open to current Sun Mechanical employees and the process is competitive.

Every student receives a minimum of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 650 hours of classroom instruction.

Students then receive certification from the state and Department of Labor.

Schlaefer received his certification in sheet metal and has worked in various settings, including hospitals and buildings at the University of Arizona.

Army veteran Fabian Lopez, 37, worked with concrete jobs in Nogales after leaving the service in 2007.

After hearing about the apprentice program at Sun Metal, he applied.

“The program seemed like something that I couldn’t let go by,” said Lopez, who got certified in HVAC. “I put my ‘A’ tests on the fridge at home. I’m proud. It makes you feel good inside, like you’re a part of something.”

A recent report by the Associated General Contractors of America shows the majority of firms are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions such as carpenters, electricians, laborers and painters.

Short-term, the report says, firms will hesitate to bid on construction projects for fear of not having the workforce to meet contractual obligations.

Long-term, construction companies will turn to new technology such as drones, robotics and GPS-guided equipment to compensate, thus eliminating these jobs for future generations.

“For companies, apprenticeship programs would mean that instead of waiting fruitlessly for skilled workers to walk in the door, they could build the workforce they need,” Bloomberg said in a recent opinion piece. “Government’s role would be to supply enough money to help subsidize the salaries of the apprentices, certify that the apprenticeships meet certain minimum standards, push community colleges to align themselves with an apprenticeship movement, and help create a culture where apprenticeships are seen as a head-held-high alternative to a college degree.”

Kinseth said that was the goal of starting the apprenticeship and in turn the company has loyal workers.

“Employees gain skills that make them more competent in their trades, and employers gain dedicated, skilled team members,” he said.

Sun Mechanical was founded in 1977 as a Tucson-based plumbing company. Since then, the company has grown into a full-service mechanical contracting and construction firm in Southern Arizona, providing plumbing, piping, heating and ventilation, fabricated sheet metal, and more.

Linda Kinseth, the program’s training coordinator, said the company was looking for a way to stand out when recruiting new workers. Employees are paid for the apprenticeship.

About 23 employees have graduated from the program and 13 are currently enrolled, Kinseth said.

The apprenticeship is something Sun Mechanical points out when bidding on a job.

“It’s definitely something we include in our proposals,” Kinseth said. “The training is very extensive and reflects how important quality is for us.”

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Gabriela's newspaper career began at the Tucson Citizen in '86 as the "movie-times girl" where she'd call local theaters for showtimes. Since then, she's written about crime, education, immigration, trade and business. She's been with the Star since 2007.