Want a career with good pay that grows with your experience? One where you can learn valuable skills and help others too? How about one that will always be in demand and is practically recession-proof? The answer to all of these questions may be a career in the plumbing industry.
It may not sound exotic, and it’s not for everyone, but it is a field that continues to outpace growth in other markets by more than double the average rate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the plumbing industry are predicted to increase at an annual rate of 16 percent through 2026, while the average for all occupations combined is just seven percent. That makes plumbing an excellent career choice, with plenty of potential for hard workers. To get started, consider enrolling in a plumbing school.
Plumbers Work in Many Settings
Many, if not most, people need the help of a plumber at some point, whether it’s for clearing clogged drains, removing a backed-up pipe or installing new appliances. But plumbers also handle a variety of challenging projects that require a good head for math and the ability to think ahead.
As a plumber, you may have a hand in designing a home’s interior pipe system, including where to place tubes to provide gas for an oven. In an industrial setting, you may design delivery systems for pressurized steam. Or you might help ensure clean oxygen is available for hospital patients. Completing a trade-school program can help you compete for, and obtain, a position in one of the most in-demand career fields.
Annual Salary Expectations
You can expect to earn around $30,000 annually in your early years as a plumber, and as much as $90,000 as a master plumber. The sky’s the limit if you want to go into business for yourself. Otherwise, your salary depends on where you live, what skills and experience you have, and if you wish to specialize in a specific industry. Plumbers who work in manufacturing make an average $8,000 more than those in construction and engineering fields. The median salary for plumbers is about $53,000 annually.
What Does a Plumber Do?
Plumbers have a variety of skills and duties and often perform work in industrial, residential and commercial buildings. As a plumber, you plan for and maintain the transportation of water, steam, air, wastes and other liquids throughout factories, hospitals, office buildings and homes. You may perform a wide range of tasks, including studying blueprints and planning plumbing systems that meet building codes, as well as creating budgets and meeting deadlines.
During planning stages, plumbers must assure that the plumbing system does not interfere with plans for electrical wires and panels. Once the planning phase is complete, plumbers begin to finish the physical work of installation, beginning with cutting holes in walls, floors, and ceilings for pipes. Holes can also be drilled into joists in the floor in order to accommodate waste and water tubing. Next steps include:
- Readying pipe materials, including bending, cutting and threading pipes
- Mount and fit a variety of pipe sizes and install waterlines following blueprints
- Put in plumbing fixtures such as showers, sinks, and toilets
- Install water and gas appliances, including dishwashers and water heaters
Once everything is in place, you must conduct testing to ensure a watertight, airtight or gastight fit. That means inspecting systems and materials, including appliances and fixtures, to ensure they meet code standards and everything works correctly.
Work on Existing Systems
When dealing with an existing system, a plumber’s focus shifts to troubleshooting and repair, which can include replacement of parts. As a plumber, you also have the opportunity to help people in distress. You can expect emergency calls at all times of the day, night and on weekends for a variety of problems. Anxious homeowners may be dealing with a burst pipe or backed-up septic system. An industrial plant or factory may be concerned with the same issues, as well as systems that contain dangerous gases or acids. Stressed factory managers must also consider the cost of downtime, so you may be pressed to make quick repairs.
For existing systems, plumbers perform the following functions:
- Inspect plumbing systems to diagnose the source of problems
- Develop estimates of repair costs, including labor and parts
- Troubleshoot issues in pipe systems, appliances or fixtures
- Replace worn or damaged and broken parts to prevent further problems
As a plumber, you will work with different types of materials in residential systems, such as steel, plastic (PVC) and copper pipes. You may also be called on to install stainless steel systems in factories or dairy farms, where their use ensures liquids are not contaminated.
Benefits of a Trade School
The path to becoming a plumber can start with on-the-job training, called an apprenticeship. However, those who complete a trade-school program have more skills and are in a better position to be hired as an apprentice. Most states require apprentices to have a license as well. Additional advantages of completing coursework are that you may be able to earn a better salary while working as an apprentice and your on-the-job training period should be much shorter.
What You Will Learn
Typical coursework at a plumbing school includes learning the ins and outs of water drainage and supply systems, along with pipe structures and venting, fittings and valves. In addition, you will learn about:
- Creating and reading blueprints
- Building and national codes
- Gas piping systems
- Backflow principles
- Cross-connection protection
- Flammable and toxic materials
- Workplace hazards and safety
- Math, chemistry and applied physics
Business fundamentals are a staple of your training as well, including skills such as how to estimate costs, interpreting isometric drawings, project management, accounting, marketing and entrepreneurship. You will also learn management principles that will serve you well if you plan to open your own business in the future. In addition to coursework, you will benefit from a variety of hands-on training, including:
- Installation and testing of plumbing fixtures
- Design of pipe systems for drainage, waste and venting
- How to troubleshoot plumbing
- Techniques for soldering and brazing
- How to prepare for a licensing exam
Courses at a plumbing school typically take between six months and one year to complete, while an Associate Degree takes two years and a Bachelor’s Degree takes four years. Another option is entering the plumbing field as an apprentice and completing both coursework and on-the-job training at the same time. If you enroll in a technical or trade school that is partnered with a trade association or union for apprentice training, you may be able to graduate sooner.
If you want to finish coursework before beginning an apprenticeship, check with your local association or union first. Be sure that the coursework and any hands-on training that comes with the classes will count toward your apprenticeship. That will help you advance to becoming a journeyman plumber more quickly.
Becoming an Apprentice
The most significant benefit of working as an apprentice is the opportunity you have to learn from journeyman plumbers with many years of experience working at actual job sites. This training is invaluable, and you should take the initiative to learn by asking plenty of questions.
Typically, your area union or a trade industry association manages apprentice programs, which differ with each group. Some permit you to complete coursework and learn theories online, while others require class attendance. Some apprentice programs partner with trade schools and technical colleges to teach essential theories and courses, while hands-on learning takes place on the job.
A typical apprenticeship takes between four and five years to complete. During this period, you will earn while you learn. You can expect to earn between 30 and 50 percent of what a licensed plumber makes; however, there are several other job benefits including health insurance and a pension. Most apprentice programs require 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, plus an additional 250 hours of classroom instruction.
Earning a License, Certifications
Upon finishing an apprenticeship program, you will have earned “journeyman” status and acquire the skills to handle jobs on your own. After working as a journeyman plumber for several years, you can take an exam to earn “master” status. Having this skill level opens more doors for you, professionally and financially. For a business to qualify for a contractor’s license, some states mandate that the business must have a master plumber on staff.
Plumbers must have a license in most states, and many businesses require it as well. You must have between two and five years of experience on the job as a journeyman plumber before taking the licensing exam, which tests your knowledge of the trade, as well as local plumbing codes. Once you have a license, you can work independently.
Plan on participating in ongoing education and training to earn certification in specialty fields, which adds to your skill base and makes you a more valuable employee. Like mechanics, plumbers can receive in-depth training in specific areas, such as pipe/steam fitting, fire sprinkler fixtures, gas, refrigeration and more. Many employers sponsor the training and testing themselves.
Plumbing Industry Opportunities
A reputable plumbing school can get you started in a career that offers a stable income in a growing field where you will have opportunities for growth and advancement. With increasing demand for eco-friendly business practices, including building construction itself, plumbing trade schools offer exciting new avenues for career development.
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