Are you considering trade school as an alternative to college? We’re launching a new series of articles for people who like to work with their hands. In this article, we’ll discuss how to become a plumber, what their days look like, the amount of money you can expect to earn throughout your career, and more. Let’s dive in!
What Do Plumbers Do?
Plumbers install and maintain a variety of water and waste systems. Work in this profession can range from minor pipe repairs to drafting blueprints for plumbing installations in new buildings and remodels. They also inspect pipe systems and prepare cost estimates. Some plumbers work with architects, helping them to design the best possible plan for pipe systems and fixtures.
Training to become a plumber includes classes in safety, math, and physics as well as extensive hands-on practice. Over the course of your training as an apprentice plumber, you’ll learn how to use a variety of tools such as pipe wrenches, toilet augers, tube cutters, and basin wrenches. You’ll also learn how to read blueprints and how to comply with local and statewide building codes.
What Do Their Days Look Like?
The average work day will vary depending on a plumber’s exact job. Some plumbers spend their days installing pipes, which includes measuring, cutting, and fitting pipes according to a preconceived plan. Many plumbers spend their days testing pipes for leakage, fixing leaks, and clearing drains.
Most plumbing assistants will often need to carry heavy tools, pipes, and other equipment in their day to day work. Loosening and tightening fittings may require considerable physical strength, and you’ll need to be comfortable with working in cramped spaces.
How to Become a Plumber
Many trade schools offer plumbing programs that provide a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on learning. Some programs also help students find work as apprentices, either during the program or upon completion.
Here are some schools that offer plumbing programs and certifications:
- Apex Technical School in Long Island, NY
- Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center in Ashland, OH
- Bergen County Technical Schools in Hackensack, NJ
- Berk Trade and Business School in Long Island City, NY
- Berks Career & Technology Center in Leesport, PA
- Erwin Technical College in Tampa, FL
- Fort Myers Technical College in Fort Myers, FL
- Lancaster County Career and Technology Center in Willow Street, PA
- Manatee Technical College in Bradenton, FL
- Mid-Del Technology Center in Midwest City, OK
- Orleans Technical College in Philadelphia, PA
- Osceola Technical College in Kissimmee, FL
- Sheridan Technical College in Hollywood, FL
- South Florida Institute of Technology in Miami, FL
- Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota, FL
These programs take anywhere from six to fourteen months to complete, and they give their students the opportunity to become journeyman plumbers – although many states may require an extended apprenticeship period before plumbers are permitted to take the exam and become licensed journeyman plumbers. Program costs range from four thousand to twenty thousand dollars.
Many prospective plumbers choose to eschew school and apprentice directly with a journeyman or master plumber instead. Instead of paying for their education, they get paid (often double minimum wage, even for beginners) to work and learn the trade in the process. In some states, apprenticeships are state regulated and mandatory.
Paying for school may be worth it if you find that it’s difficult to find an apprenticeship with no prior knowledge or relevant work experience, as many people applying for open apprenticeships have already completed these programs and it gives them a leg up on the competition.
Prospective plumbers can also join apprenticeship programs organized by local unions. Most require a high school diploma or GED. They may also require applicants to pass an aptitude test, a drug screen, a physical exam, and/or an agility test. A valid driver’s license is often a requirement as well.
Apprentices, Journeymen and Master Plumbers
Plumbers begin their careers as apprentices, often called assistant plumbers. They might find apprenticeships through trade school programs or directly with experienced plumbers. You can also search for apprenticeship opportunities here.
Most states don’t require apprentices to be licensed, but you’ll need to check the laws in your state, county, city and/or town to know for sure. Wages vary drastically depending on location and experience, but apprentice plumbers can expect to earn an average of fifteen dollars per hour. Some employers might also provide bonuses, commissions, or profit-sharing, which can provide a significant boost to yearly salaries.
After apprenticing with an experienced plumber for several years, you’ll probably need to prove yourself (again, it varies by state) by passing an examination. Once you’ve obtained that, you’re officially a journeyman plumber. This qualifies you to work with less supervision and supervise the work of apprentices.
Becoming a master plumber requires additional licensing and certification that will allow you to supervise both journeyman and apprentice plumbers. In most states, only master plumbers are permitted to work independently and/or lead their own team of workers. If you want to design piping systems, own your own business, and consult with permit agents, you’ll need to become a master plumber. Master plumbers are required to pay for their own liability insurance.
Depending on the state in which you live and work, you may also be required to complete continuing education classes in order to keep your master plumber license. These classes generally cover new regulations, codes, and energy-efficient practices.
Get personalized advice!
How Long Does It Take to Become a Plumber?
You can begin working as an assistant plumber as soon as you land a job. Becoming a journeyman or master plumber takes considerably longer. Timelines vary drastically from place to place, but becoming a master plumber may take upwards of ten years.
If you begin with a school program, that can take anywhere from six to fourteen months. And remember that while completing one of these programs makes it easier for you to find an apprenticeship, it doesn’t necessarily replace the necessity of apprenticing with a master or journeyman plumber. You’ll need to do that for a while before you’re allowed to take the exam that will give you the license required to become a journeyman plumber. Exact timelines vary by state and may set a minimum number of years or hours of work experience.
Some states require as little as two years of experience as journeyman plumbers before becoming a master plumber, while others require as many as ten years. Some states have no certification requirement at all, though counties or cities within that state often have their own separate regulations.
Let’s look at Texas for a sample timeline. In Texas, plumbers must have 4,000 hours of experience (that’s two years of full-time work) to become a tradesman plumber or 8,000 hours of experience (four years) to become a journeyman plumber, and an additional four years as a journeyman to become a master plumber. That’s a total of eight years if one is working forty hours a week with two weeks of vacation each year, but it can be shortened considerably with the completion of an approved training program.
The U.S. Department of Labor states that the five most important qualities for prospective plumbers are dexterity, physical strength, troubleshooting skills, communication skills, and mechanical skills. Plumbers must be able to use a variety of tools in tight spaces, and they need to be able to lift and move heavy materials. They need the necessary communication skills to communicate with customers, direct apprentices, and bid on jobs. Plumbers working independently also need to have adequate problem-solving abilities in order to find and repair problems in plumbing and piping systems.
How Much Do Plumbers Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for plumbers in the United States is nearly sixty thousand dollars per year, which is greater than the national average of forty-six thousand. These statistics also include pipefitters and steamfitters, who maintain pipes that carry something other than water, such as chemicals or gasses.
Yearly salaries for plumbers just starting out are closer to thirty-six thousand, but bear in mind that apprentices are being paid to learn their trade rather than going into debt for a degree. The top ten percent of plumbers are making over ninety-nine thousand dollars each year.
Like any average salary, this varies considerably by state. Plumbers in Illinois, Oregon, Alaska, and Massachusetts all earn considerably more than the national average.
What’s the Job Market for Plumbers?
This is a field with high job security, because people will always need plumbers. Indoor plumbing isn’t going anywhere, and experts will always be in demand both for new buildings and older pipework in need of repair. According to the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, the growth rate for this profession over the next decade is two to three percent. Compare this to the average growth rate of five percent for all professions and you’ll see that this isn’t a stellar outlook. Still, it’s a steady increase in a solid field.
Benefits and Industry Standards
Most plumbers are union workers. Local union benefits often include health insurance, pension plans, training courses, savings plans, and established overtime rates. Some unions also have welfare funds in place to provide weekly sickness or accident benefits to support plumbers who are unable to work due to a temporary disability.
Do Plumbers Need to Own Their Own Business?
Many plumbers are also small business owners, but it isn’t a requirement. Many plumbers start their career working for small local companies. Many large buildings and complexes hire their own plumbers – think college campuses, airports, government buildings, apartment complexes, etc. Any building with running water is filled with potential customers.
Who Hires Plumbers?
Fewer than ten percent of plumbers are self employed. The majority of plumbers are employed by plumbing contractors. A small percentage are employed by the government, heavy construction, and manufacturing companies.
Overview: How to Become a Plumber
Plumbing is a steady field and respectable profession with ample opportunity for personal growth. Plumbers start out as apprentices, also called assistants, and make a good living wage as they learn the trade. After working for a number of years with more experienced plumbers, they have the opportunity to become journeyman plumbers themselves. It’s possible to become a master plumber within seven to ten years, and experienced plumbers can potentially earn six-digit salaries with solid benefits negotiated by established unions.
Here are some pros and cons.
- Apprenticeships pay reasonably well
- Job opportunities are on on the rise
- Pay increases steadily with experience
- Established unions secure good benefits
- Salary is slightly less than national average
- Job growth is lower than national average
- Work may include heavy labor and small spaces
Overall Job Satisfaction
Many plumbers stick with their career for their entire working life, suggesting a very high job satisfaction. If this field interests you, consider contacting local plumbers to ask about the possibility of shadowing them to learn more about their work. And stay tuned for upcoming articles on training to become an electrician, civil engineer, or heavy equipment mechanic.