How to Become a Plumber
Plumbing is often referred to as “recession-proof”. That’s because plumbing, unlike other trades, supports essential sanitation and health-related aspects of modern society that never go away.
This isn’t to say that plumbers always have work, or that plumbers don’t get laid off. But it does mean that plumbing is a high paying job and stable profession with lots of opportunity. Indeed.com lists a national average plumber’s salary of roughly $26 per hour, with many operations offering $35-$40 per hour.
But to become a plumber takes time and training. That’s because plumbing systems are some of the most intricate and integral parts of our contemporary infrastructure. And rightly so, as they are responsible for the major strides in health and sanitation that we as a modern society have taken over the last 100-200 years.
To become a plumber, you must accept that you will need years of training and practice to properly understand code, statutes, and skills necessary to ensure the health of the nation. Here is a basic overview of the steps in becoming a plumber.
Plumbing School: What You Need to Know
Plumbing, unlike some other trades, involves research skills, on-the-fly mathematics, and critical thinking. You'll need to know things like
- How to measure and cut pipe,
- How to calculate drain or water service loads for fixtures in a building,
- How to determine the right material of piping based on factors like material, pressure, and use, and
- How to read and apply code to a given job, whether it is in pluming repair, renovation, or new construction.
In some cases, plumbers also learn basics in electrical wiring and carpentry to better help them do their jobs.
With all that said, a basic education will set you up to be able to do all these things. Before getting in to actual “plumbing”, you need some basics:
- Plumbing requires a high-school education or GED for licensing and advancement. That’s because plumbers need an understanding of specific math, like basic calculation (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division), algebra, and geometry. The installation of water and drain systems calls on plumbers to be able to quickly make measurements and understand how to calculate things like surface area and volume.
- Plumbing also typically requires an education in plumbing basics from a vocational or trade school. Where you get this education depends on availability. Some community colleges offer Associates Degrees in applied education programs attached construction jobs like plumbing. Public and private trade schools also typically offer programs in plumbing, usually taught by current or retired professional plumbers.
Vocational school is not always separate from the apprenticeship requirement, so it isn’t the case that you will necessarily need both. Check the rules of your state labor board and apprenticeship requirements.
Training: How to Become a Plumber’s Apprentic
Regardless if you need to attend trade school, you will need to complete an apprenticeship program.
An apprenticeship is a throwback to older ways of training and education. The idea of the apprenticeship is that you, as a beginner, learn the trade from an expert (or multiple experts) in your field. These apprenticeship programs differ slightly based on the jurisdiction and trade, but typical apprenticeships outlined by the U.S Department of Labor run on average of 4-5 years.
As an apprentice, you will learn the skills necessary to work in the field of plumbing "on the job”. That means you work on real systems with real people, under the supervision of a Journeyman or Master Plumber. The skills you learn will apply directly towards the goal of licensing. Depending on your apprenticeship program, you will most likely have to take classes that cover the skills necessary to pass your licensing test.
A combination of local, state, and federal regulation boards, in conjunction with professional organizations and labor unions, decide on the requirements of your apprenticeship, so the details may differ from state to state. You will, however, receive an apprentice’s license that shows that you are in training.
Plumber Apprentice salaries average out nationally at about $15 per hour, but apprentices can earn more depending on their advancement and responsibilities. As an apprentice, however, you cannot work on a plumbing job on your own. If an inspector finds an apprentice working on a job site alone, or finds work completed by an apprentice without supervision, then the apprentice and their employer could face fines and loss of license.
Becoming a Licensed Plumber
After you have completed your required training as an apprentice (including on-site experience and classroom work), you can take your licensing exam. Upon passing that exam, you become a Journeyman Plumber.
At this point, you are free to work as a plumber without the direct supervision of another Journeyman or Master Plumber. You are assumed to be an expert on local plumbing code, installation methods, materials, and applications. Here, you can work in any specialization you want, whether it is new construction, repair and service, commercial, or industrial building. Like any other career, you can pick your path.
However, this doesn’t mean that your learning is over. Many Journeyman plumbers who want to advance to higher salary jobs start training towards Master Plumbing certification.
Holding the status of Master Plumber means that you can not only work as a plumber, but that you have advanced knowledge of local and national plumbing codes. It also signifies that you can handle the installation and maintenance of advanced plumbing systems, plan those systems, and manage plumbing projects in terms of manpower and costs. Holding the title of Master Plumber means that you are a leader in your field and should be compensated as such: Master Plumber salaries are typically folded in to the same statistics as Journeyman Plumbers (in part because they aren’t distinct employment positions; they are professional ranks). However, Master Plumbers typically work as crew leaders, foreman, or business owners, and can make significantly more than others.
Some states require an additional examination to earn Master Plumber status. But once you achieve that status, you signal that you are one of the experts of your field, capable of handling large projects and running complex teams to install plumbing systems that work according to code.
Plumbing as a Stable, Lucrative, and Rewarding Profession
Plumbing is a well-regulated and highly rewarding profession. Because of the strict regulations on training, licensing, and apprenticeship, hard work and skill are highly regarded in the field. And even after your apprenticeship, there are several ways to continue progressing as a professional with higher responsibility and earning potential. And with career options as small business owners, union plumbers, and Master Plumbers in high-paying industry jobs, you can follow a path that interests you.
If you are just getting started, you may want to reach out to local experts. Call your local plumber’s and pipefitter’s union to see what their requirements they have for apprenticeship, and to see if they are looking to add apprentices to their roster. Or reach out to some of the local service and construction companies and see how they select their apprentices, what kind of training they look for, and for any advice they might have on breaking into the field. It never hurts to ask.
If you are on board for a lengthy and rigorous training process, then getting started as a plumber can be a new chapter in your career, one that will support you and your family.
By: Konrad Orzechowski