How to Become a Plumber

There’s more to plumbing than fixing toilets. Other related job titles include steamfitter, pipelayer, sprinklerfitter, and pipefitter. Plumbers work in both residential and commercial settings, installing and fixing pretty much everything inside and out that is connected to a pipe. Steamfitters work with high-pressure pipes. Pipelayers lay and connect all sorts of pipes in new construction and in renovations. Sprinklerfitters work exclusively with those sprinkler systems you see in buildings for putting out fires. Pipefitters are the people who install and repair entire pipe systems. All of these careers can be physically demanding and require knowledge of safety procedures. Turns out, working with torches and sharp objects can be hazardous. To become a plumber, you have to complete a program at a technical college and/or an apprenticeship with an experienced plumber.

Years of Education

Only a year or 2 of formal education after high school, but about 5 years of hands-on training.

Degrees & Licenses

  • Completion of an apprenticeship and/or Completion of a plumbing program in a technical school and
  • License for the state in which you want to work

Job Availability

Prospects will be good, as new construction and renovation of old buildings for more efficient plumbing continues.

Income

Low

$27,500

Average

$50,300

High

$79,900

Perks

  • Everyone loves a handyman, especially when they are in dire need of one.
  • Flaunting of butt cracks is allowed. Bonus points if you have an ass that fellas/ladies would actually like to see.

1. Pick a plumbing program to attend.

Many technical colleges offer diplomas and associate’s degrees in plumbing. Completing school will take around a year or two. Specifics of the program and the type of certificate or diploma you end up with will differ between schools. Subject matter will pretty much be the same, though. You’ll learn about the different tools and materials used by plumbers, and how to use them safely. There’s also system design and residential versus commercial plumbing. Some communication and business classes might come in handy if you want to be your own boss someday. Also, speaking Spanish can be useful for plumbers because, as stereotypical as it is, many construction workers have Spanish as a first—or only—language.

2. Get yourself an apprenticeship.

Old fashioned indoor plumbing picturePlumbers get most of their training on the job. Plumbing is hands-on kind of work, so you need practical experience before you can call yourself a plumber. Formal schooling will include an internship to provide this, but completing an apprenticeship might be all you need. United Association (UA)–the union of plumbing-related occupations–offers five-year apprenticeships for those with no experience. It’s paid, on-the-job training that prepares you for your chosen career in plumbing. You’ll put in around 2,000 hours of practical work every year in this apprenticeship, and then a couple hundred more of class time. Going through the UA also makes you a union member, which has its benefits.

3. Become a licensed and/or certified plumber.

Most areas of the U.S. require plumbers to become licensed. Legal requirements are different depending on where you live, but you need to have a certain level of experience, generally at least two or three years, and you’ll probably have to pass a written test. Once you have your license, you’re the real deal. All you need is a pair of low-rise pants to show off the most well-known mark of a plumber. Another option, on top of being licensed, is to gain certification in Green Awareness—as titled by the UA—or energy-efficient, water-saving plumbing methods. Not a requirement, but it can help you get ahead in your career, as everyone is making the switch to more efficient technologies.

4. Find plumbing work.

Without plumbing, there wouldn't be firefightingWhat you want to do as a plumber will dictate where to find work. If the most well-known sort of plumber is your goal—a residential Mr. Fix-it—you can go into business yourself or work for another plumbing company. Until you have enough experience, option #2 will be your best bet. If you want to design plumbing systems for new buildings, you might work for a construction company. Pipefitters can work for electric companies, for example, maintaining gas lines. Then there’s the industrial side of things, where plumbers work in power or water treatment plants, and they are also employed in large commercial buildings and by the government, building and maintaining infrastructure.
Advancing in a Plumbing Career

Advancement can mean different things for a plumber. The most basic will be the pay scale. New apprentices make significantly less than veteran plumbers—about half—with their wages increasing as they gain skill and experience. Advancing can also mean going from contract projects, with periods of unemployment in between, to a full-time, long-term position. You can go from being an employee to running your own business, or become a manager. Knowing the most up-to-date, eco-friendly technology will be great for a plumber’s career. Some plumbers don’t even physically work with plumbing anymore, instead only having managerial duties, or inspecting buildings to make sure they’re up to code. For those who become supervisors or run their own business, communication and business skills will be especially valuable. The pay is better in those sorts of jobs, and they probably don’t get emergency calls to come fix an overflowing toilet at 3:00 AM on Christmas, either.

Further Reading to Become a Plumber

Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (W. Hodding Carter). According to the author, plumbing falls under that category of things you don’t notice until they don’t work, and to honor the profession, he’s written a history of plumbing systems that is both fun and informative.

Plunging into Green: One Plumber’s Journey to Becoming a Water Hugger (John Smith). An entertaining personal account of one plumber turning his business green, a recent change to an old profession.

Spanish-English Dictionary. Choose any one of them out there if you work on a construction site with primarily Spanish-speaking coworkers. A warning: it’s not a replacement for actually knowing a language, and slang differs between dialects.