Many of us think of plumbers when our sinks or toilets become hopelessly clogged or when we have frozen water pipes in the winter.
But the work of a plumber is often more complex and challenging than fixing those problems. Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters install and repair pipelines for water, chemicals, steam, gasses and waste, and their work is carefully regulated and requires years of training to perform properly.
Participate in the Plumbing Design Process. In new construction, plumbers work with architects and contractors to make a blueprint of the plumbing system so that it meets all applicable building codes.
Read and Follow Blueprints. Plumbers who install piping in a new home or building follow those blueprints that show the intended location of appliances and plumbing fixtures. Installation requires bending and cutting pipe as well as affixing components through fittings, soldering or adhesive.
Use Testing Equipment. Plumbers use pressure gauges to ensure proper functioning of the system.
Plumber training programs also incorporate education in core technical subjects to deepen your applied job skills. You may encounter courses in mathematics, applied physics and chemistry or architectural drafting. In addition, training in plumbing components, tools and materials sets you up to learn how to become a plumber.
Complete high school.
A diploma or GED is all most applicants need to get into an apprenticeship program for plumbing.
Take technical training in a school or union program.
In the classroom, future plumbers learn about pipe system design, safety, installation and equipment. Some also take welding courses, which are required for some pipefitter or steamfitter apprenticeship programs.
Enter an apprenticeship program.
Some students do their classroom training at night -- or for one full week a month -- while working during the day as an apprentice to a master or journeyman plumber. An apprenticeship is the best way to learn how to become a plumber. To become an apprentice, students have to be at least 18 years old, have a diploma, pass a math test, know computers and pass a substance-abuse screening.
Put in the time.
Apprentices have to complete 1,700 to 2,000 hours a year of on-the-job work and at least 246 hours of classroom training.
Complete a 4- or 5-year apprenticeship.
When enrolled in a union training plan, apprentices earn pay and their training is free, notes Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry. Many employers also provide training, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Apprentices learn safety and building codes, and study math, physics and chemistry, typically finishing with an associate degree. "One advantage of a union program is that you complete your training and you have no debt," Bigley said. "Right out of high school, you can get a job with a fair pay rate, classroom and on-the-job training, and college credit, and you have no student loans to pay off."
Requirements vary from state to state and from city to city, but to get a license to work independently, apprentices must pass an exam that measures their knowledge of local codes. If they pass and get a license, they can become journey plumbers. Some states require pipefitters to be licensed as well, and those who work on gas lines may need to get a special license.
Earn master plumber status.
To become a master plumber, journey plumbers must acquire years of experience and take several additional courses. In some states, master plumbers are required to get a contractor's license.
Stay current on changing codes and practices.
As new plumbing regulations come into effect, it's important for plumbers to get additional training, such as in medical uses or in backflow prevention, Bigley said. "A big part of the job is continuous education on new techniques, practices and regulations," Bigley said.
Get additional certifications.
Master plumbers can stand out when they have specialized skills, such as in energy efficiency and water-saving technologies. Professional associations offer certification in specific areas of expertise, such as environmentally friendly plumbing installation.
Learn supervisory and business skills.
Master plumbers who want to increase the size of their business can hire plumbers and learn to bid on bigger jobs. They learn how to find clients, service those clients and develop a good reputation that leads to more work.
Like any skilled trade, plumbing and pipefitting takes years of practice and experience to master. To get some more insight into what makes a great plumber, we spoke with Tom Bigley, director of plumbing services for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry.
Q. How is the job market today for apprentice plumbers?
It's the best I've ever seen it. We are actively recruiting people who want to become plumbers as we seek to replace all the plumbers from the baby boomer generation who are starting to retire.
Q. Are you appealing to military veterans?
Our VIP (Veterans in Piping) program allows military personnel to start their training in one of our 280 training centers around the country while they are still on active duty. When they get out, we help them move directly into an apprenticeship in their home town, so they have a job when they leave the military. We also give them a year of credit for their service. Our plumbers love having these guys: they work hard, show up on time and show great discipline.
Q. What are the advantages of an apprenticeship system?
It's where you learn the trade. You learn how to do things according to the building code and how to protect the health of the public. Also, when you're working under the guidance of a master plumber, you earn while you learn. If you're in a union program, you graduate with college credit and no debt.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association
- GreenPlumbers USA
Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.