If you’re looking to learn a trade that guarantees reliable work and a good salary, you may want to become a plumber. Plumbers play an essential role in any community, helping to install and repair pipes that carry liquid and gas into people’s homes or into commercial buildings. But the job is much more than just attending to clogged pipes. Plumbers like the folks at 5 Star Plumbing troubleshoot systems, interpret blueprints, write estimates and assess large projects from beginning to end.
It is both a hands-on job and one which requires quick thinking and strong interpersonal skills. (Ever met a panicked homeowner with a leaking exploded pipe? A skilled plumber can calm them down just with the right confidence, words, and actions.)
And with the average age of plumbers in the United States sitting in the mid-50s, there’s never been a more ideal time for young people looking to begin a career in the field. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median national income for a plumber is about $55,000, though in some parts of the country, it’s higher. In fact, in Wisconsin, the mandatory minimum wage for a plumber is more than $33 an hour, which translates to about $66,000 a year.
So how exactly does one become a plumber?
Get a High School Diploma or GED
Plumbers need a basic foundation in math—particularly algebra and geometry—as well as science. It may also help to have experience with computers, as many plumbers these days use digital drafting software to prepare for projects. In many states, you cannot receive a license without a high school degree or its equivalent.
Begin Your Training
You can receive training through a vocational school, through an apprenticeship, or (most likely) through both. Max Rose, a Colorado-based plumber with 16 years experience, explained that he was skeptical of learning the trade in a classroom at first, but highly encourages it today.
“I drove to Denver twice a week and learned the proper way to do things,” he says. “Learning the ins-and-outs of plumbing in the classroom made things much easier in the field.”
Whether or not you take plumbing coursework, you will have to complete 4-5 years of an apprenticeship. But don’t worry—apprentices get paid for their work.
Before you qualify for your apprenticeship, you’ll have to take an aptitude exam. These exams test your understanding of plumbing basics and other foundational skills that are required on the job. After you pass the exam, you’ll sit for a few interviews with established plumbers seeking trainees. You can find master plumbers through your technical school or through a local union.
Once you’ve been hired as an apprentice, you’ll assist your trainer on the job, learning as you go. During this period, you’ll get paid a fraction of a fully-certified plumber.
“An apprentice begins working with a starting salary of 45 percent of the regulated minimum,” explains Family Handyman. “Every year, the wage progresses to 50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent and 80 percent.” In other words, you’ll be paid a small amount to start, and earn more each year as you advance.
After a few years of apprenticing, you’ll be allowed to take a certification exam. Most states have additional licensing requirements, like proof of apprenticeship, so be sure to communicate with your state certifier. The last thing you want is to forget some paperwork and end up not qualifying for your license.
Then, once you pass the test and are granted a state license, you are qualified to become a “journeyman plumber.” Journeymen are allowed to work independently and make a full hourly wage. Some in the trade will spend their entire careers as journeymen, but if you’re interested in owning your own business or training your own apprentices, you’ll want to become a master plumber.
As the name suggests, these are the most experienced plumbers in the industry. In most states, you will have to take another exam to receive your master plumber status. Master plumbers make more money than their journeymen or apprentice counterparts, which is why many experienced plumbers go through the burden of studying for yet another exam. Plus, master plumbers can hire and train their own assistants, which means more money-making potential as a businessman or trainer.
To find a training program in your trade of interest, check out ExploreTheTrades.org