- Prospects for those entering the industry are projected to be excellent as there will be little competition.
- The majority of workers gain their skills by completing apprenticeship programs that generally last four to five years.
- This are has one of the highest numbers of workers and one of the highest incomes in the entire construction industry.
Plumbers are a familiar sight to most people who employ them to fix a leak or install a sink. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters do much more than this, however. They install and perform work on many different pipe systems from water treatment plants that service an entire town to skyscrapers to homes. They might also work on waste removal, gas, or climate control systems. Pipes are used in all of these different areas, plus they are used to hold steam to power turbine engines, or in industrial facilities to transport materials. They are also used in creating computer chips and medicines.
Most workers focus on one are to become a specialized worker:
- Pipelayers: They first dig and level trenches and then lay pipes for drainage, sewer, water, or gas systems. The pipes might be made out of cement, plastic, iron, or clay.
- Plumbers: They are involved in the installation of three things: plumbing fixtures, like sinks; appliances, like water heaters; and complex systems in individual structures. This means that instead of installing large pipes that carry water or gas across neighborhoods or cities, they install gas, water, drainage, and sewer systems in individual houses or buildings.
- Pipefitters: They work with both low pressure and high pressure pipes that are used for commercial purposes, like hydroelectric power plants, factories, or central air conditioning or heating. They install, maintain, and repair all of these systems. In addition, they incorporate automated controls that are being used more and more to keep the systems working properly. There are different types of pipefitters as well:
- Steamfitters: They are involved in installing pipes that transport materials like gases that are extremely high-pressure.
- Sprinklerfitters: Their job is to put automated sprinkler systems in buildings as part of their fire alarm system.
Workers in each of these areas use a variety of specialized tools and techniques. For instance, installing a water system in a home requires the use of steel, copper, and plastic piping which workers can manage on their own or with only one other person. Conversely, city-wide waste disposal systems use huge pipes that are made out of cast-iron which are extremely heavy. Working on that kind of system involves large teams of workers.
All pipelayers, -fitters, plumbers, and steamfitters, regardless of the type of work they do, need to be able to read blueprints, follow instructions from builders or contractors, plan out the work to be done, and be capable and efficient. Also, computers are being used more and more often to keep track of progress and to make detailed plans, so computer skills are helpful. This can be seen in how plumbers put in an entire pipe system in a residential structure, which is a common job. Computers create very specific plans that show exactly where pipes need to go, the type and location of fixtures and appliances, and the types of materials needed to complete the job.
Plumbers are doing more and more of the actual design work. They can make designs efficiently and capably since they know so much about building codes, materials, and techniques. To do this, they begin by planning out exactly what type of pipe they are going to use and they make a plan of how they are going to install it that uses the materials most efficiently. For example, it is common for houses with multiple stories to position washrooms directly above each other so not as much piping is needed to reach them. Next, they measure where the pipes will go in the actual structure and indicate where pipes will be jointed or enter the wall. Plumbers who are involved in construction also survey the area to see if there are any problematic areas like blockages and plan accordingly.
Often plumbers have to make openings in walls for fixtures or pipes. In order to do this they bolt steel supports to the ceiling that secure the pipe. Plumbers also need to cut and shape pipe to make it fit into the system. To do this they use pipe cutters, special equipment that bends pipes, or saws. They also join pieces of pipe together. How they join it depends on what type of pipe it is: joining copper pipe involves inserting a fitting over the pipe and welding it into place using a blowtorch. Joining plastic pipe involves using different types of glue or cement.
Once all of the pipes are positioned correctly, plumbers next turn to the appliances and fixtures. Once they’re in place, plumbers join the local system to the city’s water or waste disposal lines. Once all that’s done they conduct a thorough assessment on the whole system to make sure everything is correctly pressurized and ready to go.
This area of construction employs one of the largest numbers of people in the entire construction industry. In 2002 there were roughly 550,000 plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Of these, roughly 70% were employed by plumbing or climate control contractors who did most of their work in new buildings, renovation, maintenance, or updating older equipment. Other workers performed maintenance for commercial buildings like factories or for governmental agencies. For instance, many pipefitters worked at facilities that work with petroleum or chemicals which use pipes to transport dangerous liquids and gases. Roughly 10% of workers in all of these specialties were self-employed. 30% were union members.
The work can be physically demanding as workers may need to stand, kneel, or bend over for long periods of time. They also need to handle heavy and unwieldy pieces of pipe and use heavy machinery.
There is not one geographic area where pipefitters, plumbers, steamfitters, or pipelayers are needed. Workers are needed in this area all over the globe, with the largest demand being in places with high population density.
Almost every person employed as a plumber, pipefitter, pipelayer, or steamfitter completes some form of formal apprenticeship. A lot of apprenticeships are sponsored by boards that are made up of regional representatives of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada, and regional employers who are often affiliated with the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, the National Fire Sprinkler Association, or the National Association of Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors.
Aside from those provided by unions, other training programs are sponsored by regional branches of the Associated Builders and Contractors, the American Fire Sprinkler Association, or the Home Builders’ Institute of the National Association of Home Builders.
Most apprenticeships last from four to five years. They include 144 hours of coursework in reading specifications, drafting, sketching, math, practical science, safety procedures, regulations that govern plumbing, and building codes. Apprenticeships also include practical experience where apprentices work with professionals and practice their skills. They begin with simple tasks like learn how to tell the difference between types of pipe, using simple tools, and loading materials. With skill and experience they will be given more responsibility and they will be taught more complex skills, like how to handle different kinds of pipe, installing complicated pipe systems, and how to install fixtures. Apprenticeships are desirable because they provide very thorough and comprehensive training. However, some people still learn the trade on the job without formal training.
Those applying for apprenticeships need to be eighteen or older and physically fit. Some programs may call a high school diploma or equivalent. Applicable experience gained in the armed forces is looked upon very favorably, and may even give someone with that experience credit toward completing their apprenticeship. Classes or experience in math, drafting, sketching, reading blueprints, wood shop, metal shop, using computers, physics, and chemistry also provide a valuable background.
Though there isn’t a national certification program, most local areas require some sort of certification for plumbers, pipefitters, pipelayers, and steamfitters. Different places require different things, but most certification involves an exam on techniques, materials, safety guidelines, and plumbing regulations.
Opportunities for advancement include supervisory positions for plumbing contractors or mechanical contractors. Some workers might become self-employed and work from home. With time they might start their own business as a plumbing contractor or establish a firm, where they are in charge of many employees. Others become inspectors or contractors.
Prospects for those entering the profession are projected to be excellent. There will be high demand for workers in this area, and not enough people to respond to that demand as many people look for employment that is less physically demanding.
Job growth for all specialties in this area is expected to proceed at the rate of the average for all jobs in coming years. This growth will be a result of remodeling projects, especially as buildings are updated with fire sprinkler systems; repairing or replacing older systems; and routine maintenance for facilities that have miles of pipes, like manufacturing plants, power plants, treatment facilities, municipal water systems, and large buildings.
Increasingly strict plumbing codes, and increasingly strict enforcement of plumbing codes, also lead to higher demand. Other job openings will be created as people retire or shift careers. However, this job growth will be tempered by the trend toward using plastic materials which require less labor and increasing use of other, more automated systems.
In the past, many facilities with large pipe systems employed in-house plumbers or pipefitters to perform maintenance and repairs. However, efforts to minimize labor costs have created a trend toward hiring plumbers through contractors or firms.
The construction industry is notoriously unstable. Employment is guaranteed only for the short duration of the project, and so workers could be between projects for periods of time. Also, work is sometimes available only in certain areas as the amount of construction in any given area is fluid. Workers may have to travel to remote sites. The construction industry is extremely susceptible to fluctuations in the economy; however, the work of pipelayers, pipefitters, plumbers, and steamfitters is less susceptible since repairs and maintenance of pipe systems is still necessary.
Workers in this area have some of the highest incomes in the whole construction industry. The majority of pipelayers made between $11.00/hour and $18.40/hour in 2002, with a median of $13.70. The lowest tenth on the pay scale made under $9.20/hour and the highest tenth made over $24.30/hour.
The majority of plumbers, pipefitters, and seamfitters made between $14.70/hour and $25.90/hour with a median of $19.30/h. The lowest tenth on the pay scale made under $11.20/hour and the highest tenth made over $32.30/hour.
Median wages varied according to where plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were employed. Those who worked in non-residential building construction or for building equipment contractors had a median income of about $19.60/hour. Those who worked in utility system construction had a median income of about $17.80/hour; and those who worked in ship and boat building or for local governments had a median income of about $16.40/hour.
Earnings for apprentices usually start at half of the earnings of professionals. Apprentices receive raises as they gain experience. After a set amount of time apprentices usually receive full benefits.