You’ve done a little carpentry and helped friends with basic plumbing. You enjoy working with your hands and you’re contemplating entering the trades. Now you have to decide which is the better career option for you: carpenter vs plumber.
Being a plumber or carpenter will provide you with a range of work opportunities; they are both respectable career paths. To determine which will suit you better, consider what you really want from your work life.
Carpentry vs Plumbing
With either of these occupations, you will most often be working on a construction site or in a residential setting, performing installation, maintenance, or repairs. However, there are also some real differences between these careers.
Salary for Carpenter vs Plumber
Plumbers make significantly more money than most carpenters. On average, as a plumber, you’ll make about 20% more than a carpenter with a similar number of years of experience, even on the same job site. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, carpenters had a median salary of about $48,000 in 2021, while plumbers in the same year averaged just under $60,000 annually.
In either line of work, you have the capacity to eventually start your own company and have other contractors working for you. In this case, you could potentially exceed the average income of either trade.
Working Hours and Conditions for a Plumber or Carpenter
Both carpenters and plumbers generally enjoy steady, full-time work. Plumbers are more likely to have to address emergencies, so they are often expected to be available on holidays, weekends, and nights.
The vast majority of plumbers work for someone else, with only 10% being self-employed. By contrast, 26% of carpenters choose to work independently.
Carpenters work everywhere there are structures. They might be framing a new school, or repairing damage or wear on a residence; they might be working out on a roof or a bridge or remodeling the inside of an office building. Just about all structures require a carpenter at some point.
Plumbers also work in a wide variety of settings both indoors and out. Plumbers are needed wherever there are pipes to be installed or maintained, including buildings of every ilk, municipal water systems, and marine vessels. Unfortunately, most plumbing is located in difficult-to-access areas of any given structure, so plumbers often have to work in tight, cramped spaces.
Conditions for a plumber or carpenter can be physically strenuous. You will need to lift heavy items and have the stamina for long days of working on site. Carpenters work on ladders and staging much of the time, and sometimes on rooftops as well. Plumbers often work in basements, crawl spaces, and other cramped areas to access pipes and fixtures.
Job Outlook for Carpenter vs Plumber
Both careers have a lower-than-average outlook for growth. The average occupational field is expected to expand at 8% between 2020 and 2030. Work opportunities in carpentry are expected to increase by only 2% in the same timeframe. Plumbing is projected to increase by 5%, which is the average for all trades, and significantly closer to the median growth expected for all occupations.
Insurance for Carpentry vs Plumbing
Mishaps can occur with any occupation. When you’re in the trades and working in homes and private businesses, you need insurance in case of an accident. The rates for insurance vary by trade.
For a general liability policy with $1,000,000 in coverage and a $500 deductible, the median insurance expense for plumbers runs about $125 per month. The same coverage will cost a carpenter only about $70 per month. Water damage is common and it can be insidious and expensive to rectify. Damage to a property from a carpentry mishap is both less likely and generally less costly to repair.
If you work independently, you will also want to be bonded. There is often confusion about the difference between liability insurance and bond insurance; these are two different types of coverage.
Liability insurance protects your business in the event that a client or other party sues you for an accident, mishap, or disagreement in the course of your work. In short, liability insurance is for your benefit.
Bond insurance protects the consumer. This type of insurance guarantees payment in the case of a default on a contract. The policy ensures that your customers will be reimbursed in case you fail to fulfill your promises or meet the conditions agreed upon in your contract.
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How To Become a Carpenter vs Plumber
Entry into either trade can begin with just a high school education. Laws vary by state on what is required to become a plumber, but in most instances, you will need to have some educational foundation and complete a lengthy apprenticeship to become licensed. Most states do not require licensing for carpenters.
Carpenters Learn on the Job
There are very few states where you will need to be licensed to begin a career as a carpenter, but there is a lot to learn if you want to advance in the field.
Getting Started in Carpentry
You can learn many of the ins and outs of carpentry while working on site. As an inexperienced carpenter, your first few years on the job are likely to be mostly heavy lifting and other unskilled labor. Someone needs to stack plywood, and if you’re the low person on the crew, that someone is probably going to be you.
Even in the early days of your carpentry career, however, you’ll be absorbing information about how a building goes together. You will be watching construction happen in real-time, and you will learn the basics of the trade.
Pay attention to the process and don’t waste the opportunity to ask questions; consider this your classroom and let the crew leader know that you’re interested in learning. It will help you move up through the ranks more quickly than if you just perform the minimum asked of you or if you grumble about the hard work. Starting out in any trade is challenging, and carpentry is no exception.
Advancing in a Carpentry Career
As you work full-time on a construction crew, you will learn a lot in just a few years, and you’ll be getting paid while you do. You will improve your skills, you’ll see an increase in your pay and you’ll begin doing more interesting aspects of the job.
If you aspire to work on your own or to eventually run your own business, you will probably need to take some courses in construction and business; you will certainly need to know the building codes for the state and municipality where you are working.
Earning Top Salaries in Carpentry
To achieve higher salary levels in carpentry, you will need to know how to handle every aspect of constructing a building, including reading blueprints, calculating angles, pitch, and area, and accurately estimating costs for materials and labor for a given project.
You might consider attaining a general contractor license for your state, which allows you to manage all stages of a building project, including hiring other contractors. As either a plumber or carpenter, becoming a general contractor is a possibility for later in your career.
Plumbers Train as Apprentices
Plumbers also generally start out as workers on a crew and learn the basics of the trade through working a full-time job. Most states do require plumbers to be licensed, however, so if you want to be a plumber, you will probably spend some time in a classroom.
State requirements vary, and licensing is not necessarily reciprocal between states. In other words, if you are licensed in Arizona, you aren’t automatically able to work in Alaska or New York. Some states, such as Colorado, have basic state minimum regulations, but allow each municipality to set its own requirements above and beyond the state rules.
If you are licensed in one state and you move, you will need to follow all guidelines for your destination state. This is good to keep in mind; you’ll want to pursue your license in a state where you intend to live and work.
If you want to become licensed as a plumber, you will probably need to complete some vocational training. This coursework will give you a foundation for your career. The training is not expensive and will help you land a better apprenticeship than if you skip the schoolwork before you start on-the-job training.
You can complete a one-year plumbing certification course for about $3,000. Alternatively, you can take a two-year associate degree program in plumbing technology for anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of school you choose. Community and technical colleges are a very cost-effective option for completing your associate’s degree.
If you start your apprenticeship with this training under your belt, you will have some significant advantages:
- Better apprenticeship options
- Higher starting pay
- Solid understanding of the job
- Faster promotion
Vocational training is well worth the investment of time and money if you can manage it. Alternatively, you may opt to attend courses at night while working as an apprentice.
To qualify as a journeyman plumber, most states require at least two years of working as an apprentice under a licensed plumber. As you work and learn, you are earning a salary.
When you complete the required time on the job and pass the first licensing exam, you become a journeyman plumber. In some states, this allows you to work unsupervised or even to bid on small projects. You should see a raise in pay as well.
State requirements vary for each level of licensing, but in order to become a master plumber, you will need more years of working and learning; in most states, you need at least five years of work experience prior to sitting for the master plumber’s exam. Depending on your apprenticeship program, you may also need to attend advanced classes in order to pass your exam and attain a master plumber’s license.
Check your state guideline for specific licensing requirements where you live.
Advanced Career Options
Master plumbers earn the highest salaries for plumbers regardless of where they live. These highly skilled plumbers work with building design and blueprints, ensuring that residential or commercial structures meet all safety and code requirements. They estimate job costs and work with other professionals such as carpenters and electricians to coordinate plumbing with structure and other systems.
With a master plumber’s license, you can own your own plumbing business and hire other plumbers, and train apprentices as well.
A plumber generally works installing and repairing pipes for water lines in commercial or residential settings. A pipefitter or steamfitter is a plumbing professional with specialized skills. Fitters install and maintain pipes and fittings that can carry hazardous materials in more industrial settings, such as manufacturing facilities or power stations.
Fitters work with chemicals and gasses which may be under pressure, and generally work with heavier piping than the copper that most plumbers use. Salaries are comparable to regular plumbing, but the setting is more often a shipyard or oil refinery versus a residence or private building.
How To Decide on Carpentry vs Plumbing
If you want to make more money and you don’t object to taking some vocational courses, plumbing is likely a good choice for you. If you want to travel around the country and have a universal skill set that you can apply wherever you happen to be for a year or two, carpentry might be a better fit.
Your career is a personal choice and should suit you for the long haul. What kind of a life do want to live? Will you stay in one state? Do you want to work for someone else or do you want to run your own business? Your occupation is an integral part of your life. Consider where and how you want to live as you weigh your career options.
Visit General Contractor License Guide to compare various state requirements for licensing for a variety of trades. You’ll find guidance for educational programs and insurance as well. Gather the information you need to help you choose the right career path for you. Carpenter vs plumber: Which one will you choose?