No matter who you are or where you live, you will probably need a plumber at some point in your life. That is one of the things that makes plumbing a solid career choice for many people.
Plumbers perform various work that stretches far beyond fixing broken pipes and clearing clogged drains. There are many different career paths that a plumber can take. For example, in addition to residential repairs and installations, plumbers may also design complex piping systems for industrial applications, work in oil or natural gas extraction, and install and service HVAC systems.
Just as you can choose a plumbing career path, you can also take several different routes to get there. That might include a formal training program, an apprenticeship, or starting as an entry-level plumber’s helper in the field.
This guide will explore some of the most common career paths for plumbers and a few other lesser-known options.
Is Plumbing a Good Career?
If you like working with your hands, facing new situations and challenges every day, and don’t mind getting a little dirty in the process, then plumbing could be an excellent career choice for you. The industry is projected to have an average growth rate through 2030 and slightly higher salary expectations than some other construction-related careers.
An Average Day for a Plumber
The most populated plumbing career path is that of a service plumber. You can expect to complete basic repairs, install new plumbing lines and fixtures, and perform inspections in this role. Because a large part of the job responds to broken systems, it is common to see different things daily. In addition, you never know what calls may come in, so you must be prepared for various tasks.
According to the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, plumbers may find themselves doing any of the following tasks during a typical day:
- Maintaining and repairing pipelines and systems
- Installing fixtures and pipes
- Troubleshooting plumbing systems
- Performing inspections or testing of pipes and plumbing systems
- Providing work, material, and cost estimates for projects
- Reading and interpreting blueprints
- Installing and repairing plumbing systems according to local building codes
The variability of plumbing tasks and unpredictability of required services can lead to a less-than-favorable work-life balance. As a result, service plumbers may find themselves working long hours of overtime to complete projects.
Plumbers who enter private businesses are especially vulnerable to changing hours and extra work. On the other hand, plumbers who work for large companies or government offices may experience a more regular schedule with less overtime.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual pay for plumbers in 2021 was around $62,000. This is in line with estimates from Indeed, which put plumbers’ base salary at $55,000 before close to $7,000 in annual overtime compensation. Additionally, it is slightly higher than BLS national averages for construction occupations.
Education and Training Requirements
Most plumbers can begin working with a high school diploma or its equivalent. Trade-specific training is desirable and can help you learn plumbing codes, best practices, and proper tool use and care. However, many plumbers learn the bulk of their skills through on-the-job training and experience under a mentor.
Licensing requirements for plumbers carry between states. Some states establish specific training and experience requirements that must be met before you can apply for the plumber licensing exam. Others have very loose regulations in place. That’s why it’s a good idea to learn more about how to get a plumbers license in your state before choosing a career path.
Despite differences, the path to becoming a plumber is similar in many places. In general, you will need to have a high school diploma or GED, complete a relevant degree or plumber training program, and gain hands-on experience through an apprenticeship or supervised position.
Long-Term Career Outlook
While there are no guarantees, plumbing is generally considered a safe career choice. There is a continued demand for plumbers to install, repair, and maintain pipes in homes and businesses that is not expected to change.
What Are the Typical Plumbing Career Paths and Positions?
The most common plumbing career path is to work for a plumbing service company. Many are small, family-run businesses, but there are also many larger regional and national chains. This is the ideal career choice for many individuals seeking to work as a plumber. It provides a stable source of work without the hassle of managing clients and accounts.
Government facilities also often employ plumbers for a variety of roles. For others, entrepreneurship draws them into starting a private business. However, there are other plumbing career options.
For example, a large portion of plumbers choose to work in industrial settings. This could be in the traditional role of a service plumber or as a pipefitter or steamfitter. While these occupations can be in a residential setting, they may be more likely found in commercial and industrial environments. For example, natural resource extraction industries rely on plumbers to keep materials moving smoothly.
Are There Alternatives?
If a traditional plumbing role does not sound appealing to you, one of the alternative or specialty fields may be a better fit. A few popular alternative career paths for plumbers include:
Gas Service Technician
This type of plumbing career requires you to work with natural and LP gas lines and systems. You may find yourself installing gas lines in residential or commercial applications. Another significant aspect of working as a gas technician is preventing, detecting, and stopping leaks in existing gas lines. Because of the nature of this work, there are increased safety risks that should be taken into consideration when deciding if it is the right path for you.
Pipelayers are a specialized version of pipefitters. They are responsible for preparing trenches for pipes and then installing entire pipe systems. In this role, you will often lead major plumbing projects. Lines may be connected to fresh water, sewage, gas, or other materials. Additionally, they may be made from a variety of materials, including clay, metal, and concrete.
Experienced plumbers who can successfully lead others through complex projects can move into project management roles. Here you will oversee teams for a company or government office. Most plumbers who move into manager roles must have some management skills beforehand, although on-the-job training can also be helpful. Moving into a project manager role is an excellent way to remain in the field while boosting your plumber’s salary.
What Type of Plumbers Make the Most Money?
Some plumbing career options and industries tend to offer higher entry-level salaries and benefits. According to the Career Project, plumbers who choose to work in the manufacturing industry have the highest compensation levels. This is followed closely by government employees. Plumbers working as HVAC contractors and those in the civil engineering field round out the four top-paying career paths.
Experience level is a significant determinant of pay in the plumbing field. More experienced tradespeople tend to have higher salaries than those just starting out. However, regardless of experience level, overtime can play a significant role in supplementing a plumber’s salary. For some, it adds 10% to 15% to a job’s base pay.
Plumber Career Change
Maybe you’ve had enough of the hands-on aspects of plumbing, but you still want to use your extensive subject knowledge. Luckily, there are plenty of specialty careers that plumbers can easily transition to with the right set of skills. A few of the most common career paths for plumbers looking for a major change include:
- Switching from residential to industrial plumbing
- Training to become a pipefitter or pipelayer
- Moving into working with gas plumbing
Additional, specialized training is commonly needed when choosing a new plumbing career path. As a result, you may need to take a technical course in the type of plumbing you want to move into. Luckily, there are many great training programs, some of which offer flexible scheduling so you can continue working while pursuing a new specialty.
Other plumbers choose to work in the new field at an introductory level to gain hands-on experience. In addition to allowing you to continue working while pursuing your desired career, this option also gives you the opportunity to make professional connections that can help you advance down the line.
Careers After Plumbing
In addition to changing from one plumbing role to another, you may opt to leave the field for an entirely different type of job. This is more common for very experienced or highly specialized plumbers and those who simply want a more stable and predictable job in another field.
During a plumbing career, you will gain many valuable skills that translate well into other professions. For example, you will have to interact directly with clients at a time when they are under stress because their plumbing is broken. This helps develop excellent communication and customer service skills required in many other industries.
You may also have to learn the intricacies of blueprints, construction drawings, and equipment schematics. While some people may easily dismiss that, this skill provides the insight needed to fully understand how entire systems work and how they can be improved. Keep reading to see how these skills translate into other career paths for plumbers.
Not everyone is cut out to lead others, but plumbers who have worked well in the field and progressed into project manager roles may find they can use those same skills to lead teams in other industries. For example, you might explore managing a plumbing or hardware company, working as a department manager in a large home improvement supply store, or even managing the entire plumbing process for a new home builder.
Others may leave the plumbing industry altogether and work as a manager in a new industry. Because soft skills like managing others are easily transferable, this is an excellent opportunity to gain a new, more stable position using the skills you learned as a plumber.
Many people shy away from the term sales; however, at its most basic, sales is simply getting someone to do what you want — or buy what you are selling. Therefore, it is something that you have probably done almost every day as a plumber.
For example, during the course of working as a service plumber, you have probably developed estimates for clients and then explained why each step outlined is needed. While it may not seem like it while you are doing it, you engage in sales every time you go through this process. You are actively working to get the client to purchase your recommended repairs.
A strong sales ability can help you break into almost any other field. For example, you can stay in the construction industry, possibly moving into high-end homebuilding, or move into a new area, like real estate or computers.
Interacting with clients daily in and out helps you build excellent communication skills that translate well into customer service professions. Since virtually every company must have some sort of customer service team, this move could land you within the plumbing industry or in one completely different. A few examples of opportunities to use your customer skills include:
- Working at a physical or virtual call center
- Transitioning into a retail setting
- Working as a customer service rep for a plumbing supply company
Plumbers must understand how each part and component installed works as part of the whole system. This provides a fantastic amount of insight into the design and construction of plumbing parts which can help you transition into a role designing newer, better components. If you decide to make this leap, it can be helpful to leverage your current industry connections.
The decision to pursue a plumbing career path does not lock you into working as a service plumber forever. While that may be the most common choice, it is far from the only one. With the right training and skills, you will have many alternative career options in and outside the plumbing industry.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics