Plumber and Pipefitter Careers

Plumbers and pipefitters assemble, install, alter, and repair pipes and pipe systems that carry water, steam, air, or other liquids and gases for sanitation and industrial pur­poses as well as other uses. Plumbers also install plumb­ing fixtures, appliances, and heating and refrigerating units. There are approximately 561,000 plumbers and pipefitters working in the United States.

Plumber and Pipefitter Career History

Plumber and Pipefitter CareerAlthough the early Egyptians are known to have used lead pipes to carry water and drainage into and out of build­ings, the use of plumbing in a citywide system was first achieved in the Roman Empire. In Renaissance times, the techniques of plumbing were revived and used in some of the great castles and monasteries. But, the greatest advances in plumbing were made in the 19th century, when towns grew into cities and the need for adequate public sanitation was recognized.

Plumber and Pipefitter Career Job Description

Because little difference exists between the work of the plumber and the pipefitter in most cases, the two are often considered to be one trade. However, some craftsworkers specialize in one field or the other, especially in large cities.

The work of pipefitters differs from that of plumbers mainly in its location and the variety and size of pipes used. Plumb­ers work primarily in residen­tial and commercial buildings, whereas pipefitters are generally employed by large industrial concerns—such as oil refiner­ies, refrigeration plants, and defense establishments—where more complex systems of pip­ing are used. Plumbers assemble, install, and repair heating, water, and drainage systems, especially those that must be connected to public utilities systems. Some of their jobs include replacing burst pipes and installing and repairing sinks, bathtubs, water heaters, hot water tanks, garbage disposal units, dishwashers, and water softeners. Plumbers also may work on septic tanks, cess­pools, and sewers. During the final construction stages of both commercial and residential buildings, plumbers install heating and air-conditioning units and connect radia­tors, water heaters, and plumbing fixtures.

Most plumbers follow set procedures in their work. After inspecting the installation site to determine pipe location, they cut and thread pipes, bend them to required angles by hand or machines, and then join them by means of welded, brazed, caulked, soldered, or threaded joints. To test for leaks in the system, they fill the pipes with water or air. Plumbers use a variety of tools, including hand tools such as wrenches, reamers, drills, braces and bits, hammers, chisels, and saws; power machines that cut, bend, and thread pipes; gasoline torches; and weld­ing, soldering, and brazing equipment.

Specialists include diesel engine pipefitters, steamfitters, ship and boat building coppersmiths, industrial-gas fitters, gas-main fitters, prefab plumbers, and pipe cutters.

Plumber and Pipefitter Career Requirements

High School

A high school diploma is especially important for getting into a good apprenticeship program. High school prepa­ration should include courses in mathematics, chemistry, and physics, as well as some shop courses.

Postsecondary training

To qualify as a plumber, a person must complete either a formal apprenticeship or an informal on-the-job train­ing program. To be considered for the apprenticeship program, individuals must pass an examination admin­istered by the state employment agency and have their qualifications approved by the local joint labor-manage­ment apprenticeship committee.

The apprenticeship program for plumbers con­sists of four or five years of carefully planned activity combining direct training with at least 144 hours of formal classroom instruction each year. The program is designed to give apprentices diversified training by having them work for several different plumbing or pipefitting contractors.

On-the-job training, on the other hand, usually con­sists of working for five or more years under the guidance of an experienced craftsworker. Trainees begin as helpers until they acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for more difficult jobs. Frequently, they supplement this practical training by taking trade (or correspondence) school courses.

Certification or licensing

A license is required for plumbers in many places. To obtain this license, plumbers must pass a special exami­nation to demonstrate their knowledge of local building codes as well as their all-around knowledge of the trade. To become a plumbing contractor in most places, a mas­ter plumber’s license must be obtained.

Other requirements

To be successful in this field, you should like to solve a variety of problems and should not object to being called on during evenings, weekends, or holidays to perform emergency repairs. As in most service occupa­tions, plumbers should be able to get along well with all kinds of people. You should be a person who works well alone, but who can also direct the work of helpers and enjoy the company of those in the other construc­tion trades.

Exploring Plumber and Pipefitter Career

Although opportunities for direct experience in this occupation are rare for those in high school, there are ways to explore the field. Speaking to an experienced plumber or pipefitter will give you a clearer picture of day-to-day work in this field. Pursuing hobbies with a mechanical aspect will help you determine how much you like such hands-on work.

Employers

Plumbers and pipefitters hold about 561,000 jobs. Approximately 50 percent work for mechanical and plumbing contractors engaged in new construction, repair, modernization, or maintenance work. One in 10 plumbers and pipefitters are self-employed.

Starting Out

Applicants who wish to become apprentices usually contact local plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors who employ plumbers, the state employ­ment service bureau, or the local branch of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. Individual contractors or contractor associations often sponsor local apprentice­ship programs. Apprentices very commonly go on to permanent employment with the firms with which they apprenticed.

Advancement

If plumbers have certain qualities, such as the ability to deal with people and good judgment and planning skills, they may progress to such positions as supervisor or job estimator for plumbing or pipefitting contractors. If they work for a large industrial company, they may advance to the position of job superintendent. Many plumbers go into business for themselves. Eventually they may expand their activities and become contractors, employing other workers.

Earnings

Plumbers and pipefitters had median earnings of $42,160 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Wages ranged from less than $24,730 to $70,360 or more. Pay rates for apprentices usually start at 50 percent of the experienced worker’s rate, and increase by 5 percent every six months until a rate of 95 percent is reached. Benefits for union workers usually include health insurance, sick time, and vacation pay, as well as pension plans.

Work Environment

Most plumbers have a regular 40-hour workweek with extra pay for overtime. Unlike most of the other building trades, this field is little affected by seasonal factors. The work of the plumber is active and strenuous. Standing for prolonged periods and working in cramped or uncom­fortable positions are often necessary. Possible risks include falls from ladders, cuts from sharp tools, and burns from hot pipes or steam. Working with clogged pipes and toilets can also be smelly.

Plumber and Pipefitter Career Outlook

Employment opportunities for plumbers are expected to grow about as fast as the average for all jobs through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Con­struction projects are usually only short-term in nature and more plumbers will find steady work in renovation, repair, and maintenance. Since pipework is becoming more important in large industries, more workers will be needed for installation and maintenance work, especially where refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment are used. Employment opportunities fluctuate with local economic conditions, although the plumbing industry is less affected by economic trends than other construc­tion trades.

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