How To Become A Plumber: It Doesn’t Have To Be A Pipe Dream

A man standing in a field holds a large puumber's wrench.
Brian Moore, master plumber at The Plumbing Express in Dayton, Ohio, holds a wrench of enormous proportions. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

My New Balance sneakers sloshed in rain puddles as I trudged my way to my dad’s work truck, sack lunch in hand, on my very first day on the job. It was a Monday, it was 7 a.m., and the Eggo waffles I had eaten had not given me the energy I needed to embrace my first day as a working teen.

My dad owns his own plumbing business, which he has run for nearly my entire life. In my desire to own a car — and in my dad’s eagerness to get me to shut up about him buying me a car — we had decided that I would spend the summer working as a plumber’s assistant. My friends were all working for minimum wage at ice cream shops, so I figured a $10-an-hour job installing toilets was a much better deal.

I was wrong. In my adult life, I have worked in bookstores and frozen yogurt shops, I have freelanced and done acting work, I have written and edited for marketing agencies and research firms, but that summer as a plumber was the most grueling, intense work I have ever done — and I am all the better for it.

I got to see firsthand how hard my dad worked to provide for his family, and I got to feel how satisfying it was to fix something with my own hands, especially when it brought relief to a family facing an emergency. Physical labor is still not my cup of tea (and I retained almost no actual know-how from the work I did that summer), but for people like my dad, who are thorough, strong problem solvers, plumbing can be quite lucrative.

Of course, my dad is no millionaire, but his work as a plumber and eventually the president of his own plumbing company has kept food on my family’s table, has helped me through college and has even paid for half of that first car (a 2000 Ford Taurus named Old Blue).

In fact, plumbers can do quite well financially if they are willing to work hard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for plumbers in the US in 2017 was $52,590 a year. Even more enticing: Demand for plumbers is growing. While employment in the U.S. is expected to grow just 7% from 2016 to 2026, employment for plumbers is expected to grow by more than double — a whopping 16%. That makes now the perfect time for young able-bodied men and women looking for a career to start their path toward becoming a master plumber.

What Is the Day-to-Day Like for a Plumber?

My father, Brian Moore, is the owner and master plumber at The Plumbing Express in Dayton, Ohio. He’s worked in the field for 33 years, and though at times he has cursed the exhaustion of physical labor and lamented the stresses of running his own business, it is clear how much pride he takes in his work and in his ability to provide for his two sons and my mother (or rather, alongside my mother, who has also worked my entire life).

I asked my dad to describe his day-to-day to me, outside of business management. He spends his day “remodeling bathrooms and kitchens, replacing and repairing water and drain lines, installing new water heaters, installing new faucets and installing water filtration systems.” Each day is different for a plumber, which keeps the work exciting.

And as for the clients: “Some clients will be very hands-on during the repairs,” my dad said. “Others ”— people like me — “would rather stay out of the way.”

What Are the Skills and Qualities of a Successful Plumber?

A man with a power saw and his son with a hose stand in a field.
Master plumber Brian Moore and his son Timothy, who remembers the one summer he spent working for his father as the most grueling, intense labor he has ever done. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

A plumber’s skill set is varied. As a plumber, you will, of course, need the technical knowledge to diagnose plumbing problems and make repairs. You will also need to be proficient in using a wide variety of tools, including saws, hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches and torches. Remaining in top physical condition is crucial, as you will perform frequent heavy lifting and tasks that require stamina, often in very hot or cold environments.

But those are skills every plumber needs. According to my dad, it takes much more to be successful. “You’ve got to prioritize safety,” said my father, who, though he has come home with several blackened thumbs, has never had to go to the hospital for a work-related injury. Injuries run the gamut from contamination and electric shock to musculoskeletal injuries from routinely working in awkward positions.

My father also lists persistence, a willingness to take on new challenges and a respect for other people’s time and property (and your own) as key traits of a successful plumber. Because all work is done for a client, talented plumbers will prioritize customer experience with pleasant interactions and transparent pricing.

The Challenges of Being a Plumber

Plumbers face grueling conditions every day. They encounter hazardous materials and sewage, work in uncomfortable (and often confined) spaces and can be prone to injury if they are not careful.

My father lists “working outside in the elements” as his biggest challenge — and I can vouch. We worked some jobs that summer in 100-degree weather for hours at a time. I watched my dad go through a six-pack of water bottles like they were a case of Budweiser at a frat party. But the elements inside can be so much worse: My least favorite experience was the day I spent working in the boiler room on a college campus.

Keeping up with new code changes can be challenging as well,” my father said. In fact, he has had to adapt to changing industry technology over the past three decades, which I’m sure was challenging for him because I was there the first day he got a smartphone.

The Rewards of Being a Plumber

Though the actual work of a plumber can be exhausting and physically challenging, it is a trade that pays decently — and without a college degree. My father likes the job because it keeps him in shape, involves working with his hands and also involves constant problem-solving.

The biggest perk of being a plumber though? “Job security,” said my dad. “I have no worries about a robot taking my job away.” As long as we have pipes that leak, we’ll always need a plumber to come fix them.

“Seeing new faces and places almost every day is rewarding as well,” my dad added.

How to Become a Plumber

One of the biggest appeals of a career in plumbing is the lack of college credit required. To start, you’ll just need your high school diploma or GED, plus a clean record (good driving record, clean criminal record, etc.). Some plumbers go to a trade school, but most — including my father — get their training as an apprentice.

“My stepfather was a master plumber,” my dad said. “I served a four-year apprenticeship with him, followed by three years as a journeyman, before I could take my master license exam.”

Licensing for plumbers varies by state, so you will need to research your state for details. My father, in his home state of Ohio, served his apprenticeship sans license, but he had to log hours over his four years as an apprentice and take an exam to earn his journeyman license. Then he had to log more time as a journeyman plumber before taking and passing his exam to become a master plumber.

As an apprentice, my dad shadowed a master plumber and learned the ins and outs of the job. As a journeyman, he was able to tackle most jobs without supervision. And as a master plumber, he is at the height of the career field and goes through eight hours of continuing education each year.

Now that I’ve covered how to become a plumber, you may have decided that it is not the right career for you. Consider some other fields you can enter without a college degree, such as massage therapy, real estate or the postal service.

Timothy Moore worked just three months as a plumber and has never touched a wrench since. He much prefers to work with a mouse and a keyboard, which he uses for his full-time editing gig and freelance writing.