Even though we rely on plumbing every day, most of us never think about the complex network of pipes and valves running through the buildings we use. And it’s not just our homes. Thank restaurants, office buildings, and gyms.
Plumbing pipes twist and turn throughout the structures we live, work, and hang out in, carrying fluids in and out all day. From the potable (drinkable) hot and cold water we use in our kitchen and bathroom sinks to wastewater removed when we flush toilets or drain a tub, plumbing is there to deliver the modern quality of life we’ve come to expect. Plumbing is also used for irrigation, heating and cooling (hydronics), surface water drainage, and natural gas delivery to water heaters and gas stoves.
While it may sound simple, plumbing is incredibly complicated, with work requiring the expertise of highly-trained licensed plumbers. Indeed lists the five main types of plumbers as commercial plumbers, service and repair plumbers, residential plumbers, sanitary plumbers, and water supply plumbers. Duties and salaries vary depending on the type of plumbing a person chooses to specialize in, but a good plumbing trade school can teach you everything you need to know to get started!
Plumbing Trade School
What is a Plumbing Trade School?
Unlike workers in many specialized career fields, plumbers don’t need a college degree. They do, however, need a vast amount of training and education in order to get initial certification to work on their own. Much of this comes from paid on-the-job training via apprenticeships, which can last up to four or five years to qualify as a journeyman plumber.
But prior to an apprenticeship, would-be plumbers are encouraged to learn the basics through a pre-apprentice program at a plumbing trade school. Plumbing trade schools may take up to two years to finish, with courses designed to lay the foundation for understanding pipe system designs, proper tool usage, safety protocols, and much more.
Note, a plumber trade school can’t be a substitute for an apprenticeship. Plumber trade school graduates will still need to complete an apprenticeship program, but the apprenticeship period will be shorter.
Also, not everyone gets an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are usually sponsored by a union or trade organization. They can be competitive, and graduating from a plumbing trade school can make a candidate’s application stand out, potentially improving your odds of being selected!
In addition to trade schools, students who live close enough to a Job Corps site may be able to sign up for one of their federally-funded plumbing programs!
What to Expect as a Plumbing Major
Plumbing trade school applicants should have completed high school or a GED program, and ideally should know basic math and science and have good general reading and writing skills. They should also be at least 18 years old or have parental permission to start.
There is a wide range of options available for students who want to take plumbing-related classes at an accredited community college, trade or vocational school, or through a professional plumbing association. These programs can take an average of two years to complete, though some institutions offer compressed courses so students can finish faster. Some programs are as short as five to nine months.
If you’re looking to learn more about plumbing or trades in general before committing to a trade school or applying for an apprenticeship, there are no-cost workforce readiness programs. These are typically shorter but provide prospective plumbers with a good introduction to the trade.
Plumbing trade school tuition rates vary, but community colleges and vocational/trade schools tend to have much lower tuition and fees than four-year universities. The lowest cost we’ve seen, for a five-month, 9-course online plumbing program, was $899 if paid in full, or $1,089 if paid monthly. Certificate programs may cost about twice that much, while a two-year associate degree could range anywhere from $3,000 up to $23,000.
Apprentice plumbers are paid while they learn on the job. Wages vary from state to state. Most states pay apprentices between $20 - $30 per hour. The median annual wage for plumbers in general is $59,880 per year, though the highest earners can make up to $100,000.
Types of Plumbing Classes or Topics
Plumber trade schools focus on teaching the basics to become well-qualified for an apprenticeship program. Common course topics include:
- Plumbing fundamentals
- Blueprint reading blueprints
- Building codes
- Design and layout
- Fittings and fixtures
- Installation methodology
- Isometric plumbing illustrations
- Mathematics in plumbing
- Plumbing system service and maintenance
- Residential repair
- Valves and pumps
- Waste and vent systems
- Water service and distribution installation
- Water supplies
Many community colleges and universities offer associate of science degree programs in plumbing technology. As with any associate degree, programs require the completion of 60 semester units, and students must generally maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher to graduate.
Of the total number of credits needed for a plumbing associate degree, about one-third must be focused on the major (plumbing), with plumbing-related electives helping to round out the core requirements. Grades for core classes may need to be at least a C (or passing) or better to count for credit.
While several aspects of plumbing are best learned in-person, many programs are still offered online or via a hybrid method, since apprentice plumbers will gain hands-on experience during their apprenticeship anyway.
Since plumbers don’t need a bachelor’s degree, there aren’t any programs dedicated only to plumbing. However, some plumbers who’ve already completed an Associate in Plumbing or an apprenticeship may go on to earn a related bachelor’s degree.Per Zippia, roughly 14% of journeyman plumbers do have a bachelor’s degree. Possible related majors include building engineering, civil engineering, construction management, and architectural technology. Most bachelor’s degree programs take four years if attending full-time, though some engineering programs can take an extra term or two. Part-time attendance can take up to twice as long, depending on the course load.
What Can You Do After Plumber Trade School?
After plumbing students finish their trade school, they can start their apprenticeship in the area of their choice. After completing their apprenticeship on-the-job training, they can apply for a state license and start working as a journeyman plumber based on their area of specialization. Here are some common jobs.
- Median Salary: $54,486
- Career Outlook: +2% (2020-2030)
Works with homeowners on basic, small-scale home plumbing issues, including pipe installation and unclogging drains or toilets.
- Median Salary: $68,250
- Career Outlook: +2% (2020-2030)
Works with clients on general plumbing maintenance and repair issues in homes and commercial buildings, such as fixing pipes, water fixtures, or tanks and unclogging drains or toilets.
- Median Salary: $53,625
- Career Outlook: +2% (2020-2030)
Works on larger, specialized industrial plumbing in non-residential buildings, such as schools, companies, or hospitals where numerous outlets, pipes, and floors may be involved.
- Median Salary: $53,727
- Career Outlook: +2% (2020-2030)
Works only on sanitary systems, including common bathroom jobs such as installing bathtubs and toilets or fitting water heating systems.
Plumbing Certification and Licensure
Whether a plumber graduates from a trade school program or not, they’ll need to complete an apprenticeship. The length will depend on their educational background and relevant previous work experience. Following their apprenticeship phase, plumbers in most states must obtain a license.
Licensure requirements differ from state to state, but in general, plumbers must pass an exam proving they are ready to work on their own as a journeyman plumber. Each state has its own exam requirements.
Note: Be sure to double-check with the applicable state’s examining board before preparing for a test, to ensure you study the right topics.
In addition to licensure (which is mandatory in most states), there are also optional certifications plumbers can complete to qualify for certain jobs. O*Net offers a thorough listing of plumbing certification options, such as:
- American Society of Plumbing Engineers’ Certified in Plumbing Design
- International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials’ National Personnel Certification
- International Code Council’s Plumbing Plans Examiner
- National Center for Construction Education and Research’s Plumbing Certification
The next steps will show you how to become a master plumber or earn a contractor license.
Salary and Career Information by State
Each state has its own criteria for plumber apprenticeships, licensure, and promotion to journeyman and beyond. The variables are usually related to the number of apprenticeship hours or number of years of experience a plumber must have under their belt.
Those applying for a journeyman license may need to choose between a residential or a commercial license (or a dual license). Advanced plumbers may also apply for a contractor license. In addition to journeyman plumber licensing, plumbers can also apply for speciality licenses such as a plumber gas license or plumber utility license.
Certain states also require plumbers to have insurance and bonding (note, a “bond guarantees that the insurance company will reimburse your client if you fail to deliver on contracted services”).
Here’s a helpful guide to plumber licensing requirements by state to assist with deciphering the requirements for your state.
Plumbing trade schools may be less expensive than a four-year university, but they still cost money. That’s why we recommend spending some time searching for plumbing scholarships that can help offset those costs. The fewer out-of-pocket expenses you have, the more you can focus your attention on your academic studies!
PHCC Educational Foundation Need-Based Scholarship
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Education Foundation administers ~60 sponsored scholarships ranging from $1,000 - $2,500+ to students attending, or planning to attend, a PHCC-approved program related to plumbing-heating-cooling at a trade school, college, or university. Some restrictions apply. Online applications are due no later than May 1st each year.
International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation Scholarship
The International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation Scholarship awards high school seniors or full-time plumbing students with scholarships to “develop and enhance the role of the plumbing industry in community collaborations and educational exchanges.” Their committee reviews the first 300 essay-based applications then awards $2,500 to one 1st place winner and $1,000 to three 2nd place winners. Check their website for updates on the 2023 application deadline!
Oil and Energy Service Professionals’ Dave Nelsen Scholarship
Oil and Energy Service Professionals (OESP) has given out ~$300,000 in Dave Nelsen scholarships since 1999. Awards are usually for $5,000. Eligible students should be “currently attending or planning to attend a technical college or trade school within the next 12 months” to pursue an education in plumbing or HVAC-R. Applications must include a 500-word essay, letters of recommendation, and a completed form. Submissions are due around mid-March.
Note: Data Source: Peterson's Databases copyright 2022 Peterson's LLC All rights reserved. Use our handy Universities.com scholarship finder tool to explore additional opportunities!
How to Get Started on a Plumbing Degree and Career
If you’re at least 18, have a high school diploma or a GED, understand basic math, and are interested in pursuing a good-paying career in plumbing, then you’re probably ready to apply to a plumbing program at a trade school or community college! If you’re not sure if you want to dive in just yet, there are workforce readiness programs that can help you understand a bit more about the plumbing career field.
Once you’ve made the decision to enroll in a plumbing trade school program, you should check out scholarships as well as other opportunities offered by the numerous professional organizations out there, such as:
- American Society of Plumbing Engineers
- Home Builders Institute
- National Building Trades Union
- National Kitchen & Bath Association
- Plumbing Contractors of America
- Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association
- United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada
Why do plumbers charge so much?
- Plumbers are highly trained professionals who possess specialized, much-needed skills and who take time to travel and bring tools to job sites, so they are compensated accordingly. Plumbing is a skill that most people do not possess, but they absolutely want it done correctly.
Is plumbing a good career field?
- Plumbing is a great career choice for those who are interested in the work and can commit to the apprenticeship method of learning while doing.
How long is a plumber apprenticeship?
- Paid plumber apprenticeships can take up to 4-5 years, though that time can be shortened by completing some basic courses via a trade school program.
Do plumbers need a college degree?
- Not necessarily. Plumbers can learn their skills via apprenticeships, which can be a great addition to pre-apprenticeship training at a plumbing trade school or community college program.
Do plumbers need a license?
- Yes, most states require plumbers who have completed their training to acquire a license to work independently as a journeyman plumber.
How much do plumbers make?
- Plumber wages vary by the type of plumbing they specialize in, their level (journeyman, master), the state they work in, and other variables, with typical wages ranging from $45,000 to $76,000 per year.
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