Plumbing Jobs and Careers
Everyone is familiar with the role of plumber and has, at some point, used their services to mend a leaking pipe or water tank, or install kitchens or bathrooms.
The role is much wider than this, however, as plumbers' roles cross over with those of pipe layers, pipe fitters and steam fitters in working in many different environments.
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For many years now, plumbing has suffered from a decline in numbers of people entering the trade, and as the current generation nears retirement, this continues to be true. At the same time, it has gained a reputation as a profession in which members can virtually name their prices and work wherever they like.
Despite this, the industry is heavily regulated and gaining full training can take many years. Here, we look at areas of the industry and the kind of person it takes to do well.
- Plumbers. This is the area of plumbing most domestic customers come into contact with. Plumbers are involved in installing plumbing fixtures and appliances, including bathroom and kitchen equipment, as well as more complex systems, in individual houses and buildings. This may involve not just water systems, but also gas, drainage and sewer systems. These plumbers frequently work alone or with just one other person, as the scale of the work tends to be relatively small. Employment is generally as a sole trader or small business.
- Pipe layers are involved in the large scale installation of water, gas, sewer or drainage systems. They are responsible for digging and levelling trenches for cement, plastic, iron or clay pipes. This may be across considerable distances, or in local sites between buildings. The work is large scale, involving heavy equipment, and is conducted in large teams of workers employed by contracting firms.
- Pipe fitters are concerned with installing, maintaining and repairing low and high pressure pipes used for central air conditioning or heating at commercial premises. They also fit and maintain the automated controls that are used with these systems. In further specialisms, pipe fitters may be concerned solely with high pressure gas pipes or sprinkler systems. Work is conducted in teams, for mid to large scale companies.
- Educating and training those entering the profession, plus those seeking further or continuing training, is another area in which qualified plumbers can work.
- Inspectors oversee the standards of work to ensure compliance with legal regulations.
- A final area of employment is amongst those who regulate membership of associations and accredit training provision.
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Type of Person
Particular skills are needed for all areas to become a plumber:
- Sound physical health and good fitness levels are important, as the work involves kneeling, standing or leaning over in cramped conditions for much of the time. Depending on the exact role, operating heavy machinery may also be part of the work. In certain roles, an ability to tolerate heights is important, whether it's working on ladders or on construction projects. Stamina is critical, as the heavy work may continue day after day.
- Manual dexterity is important for making fine adjustments and for manipulating various pipes and tools. Good hand-eye co-ordination is also a considerable benefit.
- The ability to accumulate knowledge about tools, construction materials and their applications is important. A general proficiency with pipes, cutters, wrenches and cleaning tools is central to this work.
- Some academic ability is important, as a great deal of training is required to become a fully qualified plumber, due to considerable safety concerns that need to be met (for instance, in the use of gas). Basic arithmetic is important in planning, while some projects will require the application of geometry and statistics. Therefore, a mathematical ability helps. Processes such as fluid movement and atmospheric pressures need to be calculated.
- Problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities will enhance any plumber's performance. For example, installing and connecting systems on different floors of existing buildings can be an awkward task, so the ability to effectively sort out problems at the design stage is a distinct advantage.
- A solid logistical approach is essential, as all plumbers need to be able to make and follow plans, read blueprints and follow instructions from builders or their contractors.
- With technology now affecting all trades, plumbers increasingly need to be able to use (or at least read) design packages, particularly if involved in large projects. They may also need to be able to create project progress reports on computers. In larger companies, this will be restricted to certain supervisory or management roles.
- Interpersonal skills are invaluable, as plumbers have to work with clients and customers, designers and architects, project managers, builders and contractors. The professional who can communicate well and work within a team of other professionals will get the repeat contracts, while the plumber who makes home owners feel comfortable with having them in their house will get good word-of-mouth referrals.
Becoming a fully qualified plumber may take years of training and a willingness to undertake lifelong learning. Technological changes mean that update training is constantly required, as new products and methods enter the marketplace.
There are numerous training providers and it should be possible to locate a local training program. However, it's vital that you first make sure that the qualifications you will gain enable you to become a Registered Plumbing or Heating Professional.
You may not need to register immediately upon qualifying, but it's important to know that you can do so. If not, you may find that you are not recognised within the industry and are unable to conduct certain types of work. If you can register, then your plumbing training will be providing the minimum qualifications for the industry. Many other specialist training routes leading to certifications will then be open to you.
The minimum requirements in England and Wales are NVQ Level 2, or SVQ Level 3 in Scotland. Apprenticeships leading to this level are open for young people wishing to enter the profession. Through a combination of college-based study and workplace experience, apprentices learn to work under minimal supervision to install and maintain domestic hot and cold water, drainage and sanitation systems, as well as central heating and its components. The Advanced Level Apprenticeship serves to broaden your skill base, so that you are able to complete and oversee work.
As already mentioned, every area of the plumbing profession is required throughout the developed world, particularly in areas of high population density. Within the construction industry, plumbers are more represented than any other group in new building work, renovation, maintenance and repairs.
Meanwhile, there continues to be a skills shortage and good plumbers, pipe fitters and pipe layers are in much demand. Job growth for all specialities is expected to continue. The strict application of regulatory codes in the industry and the physical demands of the work limit the number of entrants - it is not the easiest profession to enter and gain licences within, so opportunities for those who do so successfully abound. This is limited only by the introduction of greater automation and more useable plastic materials.
The greatest opportunities today for plumbing jobs are via contractors or firms that work on projects and contracts. Instability can be found primarily in contractors working for the construction industry, which is currently affected by the economic climate. A willingness to travel is therefore beneficial.
Overall, though, the plumbing industry offers a diversity of career paths, together with solid wages and the opportunity to be self-employed. The physical demands are counterbalanced by the opportunities to develop small businesses and pay others to do the more demanding aspects of the work. You can also progress to management, design, teaching or inspection work, depending on your individual skills mix.
Plumbing Jobs Sites
- Over 800 plumbing vacancies - www.jobisjob.co.uk/plumber/jobs
- A career network dedicated to plumbing www.plumbingagent.com
- More plumbing jobs www.getplumbingjobs.com
- Apprenticeships in England - www.gov.uk/topic/further-education-skills/apprenticeships
- Apprenticeships in Scotland - www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk
- Apprenticeships in Wales - www.careerswales.com
- Apprenticeships in Northern Ireland - www.nidirect.gov.uk