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Plumbers, Pipelayers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters - What They Do

How to Advance (Advancement)
With additional training, some plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters become supervisors for mechanical and plumbing contractors. Others, especially plumbers, go into business for themselves, often starting as a self-employed plumber working from home. Some eventually become owners of businesses employing many workers and may spend most of their time as managers rather than as plumbers. Others move into closely related areas such as construction management or building inspection.

For those who would like to advance, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English; Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Supervisors and contractors need good communication skills to deal with clients and subcontractors.

In line with new opportunities arising from the growing need to conserve water, the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors—National Association has formed a partnership with GreenPlumbers USA to train and certify plumbers across the Nation on water-saving technologies and energy efficiency. Attainment of this certification may help people trained in this area to get more jobs and advance more quickly.

Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters constitute one of the largest construction occupations, holding about 555,900 jobs in 2008. About 56 percent worked for plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors engaged in new construction, repair, modernization, or maintenance work. Others were employed by a variety of industrial, commercial, and government employers. Pipefitters, for example, were employed in the petroleum and chemical industries to maintain the pipes that carry industrial liquids and gases. About 12 percent of plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were self-employed.

Job Outlook
Faster than average employment growth is projected. Job opportunities are expected to be very good.

Job Growth
Employment of plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is expected to grow 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for plumbers will stem from new construction and from renovation of buildings. In addition, repair and maintenance of existing residential systems will keep plumbers employed. A growing emphasis on water conservation, particularly in dryer parts of the country, that will require retrofitting in order to conserve water in new ways will increase demand for plumbers. Demand for pipefitters and steamfitters will be driven by maintenance and construction of places such as powerplants, water and wastewater treatment plants, office buildings, and factories, all of which have extensive pipe systems. The stimulus package aimed at repairing the Nation’s infrastructure should help the employment picture immediately; long-term growth of pipelayer jobs will stem from the building of new water and sewer lines and of pipelines to new oil and gas fields. Demand for sprinklerfitters also should also increase, because of proposed changes to construction codes, set to take effect in 2011, that will require the installation of fire sprinkler systems in residential buildings where these systems had previously never been required.

Job opportunities are expected to be very good, with demand for skilled plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters expected to outpace the supply of well-trained workers in this craft. Some employers report difficulty finding workers with the right qualifications. In addition, many people currently working in these trades are expected to retire over the next 10 years, which will create additional job openings. Workers with welding experience should have especially good opportunities.

Traditionally, many organizations with extensive pipe systems have employed their own plumbers or pipefitters to maintain equipment and keep systems running smoothly. But, to reduce labor costs, a large number of these firms no longer employ full-time, in-house plumbers or pipefitters. Instead, when they need a plumber, they increasingly are relying on workers provided under service contracts by plumbing and pipefitting contractors.

Construction projects generally provide only temporary employment. When a project ends, some plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters may be unemployed until they can begin work on a new project, although most companies are trying to limit these periods of unemployment in order to retain workers. In addition, the jobs of plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are generally less sensitive to changes in economic conditions than are jobs in other construction trades. Moreover, the coming emphasis on conservation of energy and water is opening up opportunities for those plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters who become proficient in new green technologies.

Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are among the highest paid workers in construction occupations. Median hourly wages of wage and salary plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were $21.94 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $16.63 and $29.66. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13.22, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $37.93.

In May 2008, median hourly wages of wage and salary pipelayers were $15.72. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.84 and $20.85. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.74, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $27.43.

Apprentices usually begin at about 50 percent of the wage rate paid to experienced workers. Wages increase periodically as skills improve. After an initial waiting period, apprentices receive the same benefits as experienced plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters.

About 31 percent of plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters belonged to a union. Many of these workers are members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada.

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Academic Programs of Interest

A Domestic or Commercial Gasfitter program teaches a student how to install, test, maintain and repair propane and natural gas lines, appliances, equipment and accessories in residential and commercial premises. A Gasfitter Program will usually take 2 years to complete. Some of the key areas of study ...more
The Pipefitter Program will teach a student how to use blueprints and project specifications to construct and repair piping systems that carry water, steam, chemicals and fuel. Steamfitters are typically Pipefitters who specialize in pipe systems that move liquids or gases under high pressure. The ...more
A Plumbers Program will teach a student how to install, alter and repair the systems that keep our water and waste disposal systems running. A student will learn how to read and interpret blueprints and project specifications. The Plumbing Program will generally take a student 4 years to complete. ...more