Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn on the job through an apprenticeship. Some start out by attending a technical school. Most states and localities require plumbers to have a license.
A 4- or 5-year apprenticeship is how most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn their trade. Each year, apprentices must have at least 1,700 to 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and a minimum of 246 hours of related technical education. Apprentices learn safety, local plumbing codes and regulations, and how to read blueprints. They also study mathematics, applied physics, and chemistry. They become familiar with different types of piping systems and plumbing tasks.
After completing an apprenticeship program, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are considered to be a journey worker, which qualifies them to perform duties on their own.
Apprenticeship programs are offered by unions and businesses. Although most workers enter apprenticeships directly, some start out as helpers. To enter an apprenticeship program, a trainee must meet these requirements:
Technical schools offer courses on pipe system design, safety, and tool use. They also offer welding courses that are considered necessary by some pipefitter and steamfitter apprenticeship training programs.
Most states and localities require plumbers to be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary, most states and localities require workers to have 2 to 5 years of experience and to pass an exam that tests their knowledge of the trade and of local plumbing codes before they are permitted to work independently. Several states require a special license to work on gas lines. A few states require pipefitters to be licensed. Getting a license requires a test, experience, or both. Check with the state licensing board.
Customer service skills. Plumbers work with customers on a regular basis, so they should be polite and courteous.
Managerial skills. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters—especially those who own their own business—must be able to direct workers, bid on jobs, and plan work schedules. They may have to provide training and choose the right number of workers for a job.
Mechanical skills. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters use a variety of tools to assemble and repair pipe systems. Choosing the right tool and successfully installing, repairing, or maintaining a system is crucial to their work.
Physical strength. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters must be strong enough to lift and move heavy pipe.
Troubleshooting skills. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters find, diagnose, and repair problems. For example, plumbers must be able to perform pressure tests to pinpoint the location of a leak.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition