Designer to Plumber - Crazy?
February 16, 2011 6:25 PM   Subscribe

I am 35, live in Vancouver, Canada and currently work an office job doing design work. Recent events have prompted me to review my career direction and becoming a plumber has kept coming up in my head.

It's strange I know but I am being drawn to it because: 1)it's physical work instead of intellectual 2)it's fairly well paying 3)It's kind of interesting to me 4)It's solid - when a job is done, something works. Design is very wobbly and there's lots of debate over when something works and when it doesn't.

So tell me, am I nuts for considering such a drastic change? Any plumbers out there want to smack me in the head with the realities of the job?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My nieghbour's son is a plumber (in Ontario). As part of his training he had to take community college courses in calculus (which given the level of math-phobia in our society may be a deal-breaker for some). What I'm saying is two things:
1 - the work may be more intellectual than you realize
2 - make sure you'd be comfortable with all the courses you'd need to take
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:40 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

My dad was (among other things) a plumber. I can't recommend it. First of all, it's just not healthy. The glue you have to use to connect PVC pipe is fucking toxic, and you have to work with it all day long. Plus, you're usually crawling around fucking disgusting places. Third, if you're not doing construction, you're basically unclogging toilets on call. So that's plumbing for you.

However, gas fitting is a different story. If you have your gas ticket you can do things like install gas fireplaces or industrial-size boilers. My father started his career in the shipyards at Yarrows building ferries in the sixties, and he went on to build mills up north. Interesting work. He finished his career as one of the few A-ticket fitters on the island (this was back in the 90s) helping convert mills to natural gas. I worked with him through uni converting every single school on the south Island to gas. It was great.

However, in between the 70s and the 90s he was self-employed doing plumbing and heating. It was tough, especially in the 80s. In the late 70s he often traveled to camps in the Yukon or Manitoba to work.

The plumbing business was brutal. I think if you joined a union shop or a big outfit it would be okay.

Like I said, I would go into gas fitting. Not sure what kind of work there is in Vancouver, but in Victoria they will need fitters to work on the frigate weapons upgrade and the submarine refit projects - that's $4B worth of work.

Another challenge I think will be your age. It's physical work. You'll keep in shape, but you may destroy parts of your body. My father's knees are not in good shape. His hands are covered in scars from burns and chemicals. He had issues with his lungs that have cleared up in retirement.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:40 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

On your bad plumbing days, you will spend entire days elbow-deep in other peoples' bodily wastes. You will contort your body to squeeze under sinks, behind toilets, and in other tight spots. You'll either have to spend plenty of time soliciting new business and collecting from clients, or you'll have to work for someone else, which may be acceptable to you but likely wouldn't give you the sense of freedom that a lot of office workers crave.

On the other hand, I can understand where you're coming from. I'm a similar sort of person, who likes to do hands-on things and have that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from building or fixing something. What kind of "design" are you referring to? If you're talking about engineering design, I think that is a very common frustration -- engineers (like me) love to build and fix things, and frequently design work turns into day after day after day of simulations and documentation.

On a slightly less serious note, try reading this excerpt from "Dave Barry Turns 40". It's a pretty funny take on lawyers who want to be hang-gliding instructors, hang-gliding instructors who want to be doctors, and doctors who want to be....humor writers! Like most good comedy, though, it has a nugget of truth -- it's easy to see what you don't like about your own career and end up romanticizing something else that has its own difficulties.

You should find a plumber or two in your area and ask -- what do they love and what do they hate about the job? The answers might give you pause, or they might help turn you on to a new career. You're not nuts, but do think hard about both the upside and the downside of changing careers before you leap. Good luck!
posted by jdwhite at 6:46 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is this about plumbing or is it an Office Space moment?

I grew up in a hyper-academic environment, was accepted into a hyper-academic, highly demanding university, and as soon as I arrived promptly burned out on everything academic--and for a while eschewed everything using my brain, period. I ended up spending about the past two, threeish years working in coffee shops, stocking auto parts, a shipping job, basically a lot of physical, not super intellectual work, and during my off-hours devoted my time to a pretty physical sport. At the beginning of that period I was all about the idea of doing plumbing or entering construction or doing something like that for the rest of my life, it seemed almost meditative.

I can tell you though, now that I've had a few years of that I've realized I wasn't so much enamored with the idea of house cleaning/construction/warehousing/etc as I was with getting a break for my brain. My life's achieved a little better balance and I have a better idea of what I'm really passionate about, and cleaning toilets is no longer some quasi-noble task that is deeply satisfying in its simplicity but yet another motivation to stay on top of my studying so I can finish my degree and never clean houses again.

So I guess my suggestion would be to take a step back and think about whether you really have a deep interest in plumbing, or whether you're basing it on a maybe simplified, romanticized view of a blue-collar job due to the psychological stresses and politics and whatnot of your office one.
posted by schroedinger at 7:03 PM on February 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I went back for a graduate degree and new career at 38, so I started my new job at 42. Its been great, so while I don't know as much about plumbing specifically as your other answers, I think if you want a change, go for it. You could try a couple community college courses in different hands-on fields to see if one grabs you or one has too many down sides. Another good question for plumbers is "would you want your son to go into this field?"
posted by grizzled at 7:07 PM on February 16, 2011

IANAP. So I can't help with first-hand advice. But I'll just pitch in with a memory from many years ago, at my first job, which was delivering televisions.

We went to deliver a television in New Empire, NV. It was a modest house, but comfortable. Its owner had built a niche into the home's cabinetry for the new TV. He was there, in the middle of the workday, to greet us and to supervise, with his two girlfriends. We popped 'er in there, and the whole family seemed happy, and off we went.

My supervisor/workmate remarked, as we headed on to our next assignment, that our last client was a retired plumber. The guy couldn't have been more than 35.

That was many (and many) years ago, but I don't think things have changed that much in this arena of human commerce. If you are willing to slosh about in other people's waste—and you can finagle an apprenticeship in the art of doing so—you will be amply rewarded.
posted by bricoleur at 7:24 PM on February 16, 2011

I think you should try to meet some plumbers.

Plumbing is interesting work, but it is physically demanding, and it requires an aptitude for physics.
posted by ovvl at 7:39 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I asked a variation on your question a while back, and got some very useful answers.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:48 PM on February 16, 2011

If someone put a gun to my head and said, "You have to learn a trade," it would be electrician work or auto repair, not plumbing.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:40 PM on February 16, 2011

My supervisor/workmate remarked, as we headed on to our next assignment, that our last client was a retired plumber. The guy couldn't have been more than 35.

That was many (and many) years ago, but I don't think things have changed that much in this arena of human commerce. If you are willing to slosh about in other people's waste—and you can finagle an apprenticeship in the art of doing so—you will be amply rewarded.

Back in the late 1980s I had a friend who was a cop in the Bronx. He often lamented about his older brother, the plumber, who'd just bought a four bedroom house in Ft. Lee and was taking his family to Disney World for Christmas again this year.... "He makes 80 grand a year snaking toilets and I'm making half that risking my neck every day.....I shoulda listened to my old man and gone to trade school." He did admit that it was hard, dirty work, and that his brother made a lot of money by taking emergency calls in the middle of the night and on holidays, when he could charge premium rates.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:05 PM on February 16, 2011

I'm a tad more fecal-aversive than the next person, but I'd look into a career in HVAC or electrician type work before I trained to be a plumber. Also, as mentioned above, pipefitting is a growing field as well.

Anecdotally, I have a friend who has some sort of military-based motor rewiring certification, and he gets to travel and work on shit all around the world for four or five months a year.

Then he sits at home for the remaining months, laughing at us 9 to 5ers.

/fuck you Becks
posted by Sphinx at 10:50 PM on February 16, 2011

I was a plumber for about ten years, in NYC. Towards the end I kind of hated it, even though I had it easy: I worked for cool people, found myself in interesting/odd situations, was paid a living wage most of the time. Most importantly, maybe, I was in my mid 20's-mid30's and wasn't expecting much.

What I hated was that it was boring. Even at it's 'best' (I worked with a friend, a designer, and we made some fun steam radiators for a design showroom, or there was the bathroom one couple wanted in the middle of the loft. All the pipes out in the open a-la-Centre-George-Pompidou. And I rebuilt a bunch of steam heating boilers/systems, steam is cool) it was kind of neato, but so what. It wasn't my thing.

There was also a not insignificant amount of mucky slime, insane clients, insane co-workers (this was at times a tremendous tremendous junkies-and-sociopaths sized drag), physical hardship and a high level of general filthiness. I can't smell PVC glue anymore without getting a huge headache. The money was good to very good but I never put out the effort to really 'cash in' and there's always another contractor out there who will try to convince the client he can do it cheaper and that part is just business which, unless you're into that, I always found tedious.

If your interest is in making physical things, even physical things that work, take up a hobby. I don't say that dismissively, take up a hobby, grow the hobby, and then if you want to make a go of doing that for a living, you'll have a better sense of how to go about it. If you find you don't like it you won't have screwed yourself out of an ok job.

Lastly, starting an apprentice-plumbing gig in you mid 30's would suck balls. Especially if you've hung out with people who read books and/or live in any kind of cultural milieu. I'm not saying there are no cool/educated/sophisticated plumbers, there are, but the majority of plumbers are there because it's a job they could get, not because it was job they wanted.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:12 AM on February 17, 2011

Mr. Darling's best friend from childhood is a plumber. He has his own company and does OK, but I am always concerned for him because of the investment in equipment and overhead - employees, office space, trucks, Bobcats, tools, ladders, tax guy, etc, etc. Not nearly as lucrative as the fantasy of one guy with one truck pulling down $80 an hour.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:52 AM on February 17, 2011

I wouldn't say you are nuts however I'm biased as I started down the path to becoming an electrician last year after over a decade of support work. In a weird conjunction over half my trade entry class in in their 30s compared to the 15% or so for the preceding and following classes. You're unlikely to be the only guy there who isn't fresh out of high school.

In BC on the job training is paid and many companies will pay part or all of your schooling. Also the government hands out grants for red seal trades that cover a significant portion of your schooling.

Not all plumbing is servicing, many plumbers do new install exclusively which avoids the working with waste problem though the majority of work will involve some service, if only warranty work.

The level of discourse can be much, uh, cruder that what is commonly found in an office environment and sadly it can be pretty fooist where foo is pretty well anything that isn't straight white male so you'll have to be able to tolerate that. This though varies from company to company, many are more professional.

Also a trade isn't a "profession" as there are going to be people who look down on you because of that. If your self worth is tied up in your employment a trade is not a good choice.
posted by Mitheral at 5:44 AM on February 17, 2011

If someone put a gun to my head and said, "You have to learn a trade," it would be electrician work or auto repair, not plumbing.

This is why plumbers make more money (well, that and in many places plumbers have maintained barriers to entry that electricians and mechanics have not).

Is plumbing unionized where you are? If so, and you don't have an uncle with a union card, getting in may not be all that easy.

Around here (where it isn't unionized), my sense is that you make serious money by running a small "Anonymous Plumbing" operation, assuming you are good at the business side of things (estimates, paying taxes, sending invoices, advertising, and all those other things that have to happen but have nothing to do with pipes; small shops are usually a husband-and-wife operation for this reason).

All the journeymen/apprentices/etc who work for those shops, though, make ok money but hardly get rich. Reverse engineering from the hourly labor rate I paid last time I had the plumber in, I'd guess his guys are earning maybe $15-$18/hour, which is great money for this area, but hardly stupid-rich kind of money. A lot of guys are good at the pipe work, but not many can do the business part, so if you have good people skills and are good with numbers you have a pretty good shot at doing well.

The point being, plumbing/HVAC/electric/etc work can be a great choice, with the same or better money than a lot of white collar office jobs pay and a lot of stability (though sometimes that stability is the certainty of getting laid off every winter and collecting unemployment for a couple of months). I'm sure you've seen references to Crawford's Shopcraft as Soulcraft, but if you haven't you should read it. The basic point is the same -- if you can find a way to differentiate yourself and not be grunt labor, the working conditions and pay become good. Most guys in the trades don't or can't do this, and they stay doing the grunt work until their bodies give out (which is a lot sooner than it is for the office guys).

My one suggestion is to head over to whatever your equivalent is of a publicly-funded vocational/technical school and talk with the intake counselors there about what trades are in high demand and would be a good fit with your interests and aptitudes. There are a ton of skills needed beyond the obvious plumber/carpenter/etc. Wind turbine technician? Solar array installer? Center pivot irrigation designer/tech? Weed control specialist? There are a million things that take the kind of focused and specialized training that a good two-year college can provide, many of which pay very well and are hiring, but no one has heard of and very few people have the training to do the work.
posted by Forktine at 7:00 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, you are not nuts! I have a computer/desk job and for years I have been yearning for a physical job. First I wanted to go into landscaping. (Just be one of the people out there digging dirt; not a landscape architect/planner.) Then I thought I'd go into massage therapy ... I could at least get away from a desk and do something with my hands, AND I could work in offices and homes and feel stay in my white collar world (not that I care deeply about that, but it was a consideration). Now, I find myself in a computer/desk job that I enjoy a lot more than my previous computer/desk jobs, so I'm happy here for now. But I'm here to say that there is nothing inherently crazy or wrong about wanting to move into a different field like that. I can't address plumbing specifically. :) Good luck!
posted by iguanapolitico at 7:25 AM on February 17, 2011

White collar guy here, college grad, 21 years in same career. Gov't employee. If I had it to do over I'd have been en electrician, for all the reasons you state. Finish the job, flip the switch, get paid. Right now I have about 20 balls in the air, various projects in various stages of completion and when they are done, big deal, more TPS reports. It would be nice to face some different problems to be solved each day, and actually wrap them up.
posted by fixedgear at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2011

I would also add that plumbing is not a particularly socially engaging profession. A lot of the people who do it are in a state of arrested development - perpetual 19-year-olds. My father's foreman (about 30 yrs old when I worked with him) smoked like a chimney, ate nothing but McDonald's, and drank about 3 liters of Coke a day. He farted compulsively, and would then make jokes like "greetings, from the interior!", or "I think I stepped on a duck." Kind of funny for a bit, but years of this social interaction would suck.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:38 AM on February 17, 2011

My wife told me I should take a community college class "or something" and learn to the skills of a professional plumber so we can stop getting fleeced by bad ones. I work in IT, and I told her it would be *years* before I could make enough to be able to replace our standard of living. (Secretly, I don't want to clean out drains: yuck.)

I would instead look into being an electrician, if you can get into the business. You stay dry, it's just as rewarding and tactile, and you rarely ever touch the kind of things that clog up toilets.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:48 AM on February 17, 2011

Is plumbing unionized where you are? If so, and you don't have an uncle with a union card, getting in may not be all that easy.

There is a plumbers union in BC but there are plenty of non union shops as well.

I would instead look into being an electrician, if you can get into the business. You stay dry...

While the percentage is obviously skewed towards plumbing there is plenty of electrical work that involves being rained on. And electricians generally have to work bare handed while plumbers can usually wear gloves.
posted by Mitheral at 9:48 AM on February 17, 2011

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