Should I become a plumber?
August 20, 2013 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I’m seriously thinking about becoming a plumber (or possibly an electrician). Does this idea make sense for me from a personal and financial perspective?

More inside: I’m almost thirty; I have a Master’s degree in a field in which I am having trouble getting a job and in which I have largely lost interest (I did work in the field for a couple of years). My husband and I (I’m a woman) have a lot of student debt and would like to make more money. This also means I can’t spend a lot of money on changing careers and I can’t stop working entirely to attend school. I’m interested in becoming a plumber because I think it would be good, steady, well-paying work and I enjoy working with my hands and it seems like it could involve a certain amount of problem-solving. When I was a kid I actually wanted to be a plumber when I grew up and I find the idea really exciting but I don’t know as much about the reality of it. These thoughts also apply to potentially becoming an electrician.

With this in mind, I would really appreciate guidance on the following questions (substitute electrician for plumber where appropriate):

1) What would I need to do to become a plumber? How much training would I need and how long would it take before I started making some money?

2) How much would I be likely to get paid eventually? Is there a range based on experience? Approximately what would this be? How hard would it be to find work? I am in Washington DC if it makes a difference.

3) What is the day-to-day work of plumbing like? What would I actually spend my time doing? What different types of plumbing jobs are there? Installing stuff? Fixing people’s drains? How gross would it be? I can tolerate a certain amount of gross but I’d like to know what to expect.

4) I’m a woman and I read an article saying that plumbing is the job in the US with the smallest percentage of women. Would this be a problem? Would I face serious issues and pushback from teachers and colleagues? I’m also pretty well-educated and I’d be starting later in life. Would these be really big obstacles to fitting in and getting jobs?

5) Which would be a better choice, becoming a plumber or an electrician, in terms of amount of training, future pay, and quality of life in the job (especially for a woman)?

I really need something that would work for my family and me long-term; I can’t take a job that I would want to leave after a couple of years, especially if it involved a great deal of training. I am looking for answers with people experienced in the field of plumbing, electricianing, or who at least have specific knowledge about these areas. I’m not looking for general impressions, I’d really like answers from people who actually know something about these fields. That said, any advice you can give me would be very, very much appreciated.

If you think I shouldn’t do this, based on actual knowledge you have, please tell me that. I am not in a position to start a career I will leave soon and I would rather be told flat-out that it’s a bad idea than try and fail or want to quit after a few years.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is an AWESOME idea. I like electricity, I took electronics in high school (one of two girls in the class.) I became a data engineer, I learned it at the phone company.

You want to look into apprenticeship programs through your local unions.

Here's the plumber's union.

With a trade, you apprentice first, then become a journeyman, then a master.

When I deal with tradesmen they can be "good ole boys" but they also have wives and daughters and some even want to teach their girls the business. If you pull your weight I suspect it will be a non-issue.

Plumbing can be anything from installing faucets and dishwashers, to digging up sewer lines and laying new ones. It can be pretty physical. Also plumbing is an on-call, emergency thing. Electricity, not so much.

The money is about equal, and I'd pick electrical. But talk to each of the unions, find out about their programs and see which one makes sense for you.

My plumber has a vacation house. I don't.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:34 AM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can apply for apprenticeship with the local union. They have a set pay schedule. I believe electricians will have something similar.

I don't have any experience with it, but I would guess that quality of life might be slightly better as an electrician, just for reduced exposure to disgusting stuff.
posted by ghharr at 9:34 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Information on DC plumbing apprenticeships is here. No idea how competitive they are. The information for electricians is here.

The AFL-CIO and YWCA have a program called Washington Area Women in the Trades. Contacting them may be a good option for further research.
posted by hoyland at 9:35 AM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

For my money I would rather be a pregnant electrician than a pregnant plumber. The downside of being an electrician is working exposed on ladders and in confined spaces. However there is significantly less wrangling of heavy toilets and bathroom fixtures, as well as less ditch digging.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:39 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father is a "plumber" and I worked with him during university. Plumbing is a pretty wide and varied area.

You start out plumbing houses, but as you get various tickets, could end up working on natural gas or even sprinklers.

My dad started out as a fitter in the shipyards, and later went on to manage large industrial projects (building pulp mills). In the 1980's he started his own plumbing and heating business, doing residential construction and repairs. It was not a happy time, but by the end of that decade he qualified for a new natural gas ticket, and did some really interesting work that I helped him out with, converting industrial boilers from oil to natural gas.

This past decade he worked on spec luxury homes, installing custom tub layouts.

He retired at 68, and is very active and healthy and sharp (considering people in his cohort who were more "successful" and worked office jobs often keeled over with a heart attack in their mid-sixties).

When I worked with him, I learned a lot about threading pipe, hanging pipe, rigging, cranes, welding and fabricating, you name it. But that was because my dad had an industrial background.

He hired an apprentice, a nice enough guy who had once been busted for dealing pot, and was struggling to get his journeyman ticket as a plumber. He was nice, but not that smart of a guy.

The people you are going to work with are going to be "salt of the earth," a lot of smoking, guns (if they can afford them), McDonald's and Subway, classic rock.

Plumbing is a dirty job. Fitting requires a lot of strength, especially if you are an apprentice, because the apprenctice has to load the truck and carry the pipe and the tools and all that.

Personally, I'd rather be a Sparky. Electricians work in running shoes, they're never dirty, and they have an interesting job running cable. You learn a lot about newer technologies as well, wiring a house, and all the electricians I know drive big shiny trucks (plumbers drive battered old trucks) and have boats and nice houses and nice cars.

And it's clean. Very clean.

I did enjoy working with my dad. I was very strong, and loved humping loads of steel pipe up and down stairs. I also loved hauling a 75-pound threading machine up a flight of stairs. I loved working on a 25-foot ladder perched on top of 15 feet of scaffolding, using two heavy Rigid pipe wrenches to close a joint.

But that was me at age 20.

Sparky's got it easy, though. Always clean. Nice and clean. And always drives a nice truck.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

For electrical work, NECA (National electrical contractor assn) may be a place to start. (Link's to DC local careers page, that has a "new to.." link).
posted by k5.user at 9:53 AM on August 20, 2013

By the way, the "dirty" aspect of plumbing has to do with the fact that you're working with toxic glue to seal PVC pipe. Your hands will get covered in it. You're also going to be crawling around in crawlspaces to fix a problem, so you'll be covered in grime and cobwebs, not to mention fiberglass insulation.

My dad always had fiberglass slivers during that decade he did the godforsaken residential bullshit.

If you're a fitter, you're going to be covered in pipe oil (it's the lubricant you need to use in order to thread a pipe).

Along the way you'll get covered in concrete dust if you have to use a jackhammer to dig a trench to lay conduit.

You don't necessarily need to join a union to get an apprenticeship. You just enrol in a trade school, do the coursework, approach an employer for an apprenticeship, and Bob's your uncle.

To get a journeyman ticket would take about three years I would say. I'm not so sure about electricians, but it can't be much more than that. I'm also thinking you have the discipline to do the electrician coursework.

I would say that the disadvantage of joining the union to get an apprenticeship is that it's hard to join the union, and then work is handed out according to seniority. So you may be laid off a lot, and if you are part of the union you can't work side jobs for non-unionized employers.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to be an electrician in my 20's into my very early 30's. The apprenticeship starts off with low wages and hard work - you aren't legally able to be left on the jobsite alone until you've got a journeyman's license. (The master's license is a business license, basically.) It's good work, but hard on the joints - a lot of time on top of ladders looking up and on your knees installing plugs. Most of the electricians I know have had neck problems and knee problems. Last I checked, the license was 4 years full-time employment plus several years of night school and then a written test and an oral examination that's a lot of 'what's this thing' to check that you've actually been working in the field. The classes aren't hard, but there's some near-memorization required for the test.

they're never dirty
Oh yes they are. I remember Sunday nights where I was still blowing the dust from Friday out of my sinuses. I did a lot of work in old houses, where you've got dirt basements and hundreds of years accumulation of very fine dust. And belly-crawling through crawl spaces full of rockwool insulation. I mean, it's not the plumbing "covered in actual shit" kind of dirty, but it's not a clean job by any means, particularly if you're doing old work construction.
(woo! trades-fight!)
posted by rmd1023 at 9:56 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, about the women in the trades thing - I expect people are even more unsurprised by women in the trades, now. Most folks in the field now grew up in a time where it was at least heard of.

Back in the 80's, I think I went about 6-8 months before I saw another woman in the electrical supply house (although I was utterly charmed by seeing a van painted "$NAME and Daughters Electric"). I ran into a bit of "well, is the real electrician around" from customers, but mostly folks were cool. Although many of our customers were from a fairly liberal slice of Boston. There were a few homeowners with kids who thought it was great that there were women on the job in their house who were electrical, plumbing, and carpentry apprentices so their kids could see job diversity in action.

My uninformed expectation is that it's probably a bit harder for women in plumbing, just because OH GOD A GIRL IS GOING INTO THE MEN'S ROOM is a lot more unfamiliar and weirder for some folks than "yeah, the male plumber is in the women's room".
posted by rmd1023 at 10:05 AM on August 20, 2013

Another option is to become a service tech for Verizon. You'll get paid training and benefits, and it's union wages.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:10 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

My cousin did exactly this - couldn't get a job in his (arty) field, went into plumbing, took all his classes (8 months) and then promptly dropped out after his first co-op, and went back to eking out a living in his preferred field. It just wasn't a good fit for him. First, plumbing is a LOT of HARD work; it is very physically demanding. (He was doing construction site plumbing. You have to work your way up to do residential plumbing, or land a REALLY good co-cop.) Secondly, he was working with a lot of, um, rough-around-the-edges type people. Drugs, alcohol and extreme racism. He found this mentally difficult, being such an easy-going, happy-go-lucky friendly kind of a guy himself.

If you have the personality for it, and the inclination to get gritty then go ahead. But do an honest assessment of your personality, and whether you would be happy with it long term. Then make sure you get a co-op with a good employer, maybe a small company starting out or something where you can apprentice directly with a skilled, decent owner.

Any time its a male dominated field, expect gender bullshit. You will have to be 20% better than the average Joe in order to be seen as equal to him. And older people may doubt your judgement in fixing their problem even after you've proved yourself elsewhere.

If you need to change jobs or make $ fast, can you instead leverage your current skills? You don't mention the industry, but if it is any office-type job then there are LOTS of transferable skills you have, it is a question of networking into a good company.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:21 AM on August 20, 2013

One thing that's nice about both trades is that those lines of work aren't going away. Those aren't jobs that can be moved overseas and people will continue to need to build and improve plumbing and electrical systems.
posted by Area Man at 10:24 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cannot speak to your choice but DEFINITELY get thee to your local job center. Many states have programs specifically designed to train people in the trades (also welding, carpentry, home inspection, etc). Your area may be one with a program that pays all or most of the initial month of training, that works around a regular work schedule and that may also involve assistance in setting you up with a subsidized apprenticeship.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 10:42 AM on August 20, 2013

It seems like a substantial portion of the advice here is coming from people who like the idea of plumbing and the trades, but can't speak to the physical experience of being a skilled laborer. It is definitely worth your while to go around and talk to actual apprentices and tradesmen, especially women, about their experiences.

Ask them how easy or difficult the work they do would be for someone with your build. Do you have any health conditions that will pose a challenge for working in specific environments or with particular materials? How do folks cope with occupational hazards and work-related injuries? What are work opportunities like in your area? Will you have to deal with culture shock, and how do you adjust to it? Does women in the trades earn as much as men? And so on.

Best of luck, this sounds like a challenging transition.
posted by Nomyte at 11:25 AM on August 20, 2013

These jobs are very physically demanding. Its also not like an office job, where you can frequently spend time surfing the internet. Its pretty intense work.

But it is usually different from day to day and satisfying. If you work on new construction, you won't be working in a house with heat or air conditioning.

Also, plumbers do fix clogs, but that is a very small part of what they do.

2) How much would I be likely to get paid eventually?

Do you have an entrepreneurial bent? If so, you can start your own business after working for a while. Then you can make a lot of money.

regarding grossness: Ugh, yes it can be very gross. You will encounter feces, used bathroom products, etc, etc.

Another fairly common job is replacing water heaters in homes. Its pretty simple: turn off the water, cut the pipes to and from the heater, carry the (very heavy) heater out of the basement, put the new one in, solder the old pipes to the new heater.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:30 AM on August 20, 2013

One of my sons has worked as a plumber and another as an electrician. Neither of them would fit any stereotypes mentioned above. They're well-educated, well-read. Both enjoy working with their hands and both enjoy being able to work when they want. I, a slender woman, did carpentry into my fifties, and I'm no weightlifter. The trades are hard on bodies of any shape. I think a lot is going to depend on whether you get into an apprenticeship program and where. Look at both, as others have recommended.
posted by mareli at 11:31 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no experience doing either, except as a home-owner. I've heard it said that insurance for electricians is sky-high. No idea about plumbers.
posted by Wild_Eep at 11:38 AM on August 20, 2013

Both are great jobs. Neither are going way. Interesting work. Not sitting at a desk.

As an apprentice, you will make ~$10/hr. Once you're a journeyman, I'm not sure what the exact hourly wage is, but last time I checked I think union plumbers were at something like $30/hr. So $60,000 a year. Benefits. Not bad.

Here's a link of organizations dedicated to promoting women in the trades.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:18 PM on August 20, 2013

No plumbers in the family, but my uncle was en electrician for many years and did pretty well for himself. I know he did some kind of two-year college program, but I don't know if he had to do an apprenticeship after that. Our local IBEW has paid apprenticeships, but as others have mentioned, they don't start out at a high rate and not everybody can get one.

My uncle really enjoyed his work when he was younger. He worked his way up to a high-level position at a college, and had his own side business on and off. He got seriously injured on the job on some live wires around the same time he was developing post-polio syndrome in his fifties, so he went out on some kind of disability/early retirement combo package. But he'll be financially comfortable for the remainder, and he's still able to tinker around his own house at his own speed.

(His son was apprenticed to a master cabinetmaker and can do amazing work without even trying, but prefers to deal drugs because his father brought him up to resent paying taxes. And here I sit with no particular talent at all.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:00 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should also say that my father the plumber has and had a real passion for math and physics, as well as chemistry. He had to drop out of university because he couldn't afford the tuition, but he has a real affinity for things like fluid dynamics, geometry, trigonometry, Calculus, physics, all that stuff. It helped him get his gas ticket, and he was the first person in our island of about 500,000 people to get one.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:14 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Plumbing requires physical strength. A connection that has been rusted shut for years will not open easily, and what is inside may turn your stomach.
If you decide to be an electrician, discard all your man-made fiber clothing. Cotton only, no static cling because static can give you a nasty shock when you are working with high voltage.
Good luck in your new career.
posted by Cranberry at 2:08 PM on August 20, 2013

I have two friends, one who offsided for the other as a sparky. If they hadn't fallen out, my male friend (the electrician) said that she would have been a really good electrician by now. I'm sad that they fell out because it was a good opportunity for her.

I find plumbing more of a black art than electrician work, but I do neither (aside from offisde for my sparky when he's on my job site).
posted by singingfish at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2013

By the way, the "dirty" aspect of plumbing has to do with the fact that you're working with toxic glue to seal PVC pipe.

Yup. I'd take electrician over plumber to avoid two things: shit and that glue. The glue is worse for your health.
posted by Dasein at 5:25 PM on August 20, 2013

Dear Anon,

If you shoot me a MeMail, I may have another idea for you.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:42 PM on August 20, 2013

Or if you prefer, post a throwaway email and I'll contact you that way.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:50 PM on August 20, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you so much to everyone for all of these really fantastic answers! There has been a TON of helpful guidance in this thread and it has given me a lot to consider. As of now, I'm planning on getting in touch with the IBEW to take the test to get into the educational program for electricians. Thank you all so, SO much for your amazing help; this has been phenomenally informative and I'm hugely appreciative. Thank you thank you thank you for giving me the advice and confidence to do something totally different and really exciting.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:12 PM on August 21, 2013

Bit of a late advice, mooted by your followup: I used to work for a plumbing company, and my experience was that what women and minorities we hired (short-term, for projects that required it) had to work three times as hard to get half the credit. The fundamental attribution error runs rampant with the plumbers. Seemed like there were a lot more women electricians who were respected on the job sites.
posted by notsnot at 8:57 AM on September 22, 2013

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