For career and appropriate tech: Should I be an electrician or plumber?
September 22, 2013 7:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently in the application process for the plumbers/pipefitters and electricians unions in my area. I'm trying to decide which one I'd prefer, if I get a choice. I like that both are licensed trades where I could work on big industrial/commercial projects but also have good residential skills. Also, I'm interested in alternative/appropriate/transition technology -- and I'm wondering which trade would give me more versatile skills for that sort of application. Any advice on which trade might give me more skills to make appropriate tech?

So far, plumbing (and pipefitting) seems to win hands-down -- more welding and brazing, more work with metal, more mechanical work, and more obvious applications of manipulating liquids and gases to my own life, such as making a sterilization tank for shiitake mushroom substrate, or installing greywater or rainwater systems, or building a gasifier stove (which I've done before but my efforts so far were primitive at best). I have a friend who's a medical gas plumber for a hospital and I think that would be a really neat job, too. I also feel like sanitation and water are incredibly fundamental to civilization and the way we deal with them right now is pretty backward.

But maybe I'm missing something cool and useful about electrical skills? I've done basic wiring before, and I'm very good at math, but ideas of really interesting applications aren't coming to me. I feel like everything I'd want to know about electrical for home projects I'd be able to pick up on my own (basic residential wiring) or through the pipefitter's electrical controls course. Not that electrical is easy -- I know that doing any trade professionally at a high level is difficult and takes a long time investment of time and energy. But I'm thinking more about the applications for personal tech projects and possibly eventually a business designing and building appropriate tech. (Aside -- I have a B.A. in Stats and I'm very much *not* interested in engineering school at this point.) So maybe tell me something about electrical that I don't know -- what makes it particularly fulfilling, awesome, flexible, or useful?

I'm not looking for comments here about how sparkies are nerdy or plumbers have dirty fingernails. What I want is some insight into what licensure in either trade might offer a person interested in designing and building appropriate technology (and also in having a fulfilling union construction career, but I think both trades offer that). Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by lharmon at 7:50 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I asked Mr. 26.2 who's an engineer in a firm that specializes in mechanical and electrical. He feels similar to what you've outlined. Mechanical is just more interesting and has tons of applications. Plumbing - especially residential repair - has the drawback of odd (though profitable!) hours. Also, plumbers have to deal with black water so you need to be okay with that.

Also, if you don't want to go to engineering school you might still be interested in designer positions at engineering firms. That seems to align to your long term career goal of designing/building stuff.
posted by 26.2 at 8:53 AM on September 22, 2013

Check on the health of the pension fund you would be joining. If it goes broke, there's a big chunk of your pay that you'll never see.
posted by jewzilla at 9:03 AM on September 22, 2013

As an electrician of 36 years standing, my prejudices are boun to show through. The electrical field requires a far larger knowledge base, and a more interesting and demanding skill set. Far more creativity is encouraged in bending exposed conduit, and designing lighting displays. There are many more available varieties of disciplines to immerse oneself in, ranging from high voltage distribution to low voltage life safety systems for just one example. I know many men and women in the mechanical trades, and they virtually all tell me they are hopelessly bored. That is a report I seldom get from those in my trade. Jewzilla is correct in assessing all of the benefit funds for each union. I look forward to having you as a little brother or sister. Good luck in whichever endeavour you choose.
posted by scottymac at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

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