Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install, maintain, and repair piping systems that carry liquids and gases. Each group of workers specializes in a specific type of piping. Plumbers are most often called upon to install and repair residential and commercial pipe systems and to install fixtures such as bathtubs, toilets, sinks, dishwashers, garbage disposals, and water heaters in residential and commercial buildings. They may also install or repair water pipes, waste disposal pipes, and drainage and gas lines. Pipelayers dig and level trenches and then lay cement, plastic, iron, or clay pipes for drainage, sewer, water, or gas systems. Once the materials for these systems are laid out, pipelayers use glue or cement to join the sections together. Pipefitters install, maintain, and repair both low pressure and high pressure pipes that are used for commercial purposes, such as hydroelectric power plants, factories, or central air conditioning or heating. In addition, they install automated controls to regulate systems and keep them working properly. Steamfitters perform tasks that are even more specialized. They are involved in installing pipes that transport materials such as gases that move under extremely high pressure. Finally, sprinklerfitters install automated sprinkler systems in buildings as part of fire alarm systems.
Workers in each of these fields use a variety of specialized tools and techniques depending on the type of project. For example, plumbers working on residential construction may use copper, steel, and plastic pipe, while those working on a sewer system work with large cast iron pipes. All pipelayers, regardless of their specialty, need to be able to read blueprints, follow instructions from builders or contractors, and plan out the work to be done. They must be efficient and capable of performing the tasks associated with their jobs.
While some workers learn informally on the job, most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters learn the trade by completing an apprenticeship program sponsored jointly by local unions and their affiliated companies or nonunion contractor organizations. Pipelayers begin work as helpers and get their training on the job.
In order to be accepted into an apprenticeship program, applicants must be at least 18 years old, be a high school graduate or have a GED, and be legally authorized to work in the United States. Most apprenticeship programs are structured work programs that take four to five years to complete. During this time, the apprentice not only works, but must also complete at least 144 hours of relevant classroom instruction each year. Training in plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting received in the military is highly desirable, and credit for this experience is often given to those who enroll in civilian apprenticeship programs.
Most states require licensing for plumbers. However, there are no national licensing requirements. Requirements vary by locality. Most areas require workers to have two to five years of experience and pass an examination. Only a few states require licenses for pipefitters and those who work on gas lines.
Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are among the highest paid professionals in the construction industry. The median hourly wage for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is $21.94. The middle 50 percent earn between $16.63 and $29.66 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $13.22 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $37.93 an hour. The median hourly wage for pipelayers is $15.72. The middle 50 percent earn between $12.84 and $20.85 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $10.75 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $27.43 an hour.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook expects above average employment growth of about 16 percent over the next 10 years. An increased demand for plumbers will be fueled by numerous factors, including new construction, building renovations and retrofitting, and the need to repair existing equipment. Employment growth for steamfitters and pipefitters will be driven by the construction or maintenance of power plants, water and wastewater treatment plants, and office buildings and factories. Pipelayers may see an increase in job opportunities due to the need to build new water lines, sewer lines, and pipelines to new oil and gas fields. Changes to construction codes requiring the installation of fire sprinkler systems in residential buildings will increase opportunities for sprinklerfitters as well.