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What's it really like?
Peter McDonald has been a plumber and latterly a medical heating engineer for over 30 years. Here’s what he has to say about the job:
I trained as a plumber when I left school at 16 back in the 1960s. I completed a five year apprenticeship, which in those days was called a City and Guilds qualification. I was in the classroom for one day and then working with a plumbing firm for the other four days. They paid me, but not a great deal. But when I completed this I was a qualified plumber and decided to accept the firm’s offer to stay on with them and work for them properly.
I became self-employed soon afterwards because I like the freedom it grants you to work to your own time and your strengths. There are a lot of cowboys in plumbing and more recently a lot of people purely out to make money. You can’t teach someone to be good with their hands; they either have it or not. But years of practice and learning makes a good plumber and someone who is committed to it for life will reap the rewards.
If you have an interest in metal work then you will be in a good position. Hang around at blacksmiths and steelworks and watch them, if they’ll let you. Read lots of books about the nuts and bolts of the systems... so to speak. The biggest advice though is to be patient and make sure you always do the best job, not the quickest.
A plumber is someone who maintains water piping and drainage systems in the home and in industry for a variety of purposes, such as drinking, drainage, heating, venting and sewage. He or she can also be known as a pipefitter, a gasfitter or a steamfitter but these tend to work more in industry than in the home. When a plumber has reached an experienced and fully qualified level he or she is known as a Master Plumber.
A plumber has one of the most important jobs in our society and is someone we couldn’t do without. At some point in our lives we will all have to call on the help of a plumber. Their skills are varied and vital in the running of our homes and businesses. There has been a stigma attached to being a plumber lately and many people now see the plumber as the new lawyer or doctor, in terms of their salary and general importance in society. However, what makes a good plumber hasn’t changed over the years. It’s not in the desire to be rich but the desire to use their hands to do their job well.
Although many people think that plumbers are earning more than doctors, it’s not entirely true. The average salary for a plumber is more likely to be between £30,000 and £40,000 per year. However, because the likelihood is that they would be self-employed, a few thousand pounds of this will be deducted for their annual tax bill, which they are personally responsible for paying. If you worked on a PAYE status for a company, then the average plumber would be likely to earn around £25,000 when they’ve been working there for a few years.
Plumbing incorporates a large range of jobs and responsibilities. You could be a ‘wet only plumber’, who only handles piping systems in bathrooms and radiators for example. You could also be a ‘gas only plumber’, who often carries out their work in more industrial places, such as hospitals and laboratories. However, there are fundamental skills which are transferable from one job to the next.
It’s a mostly male dominated sector of work but, over the last few years, a number of all-female plumbing companies have been thriving and proving a welcome innovation with the elderly and single mothers.
Being a plumber largely means you are self-employed, so you are your own boss and look after yourself. Although that means you aren’t paid for your time off, and you have to organize your finances yourself, it also means that you are in charge and don’t have a boss to answer to. Like many other roles in the construction and labour sector, quite often a plumber will begin working for someone else and then perhaps start up their own firm later, when they feel experienced, qualified and confident enough.
A plumber has to be someone happy working with their hands. A good plumber will be agile and fit and not mind getting their hands dirty. You won’t be sprayed with water from a pipe every day but it’s not uncommon. Working in cramped and sometimes risky conditions is quite likely, so a plumber needs to feel confident that they can manage any sort of environment. Fitting under a sink needs to feel as comfortable and natural as fitting into bed.
As well as being good with their hands, a good plumber is also good with people. The best plumbers are the ones that are friendly, kind and honest. No one wants a stranger in their home, so the more chatty and polite they are, the more chance they will get their name passed around.
Word of mouth is often how plumbers get the most work. Although they will advertise in local papers and the like, the most work comes from people telling their friends and family that he or she is a good and reliable plumber. That’s why making a good first impression is vital for the job.
A plumber has an array of tools and equipment at his or her disposal. They consist of pipe cutters, wrenches, spanners, pliers, pipe benders, plumbers knives, tile tools, saws, tank cutters, blow torches, gauges, solders, brazers, immersion heater spanners, radiator keys, sink un-blockers and many more. A plumber’s bag of tools is the most important thing in his or her possession.
To be a plumber in the UK at the time of writing you would need to possess a National Vocational Qualification. These are theoretical and practical qualifications and will mean you train in both the classroom and out on the job as an apprentice. When you have qualified, you will hold an NVQ (SNVQ if you live in Scotland) at Level 2 as a minimum. This teaches you basic domestic plumbing and allows you to start earning money as a tradesman. A Level 3 NVQ can then be worked towards, which allows you to work in more advanced areas such as industry and with gas. This is the level you need to be at the start up your own business.
With a Level 3 you can then be eligible to gain a Master Plumber Certificate, as well as gaining entry in the future to the Engineering Technician EngTech with the Engineering Council, which will make you seem much more professional.
If you wish to move into installing gas heating systems as well as working as a wet plumber then you will need to become registered with The Council of Registered Gas Installers (CORGI) and pass their Approved Certificate Scheme (ACS). All of these qualifications can often be completed at your local vocational college. A list of which is nearest to your home can be found on the SummitSkills website.
Here are some vital skills needed if you want to be a good plumber:
The working conditions can vary from job to job and with differing levels of experience and qualifications, but as a rule the vast majority of conditions will be within another person’s private environment. This might take the form of a domestic home or it could be within a public area such as a school, shop or hospital.
The one thing that’s consistent though is that you will be expected to appear presentable and not intimidating. You will be on the move all the time and won’t be tied to the same space, like you would be in an office job. Good plumbers need to like moving around and adapting to new and challenging working environments all the time.
It’s a good idea to have obtained some work experience before you even begin your plumbing qualifications. This can be anything from shadowing a trained plumber to actually helping out as a ‘mate’. You might find that this is unpaid, but the experience and insight you get into the job is well worth it.
The best thing to do would be to send off your CV to a number of local plumbing companies and ask them whether they ever need someone to help them. Not only will this give you a good idea of the day-to-day life of a plumber, but it will also give you a head-start when you come to do your qualifications and training.
There are some large plumbing firms, but the industry tends to work on a more local basis with lots of small companies rather than a few big ones. It’s often worth starting work with a smaller firm, as the work is likely to be more hands on, but more stability can be found in the larger companies.
A plumber can remain in the profession for as long as they can both find work and physically carry out the work. it’s often something that people get better at as they get older and customers tend to have more faith in plumbers if they seem to have plenty of experience.