Pipelayers, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
Job opportunities should be excellent because not enough people
are seeking training.
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters make up
one of the largest and highest paid construction occupations.
Nature of the Work
Most people are familiar with plumbers, who come to their
home to unclog a drain or install an appliance. In addition
to these activities, however, pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
and steamfitters install, maintain, and repair many different
types of pipe systems. For example, some systems move water
to a municipal water treatment plant and then to residential,
commercial, and public buildings. Other systems dispose of
waste, provide gas to stoves and furnaces, or provide for
heating and cooling needs. Pipe systems in powerplants carry
the steam that powers huge turbines. Pipes also are used in
manufacturing plants to move material through the production
process. Specialized piping systems are very important in
both pharmaceutical and computer-chip manufacturing.
Although pipelaying, plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting
sometimes are considered a single trade, workers generally
specialize in one of five areas. Pipelayers lay clay,
concrete, plastic, or cast-iron pipe for drains, sewers, water
mains, and oil or gas lines. Before laying the pipe, pipelayers
prepare and grade the trenches either manually or with machines.
After laying the pipe, they weld, glue, cement or otherwise
join the pieces together. Plumbers install and repair
the water, waste disposal, drainage, and gas systems in homes
and commercial and industrial buildings. Plumbers also install
plumbing fixtures—bathtubs, showers, sinks, and toilets—and
appliances such as dishwashers and water heaters. Pipefitters
install and repair both high- and low-pressure pipe systems
used in manufacturing, in the generation of electricity, and
in the heating and cooling of buildings. They also install
automatic controls that are increasingly being used to regulate
these systems. Some pipefitters specialize in only one type
of system. Steamfitters install pipe systems that move
liquids or gases under high pressure. Sprinklerfitters
install automatic fire sprinkler systems in buildings.
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters use many
different materials and construction techniques, depending
on the type of project. Residential water systems, for example,
incorporate copper, steel, and plastic pipe that can be handled
and installed by one or two plumbers. Municipal sewerage systems,
on the other hand, are made of large cast-iron pipes; installation
normally requires crews of pipefitters. Despite these differences,
all pipelayers,plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
must be able to follow building plans or blueprints and instructions
from supervisors, lay out the job, and work efficiently with
the materials and tools of their trade. Computers and specialized
software are used to create blueprints and plan layouts.
When construction plumbers install piping in a new house,
for example, they work from blueprints or drawings that show
the planned location of pipes, plumbing fixtures, and appliances.
Recently, plumbers have become more involved in the design
process. Their knowledge of codes and the operation of plumbing
systems can cut costs. They first lay out the job to fit the
piping into the structure of the house with the least waste
of material. Then they measure and mark areas in which pipes
will be installed and connected. Construction plumbers also
check for obstructions such as electrical wiring and, if necessary,
plan the pipe installation around the problem.
Sometimes, plumbers have to cut holes in walls, ceilings,
and floors of a house. For some systems, they may hang steel
supports from ceiling joists to hold the pipe in place. To
assemble a system, plumbers—using saws, pipe cutters, and
pipe-bending machines—cut and bend lengths of pipe. They connect
lengths of pipe with fittings, using methods that depend on
the type of pipe used. For plastic pipe, plumbers connect
the sections and fittings with adhesives. For copper pipe,
they slide a fitting over the end of the pipe and solder it
in place with a torch.
After the piping is in place in the house, plumbers install
the fixtures and appliances and connect the system to the
outside water or sewer lines. Finally, using pressure gauges,
they check the system to ensure that the plumbing works properly.
Pipefitters and steamfitters most often work in industrial
and power plants. Plumbers work in commercial and residential
settings where water and septic systems need to be installed
and maintained. Pipelayers work outdoors, sometime in remote
areas, as they build the pipelines that connect sources of
oil, gas, and chemicals with the users of these materials.
Sprinklerfitters work mostly in multistory buildings that
require the use of sprinkler systems.
Because pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
frequently must lift heavy pipes, stand for long periods,
and sometimes work in uncomfortable or cramped positions,
they need physical strength as well as stamina. They also
may have to work outdoors in inclement weather. In addition,
they are subject to possible falls from ladders, cuts from
sharp tools, and burns from hot pipes or soldering equipment.
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters engaged
in construction generally work a standard 40-hour week; those
involved in maintaining pipe systems, including those who
provide maintenance services under contract, may have to work
evening or weekend shifts, as well as be on call. These maintenance
workers may spend quite a bit of time traveling to and from
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters enter
into the profession in a variety of ways. Most residential
and industrial plumbers get their training in career and technical
schools and community colleges and from on-the-job training.
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters who work
mainly for commercial enterprises are usually trained through
formal apprenticeship programs.
Apprenticeship programs generally provide the most comprehensive
training available for these jobs. They are administered by
either union locals and their affiliated companies or by nonunion
contractor organizations. Organizations that sponsor apprenticeships
include: the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices
of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States
and Canada; local employers of either the Mechanical Contractors
Association of America, the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling
Contractors, or the National Fire Sprinkler Association; the
Associated Builders and Contractors; the National Association
of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors; the American Fire
Sprinkler Association, or the Home Builders Institute of the
National Association of Home Builders.
Apprenticeships—both union and nonunion—consist of 4 or 5
years of on-the-job training, in addition to at least 144
hours per year of related classroom instruction. Classroom
subjects include drafting and blueprint reading, mathematics,
applied physics and chemistry, safety, and local plumbing
codes and regulations. On the job, apprentices first learn
basic skills, such as identifying grades and types of pipe,
using the tools of the trade, and safely unloading materials.
As apprentices gain experience, they learn how to work with
various types of pipe and how to install different piping
systems and plumbing fixtures. Apprenticeship gives trainees
a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the trade. Although
most pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are
trained through apprenticeship, some still learn their skills
informally on the job.
Applicants for union or nonunion apprentice jobs must be
at least 18 years old and in good physical condition. Apprenticeship
committees may require applicants to have a high school diploma
or its equivalent. Armed Forces training in pipelaying, plumbing,
and pipefitting is considered very good preparation. In fact,
persons with this background may be given credit for previous
experience when entering a civilian apprenticeship program.
Secondary or postsecondary courses in shop, plumbing, general
mathematics, drafting, blueprint reading, computers, and physics
also are good preparation.
Although there are no uniform national licensing requirements,
most communities require plumbers to be licensed. Licensing
requirements vary from area to area, but most localities require
workers to pass an examination that tests their knowledge
of the trade and of local plumbing codes.
With additional training, some pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
and steamfitters become supervisors for mechanical and plumbing
contractors. Others, especially plumbers, go into business
for themselves, often starting as a self-employed plumber
working from home. Some eventually become owners of businesses
employing many workers and may spend most of their time as
managers rather than as plumbers. Others move into closely
related areas such as construction management or building
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters constitute
one of the largest construction occupations, holding about
561,000 jobs in 2004. About 1 in 2 worked for plumbing, heating,
and air-conditioning contractors engaged in new construction,
repair, modernization, or maintenance work. Others did maintenance
work for a variety of industrial, commercial, and government
employers. For example, pipefitters were employed as maintenance
personnel in the petroleum and chemical industries, in which
manufacturing operations require the moving of liquids and
gases through pipes. More than 1 in 10 pipelayers, plumbers,
pipefitters, and steamfitters were self-employed. Almost 1
in 3 pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters belonged
to a union.
Jobs for pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
are distributed across the country in about the same proportion
as the general population.
Job opportunities are expected to be excellent, as demand
for skilled pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
is expected to outpace the supply of workers trained in this
craft. Many employers report difficulty finding potential
workers with the right qualifications. In addition, many people
currently working in these trades are expected to retire over
the next 10 years, which will create additional job openings.
Employment of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations
through the year 2014. Demand for plumbers will stem from
new construction and building renovation. Bath remodeling,
in particular, is expected to continue to grow and create
more jobs for plumbers. In addition, repair and maintenance
of existing residential systems will keep plumbers employed.
Demand for pipefitters and steamfitters will be driven by
maintenance activities for places having extensive systems
of pipes, such as powerplants, water and wastewater treatment
plants, office buildings, and factories. Growth of pipelayer
jobs will stem from the building of new water and sewer lines
and pipelines to new oil and gas fields. Demand for sprinklerfitters
will increase due to changes to State and local rules for
fire protection in homes and businesses.
Traditionally, many organizations with extensive pipe systems
have employed their own plumbers or pipefitters to maintain
equipment and keep systems running smoothly. But, to reduce
labor costs, many of these firms no longer employ full-time,
in-house plumbers or pipefitters. Instead, when they need
a plumber, they rely on workers provided under service contracts
by plumbing and pipefitting contractors.
Construction projects generally provide only temporary employment.
When a project ends, some pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
and steamfitters may be unemployed until they can begin work
on a new project, although most companies are trying to limit
these periods of unemployment in order to retain workers.
In addition, the jobs of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
and steamfitters are generally less sensitive to changes in
economic conditions than jobs in other construction trades.
Even when construction activity declines, maintenance, rehabilitation,
and replacement of existing piping systems, as well as the
increasing installation of fire sprinkler systems, provide
many jobs for pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters.
Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are among
the highest paid construction occupations. In May 2004, median
hourly earnings of pipelayers were $13.68. The middle 50 percent
earned between $11.05 and $18.69. The lowest 10 percent earned
less than $9.19, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$25.07. Also in May 2004, median hourly earnings of plumbers,
pipefitters, and steamfitters were $19.85. The middle 50 percent
earned between $15.01 and $26.67. The lowest 10 percent earned
less than $11.62, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$33.72. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing
the largest numbers of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
in May 2004 were as follows:
Natural gas distribution
Nonresidential building construction
Building equipment contractors
Utility system construction
Apprentices usually begin at about 50 percent of the wage
rate paid to experienced pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
and steamfitters. Wages increase periodically as skills improve.
After an initial waiting period, apprentices receive the same
benefits as experienced pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters,
Many pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
are members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices
of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States
Other occupations in which workers install and repair mechanical
systems in buildings are boilermakers; electricians; elevator
installers and repairers; heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration
mechanics and installers; industrial machinery installation,
repair, and maintenance workers; millwrights; sheet metal
workers; and stationary engineers and boiler operators. Other
related occupations include construction managers and construction
and building inspectors.
Sources of Additional Information
For information about apprenticeships or work opportunities
in pipelaying, plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting, contact
local plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors;
a local or State chapter of the National Association of Plumbing,
Heating, and Cooling Contractors; a local chapter of the Mechanical
Contractors Association; a local chapter of the United Association
of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting
Industry of the United States and Canada; or the nearest office
of your State employment service or apprenticeship agency.
For information about apprenticeship opportunities for pipelayers,
plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, contact:
United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the
Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry, 901 Massachusetts Ave.
NW., Washington, DC 20001. Internet: http://www.ua.org/
For more information about training programs for pipelayers,
plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, contact:
Associated Builders and Contractors, Workforce Development
Department, 4250 North Fairfax Dr., 9th Floor, Arlington,
VA 22203. Internet: http://www.trytools.org/
Home Builders Institute, National Association of Home
Builders, 1201 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet:
For general information about the work of pipelayers, plumbers,
and pipefitters, contact:
Mechanical Contractors Association of America, 1385 Piccard
Dr., Rockville, MD 20850. Internet: http://www.mcaa.org/
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors--National Association,
180 S. Washington St, Falls Church, VA 22040. Internet:
National Center for Construction Education and Research,
P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville FL 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org/
For general information about the work of sprinklerfitters,