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A Pipe Trade Could Give You a Leak-Free Future

You may not know exactly what the pipe trades are. But you probably know about plumbers. The pipe trades also include steamfitters or pipefitters, sprinkler system installers, gas fitters, refrigeration mechanics and instrumentation mechanics.

But there is more to these trades than you might think. Plumbers, for instance, fix leaky pipes -- and if you live in a rural area, they might have installed your septic system or helped to put in the pipes to your well.

Before they build, they have to be able to plan where the pipes will go. That's why these people must have good math skills, says Ed Holmes. He is a supervisor with a construction company in Washington. Math is essential to planning and to understanding instructions for construction.

Plumbers must know what kind of pipes to use and how to weld, solder or connect the piping. Finally, they must test the system to make sure it works properly.

Most plumbers and other pipe trades workers are in the cities, but we don't often see them. They install and look after sewers. They build the pipes and systems that deliver water, gases and fuel to buildings. And they build the lines that take the wastes away.

Randy Scott is a steamfitter with over 23 years of experience. He is now the staff organizer with the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters in Seattle. "If it's round with a hole in it, we deal with it," he says.

That may sound simple. But there are a lot of different parts to these jobs.

Steamfitters have many things in common with plumbers. Steamfitters also build systems that carry water, such as high-pressure systems for something like a fire hydrant. Plus, they may work on heating units like boilers or at companies needing cold rooms like meat packers.

Some steamfitters specialize and become known as refrigeration mechanics. Refrigeration mechanics work on heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, very often in large buildings.

They make sure that the right amount of hot or cold air gets to the right place. That means checking and servicing heat pumps, pipes, gas units and the electrical controls and valves that control all of these things. Usually, steamfitters are in industrial or commercial buildings.

Installing sprinkler systems is another specialization. These installers put in lines that carry crucial things like oxygen or other gases to hospitals and foam or water to fire suppressant devices. They even construct fun things like artificial fog makers in theaters.

Gas fitters mainly look after natural gas or propane lines. These are used at gas stations for fuel and for heating in many buildings. Of course, these gases are also shipped through huge pipelines to where they are needed.

Instrumentation mechanics look after the equipment that looks after any of these piping systems.

The construction industry goes up and down with the economy. Scott says that means there is a shortage of work at times. And at other times, there is so much work that the pipefitters can't keep up.

More stable jobs involving the maintenance of the pipe systems also exist. Every house, mall, office building, sewer system and pipeline needs someone to keep it running smoothly.

Ron Townsend works with the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada. He says the trade "is really a gateway to an enormous number of career choices."

Other jobs for experienced pipefitters include teaching new apprentices, managing a union, supervising, estimating costs before construction and training pipefitters to help prevent injuries.

Holmes says the best way to become a pipe tradesperson is to find a union in your area. While some places want you to take a pre-apprenticeship program, many companies or unions will take someone with a good attitude who likes tools.

Townsend agrees. "Check with the local unions -- their training departments -- for getting people into their training positions. If there is nothing at that point, then go and see some of the contractors. For the most part, it is patience, perseverance and shoe leather."

If a union will take a person on, they'll start as a first-year apprentice. Each week, they spend a few hours in the classroom. The rest of the time they learn on the job.

Each year of the apprenticeship, they do more complex work. The exact numbers vary from place to place, but after finishing 10,000 hours of work as an apprentice, they can apply to write the journeyman's exam.

Earnings go up with each year of the apprenticeship completed. Most unions pay a first-year apprentice about half of what a journeyman makes.

Holmes says that in Washington, where he works, a "first-year [apprentice makes] 50 percent of a journeyman's wage, which is $34 per hour. [But] by fifth year, you make 85 percent of what the journeyman makes."

Many people become a journeyman and are happy with that job. Others go on to become licensed gas or steamfitters.

Pipefitters must be able to do hard physical work. A lot of lifting and carrying is required. Apprentices must also be willing to work in difficult places like the cramped corner of a ventilation shaft or underground.

Other times, they could be up very high on ladders or scaffolding in a partially constructed building or in a camp in the wilderness.

In fact, Terry Boudreau of the Construction Sector Council of Canada says an apprentice will probably work in all of those places. During his career, Boudreau has worked on high schools, hospitals, homes, oil refineries and nuclear power sites.

Pipe trades workers must be willing to get dirty and wet. There is definitely a lot of outdoor work. That can be good or bad, depending on where the work is and what season it is.

The best thing about being in the trade, says Boudreau, is "because you work on a project you...get it up and running and when it is finished, you've made what the engineers have put on blueprints into something real."

Once it's working, you go on to your next project, content that you have built something of value for the world.


Piping Industry Progress and Education
Huge amount of information on the whole pipe trades industry

Pipe Fabrication Institute
The site gives some technical background on what pipe trades people need to know

Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association (PHCC)
A national association covering issues important to plumbing, heating and cooling contractors

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.