If a teenager came to you for career advice, would you say:
“Compare a plumber to going to Harvard College — being a plumber, actually for the average person, probably would be a better deal.”
This comment, made on a radio show in May 2013, got a lot of attention. For a few people, it was – “finally, someone’s cutting through all the bulls--t and telling the truth to our kids.” For others, it was outrage that the speaker, a multi-billionaire with a Harvard Business School degree, thought that only an “average” person – someone with nothing extraordinary to offer – was suited for the plumbing trades; college would be wasted such “average” folks.
Because the speaker was Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s Mayor and world’s 13th richest man at the time.
But, the real question is: Was he right?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a plumber or thinking of becoming one. Either way, you know plumbing isn’t usually like a regular job – punch in at 8:00, take lunch at noon, clock out at 4:30, and week in, week out know to the penny what your paycheck will be. That’s not a plumber’s life. When construction booms, there aren’t enough plumbers to go around. When customers call, you have a job. Otherwise, who knows?
What’s the future? That’s what you wanna know. Is becoming a plumber worth all those hours of training? If you have a plumbing business, should you hunker down and hope for the best? Or is it time to add an apprentice or two and try to grow? My crystal ball’s in the shop right now, so if I wanna see the future, I check the next best tool, the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here’s what they say:
“Employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is projected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.”
What does that mean? Their guess for the average growth of jobs in the economy is 11 percent, so 21 percent more plumbing jobs is almost twice the national average. Interestingly, their projection from 2010-2020 was for 26 percent growth in plumbing jobs, so this is actually a big drop in their projection. And it’s still pretty damned good.
Why the need for more guys with wrenches and knee pads? Here’s what they say:
Demand for plumbers will stem from new building construction and stricter water efficiency standards for plumbing systems, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads. The construction of new power plants and factories should spur demand for pipefitters and steamfitters. Employment of sprinkler fitters and plumbers is expected to increase in states that adopt changes to the International Residential Code (IRC), which requires new single-and-double-family homes to have fire sprinkler systems.”
That’s right, you read that right. The IRC, the source for building codes in every State in the Union, created a new requirement in 2012 for newly built (not remodeled) single-family homes to have fire sprinklers. How many homes have you walked into and seen sprinkler heads sprouting from the ceiling? For me, that number would be…let me see…none. Now, it’s true that the IRC is only a model code and each state has a chance to either adopt or reject what they propose. So far, outside of adoption for townhouses and apartments, this new code hasn’t really caught on. Only California, Maryland, and D.C. have added it but guesses are that this list will grow and along with it the need for a whole lot more plumbing work.
On top of that, the Bureau anticipates higher than average retirements among plumbers in the next decade. Plumbers’ average age is quite a bit higher than most trades. In Texas, for example, the average master plumber is 58 years old.
So, maybe Bloomberg has a point – plumbers are likely to get work where a college grad with an art history degree might struggle. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also says that plumbers who work in construction might have a few periods of unemployment or under-employment here and there but that they also earn more, on average. Meanwhile, service plumbers have a nearly recession-proof job. If the toilet don’t flush, you call a plumber no matter how the Dow Jones average did that week.
What about income? It’s nice knowing jobs will be there, but what’s the pay? That’s where the good news continues. The Bureau found that the median wage of plumbers (half earn more and half earn less) is nearly $50k a year. Compare that to the national average of less than $35k a year. The lowest 10 percent made $29,000 or less. The top 10 percent made more than $84,000. Almost 90 percent of plumbers work for someone else but 11% have their own plumbing business.
Now, it’s true that some of the work may be tough. Pipes freeze and it’s a plumber lying in the snow, making the pipes flow again. Sewage is piped away from our homes for a good reason and working with sewage piping isn’t everyone’s first choice. And if the water’s still not flowing at 5:00 on a Friday, you don’t tell the homeowner, “sorry, my shift’s over. We’ll get you water first thing Monday morning.” And the training does take a long time. Apprenticeships may last three, four, or five years and income during the first years of an apprenticeship are far below average plumber’s salary (although still better than most starting wages).
So, it’s not for everyone. You have to want to work and have to be good with your hands and your head.
But, when it comes down to it, Bloomberg isn’t too far from the truth.
If you’re thinking of training to be a plumber, this is a great time. Go for it. You won’t get automated out of a job (plumbing robots are at least a century away) and outsourcing just won’t work (“Hi, this is Sanjeeb, what is your plumbing emergency?”)
If you’re already a plumber, think about going green to pick up the extra work for high-efficiency fixtures and solar systems. And definitely think about growing the business or starting your own if you currently work for someone else. Add an apprentice or journeyman, if you can. Maybe a female – as of now, ‘round about 99% of plumbers are men, so it’s time to make some changes there.
What’s the bottom line for all this? Where’s plumbing heading? Nothing is certain, but the way things look now, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that choosing to be a plumber or to grow your plumbing business is a good idea. Although, if you do get into Harvard, go ahead and attend. Nothing says you can’t have a Harvard degree AND a plumbing business.