Plumbers install, service and repair hot and cold water supplies, heating systems and drainage networks. Their work plays an essential role in modern life, providing everything from clean drinking water to central heating. So how do you become a plumber? Is a plumbing career for you?

A plumbing career involves

If you wish to start a plumbing career you may work on plumbing systems in domestic, industrial or commercial premises. A plumbers tasks include:

  • fitting / repairing hot and cold water systems, tanks and pipework
  • fitting and servicing gas / oil-fired central heating, boilers and radiators
  • installing and repairing domestic appliances such as showers
  • installing and servicing air-conditioning and ventilation units
  • preparing / fitting sheeting, joints & flashings on roofs and chimneys
  • fixing and clearing drainage and guttering

Some plumbers specialise in sheet metal work on industrial, commercial and historical buildings; cutting, shaping and fitting sheeting materials made from aluminium, copper, lead and zinc.

Plumbers can take their plumbing career in various directions:

  • heating
  • ventilation
  • refrigeration
  • gas fitting
  • air-conditioning
  • kitchen and bathroom fitting

If you start a plumbing career you may wish to opt for self-employment due to the flexibility it offers.

Difference between a plumber and a heating engineer?

Some plumbers work as wet only plumbers, dealing with piped systems for water such as fitting bathrooms, radiators and sprinkler systems. Others choose to branch out into the gas industry so they can install gas central heating systems along with other wet plumbing systems.

These plumbers are legally obliged to become registered with the Gas Safe Register after passing their Approved Certification Scheme (ACS).

A plumbers hours and environment

If you start a plumbing career, you can anticipate working a 40 hour week with the option to work overtime. If your employer offers a 24-hour call-out service, you will be expected to work irregular hours. You will work both indoors, often in confined spaces, and outdoors in all weathers.

Plumbers skills and interests

Being a plumber is a physical job; you will have to be prepared to get your hands dirty, learn to use many tools and equipment in a safe and proper fashion, have a head for heights, be willing to fit into small, cramped spaces (under sinks etc) and you will need to be a quick learner.

Below are a few attributes that help to make a good plumber:

  • the ability to follow technical drawings and plans
  • good practical and problem-solving skills
  • a careful and methodical approach to work
  • normal colour vision (for some work)
  • a reasonable level of fitness
  • an awareness of safety issues and legal regulations
  • the ability to work as part of a team and alone
  • good customer care skills

Training for a plumbing career

It takes years of training to become a plumber. It calls for a dedication to lifelong learning, as the rate of technological advancement is rapid.

To be considered a qualified plumber, it’s recommended that you gain the NVQ (or SVQ in Scotland) Level 2 and 3 in Mechanical Engineering Services (MES): Plumbing (Domestic).

  • Technical Certificates Level 2 & 3
  • City & Guilds (6129) Technical Certificates Level 2 Basic Plumbing Studies and Level 3 Plumbing Studies – you can take these if you do not have any work experience.The technical certificates (6129) do not prove occupational competence as a plumber, only the full NVQ qualification can do this. The technical certificates are open to people of all ages but competition for places is strong. They cover the theory and some practical skills needed to move onto the NVQ qualification, including:- hot and cold water systems

    – sanitation systems
    – central heating pipework
    – health and safety

  • City & Guilds (6089) NVQ Level 2 and 3 in Mechanical Engineering Services (MES): Plumbing (Domestic) – you can only move on to the NVQ once you have gained work experience, either through employment or a work placement.
  • Level 3 NVQ/SVQ contains three additional assessments:

    – NVQ Level 2 and 3
    -water Regulations (Bye-Laws in Scotland)
    – unvented Hot Water Systems
    – ACS gas safety

    N.B. Plumbing colleges and training centres set their own entry requirements which are likely to include an aptitude test.

    There are organisations offering short intensive training courses and some offering home-study options to become a plumber. To be industry-recognised, the courses must be accredited by City & Guilds (C&G) and lead to the technical certificate (6129) or NVQ (6089). You can check if they do by contacting your regional C&G office with the course and training provider’s details.

    Sadly there are many reported causes of rogue plumbing training companies so check out the company before you sign up for anything. The industry is working to find a solution to this problem, but it is complex as these training providers are operating within the law. Don’t get ripped off by rogue trainers.

    If you are considering a plumbing career do your homework on what the industry requires of you, both in terms of qualifications and on site experience. Otherwise you risk losing your hard earned money and wasting your time undertaking worthless training courses.

    Plumbing apprenticeships

    You may be able to start your plumbing career as an apprentice with a plumbing or engineering company. Most apprentices start at 16 to 19, but entry may be possible up to 24, depending on availability of places. There is currently very little provision for Adult Apprenticeships in England but there are limited pilot schemes in Wales. Check with local employers, colleges and training centres for details or visit the government’s apprenticeships sites for England and Wales.

    Overseas qualified plumbers

    If you are qualified from outside the UK, contact the Joint Industry Board for Plumbing to find details about how to register as a qualified plumber. You will need proof of qualifications you’ve obtained in your home country.

    Plumbers and building regulations

    When you start a plumbing career you must make sure that their work complies with relevant Building Regulations and legal requirements.

    Part L of the Building Regulations – Energy Efficiency

    Part L states that plumbers and heating engineers fitting new boilers must hold the City & Guilds Certificate in Energy Efficiency for Domestic Heating (6084). This certifies that you are qualified to carry out the work in line with Part L requirements. Contact the Energy Efficiency helpline (in Further Information) or visit the Skills4business website for more details.

    Part P of the Building Regulations – Electrical Safety

    Part P states that certain types of household electrical work must be approved by a certified contractor or building inspector. You can certify your own work by completing a short Part P training course. See the Part P contacts in Further Information for details about certification training schemes, entry requirements and information about the electrical work that requires approval.

    Plumbers salary expectations

    Plumbing career salary guideline figures:

    • Short plumbing courses 
    • Newly qualified plumbers between £16,500 and £21,000
    • Experienced plumbers between £21,000 and £30,000 a year
    • Plumbers with supervisory duties can earn up to £35,000
    • Self-employed plumbers can negotiate their own rates

    Key messages for prospective plumbers

    • Skill shortages publicised a few years ago no longer as acute
    • Wages have settled in line with other trades
    • The industry recognised standard for plumbing is N/SVQ Level 3
    • Complaints about poor training should be referred to SummitSkills

    Plumbing links

    • Summit Skills – routes to plumbing, training and qualifications
    • IPHE – Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering
    • Women in Plumbing – network for women working in the plumbing
    • BPEC – British Plumbing Employers Council
    • SNIPEF -Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation

    So do you still want to become a plumber? If so, good luck with your plumbing career!