Get in the Trade

Become a Plumber

I found a great blog by a mystery plumber who has kindly let us feature an article regarding his views on what it’s like to become a plumber

So mystery plumber, should I become a plumber?

First off, if you are being drawn to plumbing by tales of vast wealth, Porsche transit vans and solid gold Armani basin spanners, think again. The average wage of a plumber in the UK is £26K per annum. Not a bad wage really, but this ‘average’ is quite distorted. This figure includes the wages of Central London plumbers, it omits to mention that 95% of plumbers have been in the industry for more than 20 years, and to make this figure even more warped it includes Gas and Heating engineers, or ‘the Gentry’ as we mere mortals refer to them.
The other myth is that there is a nationwide shortage of plumbers. Yes, there are some areas of the country where plumbers are as thin on the ground as pink Unicorns but there are also many areas of the country that are positively awash with plumbers. If you want to become a plumber do a quick check. How many plumbers advertise each week in your local paper? Less than five and you might be in an area that has a shortage. More than 10 and there are lots of local plumbers already struggling. So do your research before taking the plunger.

What’s the best way to become a plumber?

If you’re a school leaver the best route to become a plumber is to get taken on by a plumber, do your apprenticeship and get your NVQ 2 & 3. Finding a company to take you on can be difficult, so if you’re really interested in plumbing do a Certificate Level 2 in Plumbing as an evening class. For the first year this is exactly the same course as the NVQ 2, aside from an exam in employment law. It’s always possible to change from the Certificate to the NVQ during the 1st year and it gives you a whole 12 months to find an employer, whilst also showing how keen and committed you are.
If you want to become a plumber there are umpteen schemes and grants available if you hunt around so the odds are you won’t even have to pay for the 1st year of your course, and if you do it’s rarely more than about £400 for the year, which you can always off-set by applying for a career development loan.
The main advantages of doing it this way are: it’s cheap, you can do it two evenings a week – so you can earn money on the side and dip your toe into the world of plumbing rather than throw yourself in and hope it works out. You’ll be meeting people who are already working for plumbing companies which, assuming you don’t have the social skills of a damp log, should vastly increase the changes of getting an apprenticeship yourself.
If you’re of a more mature nature it’s still worth trying to find a plumber to take you on as an apprentice. Yes, you’ll be on the minimum wage for at least two years but it’s the broadest introduction into the industry. More and more companies are realising that older applicants are often more reliable and committed than school leavers, so the chances of landing an apprenticeship to become a plumber are not as remote as you might think. Again, getting on a part time Certificate Level 2 course might be a better move than an intensive course. It can be done without leaving your current job, you have a year to reflect and gain more information, you get to meet other plumbers and decide if this really is for you … And all before you’ve spent a small fortune on intensive training.

What about an intensive plumbing course?

We did one because Sugs’ working hours were so long he didn’t have a chance to do an evening course, and because I was redundant and didn’t fancy a part-time course. It cost an arm and a leg and, on reflection, I don’t think the cost was really justified. Yes, the training we received was superb, but the difference in price between a college course and an intensive course is just too large.
The most important thing to ask before signing up for an intensive course is what qualification will you get from it? There are still companies that just offer an internal ‘certificate’. This is very nice of them and no doubt the resulting certificate will look very impressive on the living room wall. Alas, the only people who’ll recognise the certificate are the guys that hand them out and you… Because it’s hanging on your living room wall. It won’t help you to become a plumber outside of that company.
These days many of them talk about delivering an NVQ2 in a couple of months. I can’t see how this is possible as the NVQ requires supervised work based assessments, which would seem impossible to do unless you’re already working for a plumber, in which case why are you doing an intensive course? I suspect that they are just offering the ‘theory’ side of the NVQ (C&G 6129), which is a good certificate, but it’s not a full NVQ.
Many companies just mention that you’ll get a City and Guild qualification. This is better than their own internal certificates but what’s the exact qualification? For example a C&G 3791 is a ‘Profile of Achievement’. This is not exactly the most illuminating of titles and I suspect that if you took this certificate to a prospective employer the lights might go off all together.
Our experience was that, whilst the course we did was not recognised by the industry, it did cover everything you’d find in an NVQ2, without the work based assessment, and gave us enough experience to get started. However, of all the people who did the course at the same time as us, about 50% went back to their old jobs within 12 months and I dare say as little as 10-20% actually went on to become a plumber.
If you are thinking of going self employed most of these intensive courses will deliver enough to get you up and running but you’re best off following this up with more ‘traditional’ training. If you want to become a plumber but work for someone else I’d first check if the certificate at the end of the course is something your prospective employer recognises and if they approve of intensive courses as the way to achieve these certificates – most don’t.

Still determined to plumb your way to happiness… 

What can you expect if you become a plumber?

If you’re looking to go self employed then the chances are you’ll spend most of your time fitting bathrooms, changing taps and fixing leaks. Most intensive courses will prepare you for much of this, but for bathrooms you’ll also need basic joinery and tiling skills. What most courses tend to omit are the little things i.e. If you become a plumber you’ll do a lot of your work in tiny, tiny little spaces, waste pipes come in a variety of types, which aren’t compatible with each other and Kitchen sinks are usually fitted by people who have no intention of every coming back to service or replace the taps. In other words, kitchen taps are an absolute nightmare to replace.
There’s a temptation when you start to do everything; the plumbing, the joinery, the tiling, the plastering, the electrics. My advice would be to fight this temptation. When we started up the best bit of advice we got was to get good at one thing first. So we would do the plumbing and the joinery but bring other tradesmen for everything else. The advantage of this was that we got to know a load of other tradesmen in our area, built up good working relationships with them and got referrals in return. We even got paid by the client for organising everyone else so, whilst we didn’t make quite as much money, we got to spend it on lunch at the pub whilst everyone else sweated away in bathrooms and lofts.
These days we tend to do most of our own tiling, only passing on the work if we’re too busy or if the tiling looks a bit complicated. We still pass on all the electrics, mainly because the testing equipment required by Part P costs an arm and a leg, our insurance would go up if we did move in to electrics and we really can’t be bothered to spend our days poking cables down stud walls and crawling through lofts.
We find plumbing fun and really enjoy the lifestyle but it’s not necessarily suited to everyone. When you become a plumber you can spend a lot of time working on your own. It can be stressful, kneeling in a stranger’s kitchen trying to look calm and knowledgeable as jets of water shoot over your head. It isn’t a job for big people as most of the places you find yourself working in are either small, tiny or decidedly compact. If you have any DIY to do, get it done before you become a plumber as once your career involves fitting kitchens and bathrooms all day, the last thing you want to do when you get home is fit kitchens and bathrooms all evening.

Lastly do you have to have the right ears for the job?

As a tradesman it’s pretty much d’rigour that you can tuck a pencil behind your ear and then, come wind, rain or hail said pencil remains firmly behind said ear. Alas, and to my eternal shame, I can’t do this. I can just about tuck a pencil behind my ear but I then need to walk around all day like a catwalk model if it’s to stand any chance of staying there. This can be pretty disconcerting to the unwary customer and it doesn’t do much for your plumbing either. I’m currently working on an idea involving a Velcro ear stud and a reel of sellotape … But it’s still in the design stage. So if you have ears of the Lineker-esque persuasion either turn your back on the tradesman’s life or carry an awful lot of pencils about your person.
Thanks to our Mystery Plumber for telling us all about how to become a plumber – the good bits and the bad bits!

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  • Reply
    5th August 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Hello, I am currently aged 25 and working in construction over in New Zealand, I am starting a certificate in basic plumbing (level 2) in the UK in January. After reading your piece in becoming a plumber,I found it very interesting, I like to thank you for Answering a couple of questions that were going around in my head. There is just one more question I would like to ask. (Q) After passing the course what advice would you recommend for me to gain empolyment in the plumbing industry?
    Thank you for your time.
    I look forward to your reply.

  • Reply
    Miranda de Freston
    8th August 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Hello Athony thanks for the feedback – it’s always good to know our Blog is helping tradespeople.
    I came across this article today which might be of interest – must go down in history as the worst ever first day on the job as a plumber:
    Not a great way to start your career in plumbing – Click here for article!
    Should you have any more questions get in touch and I will see if I can help more.
    Have a great day! Miranda

  • Reply
    Miranda de Freston
    18th February 2008 at 3:52 pm

    Received this anonymous comment on the website:
    “dear o dear.if you find plumbing fun you are easily pleased. when i started plumbing & heating 20 years ago there was probably 40 plus in our area doing the same thing,with plenty of work to go around. now there are over 120 plus that i can name, and of that figure at least half are ‘re-trained’ from other backgrounds. now that really takes the fun out of it.
    tired, rochdale.”

  • Reply
    Andrew Smith
    11th February 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I would highly recommend if you are looking for work in the uk is you contact the or this two website have provided me with the skill and knowledge to starting my own plumbing business.

  • Reply
    10th January 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Fantastic article. Thanks!

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