Plumber and Business Agent Dispatcher - Mentor, Mike Skinner
This Mentor has broad experience in the plumbing trade. After completing a five-year union apprenticeship program, he went on to work for contractors involved in school and hospital construction, rose to a supervisory position and managed crews of up to thirty people. He is currently working as a business dispatcher with the local union where he places plumbers in jobs with union contractors. Mike is passionate about his trade. In his article, he shares with you the details of what is taught in a five year plumbing apprenticeship program, how you can increase your chances of being accepted in these kinds of programs and what you need to do in order to become a successful journeyman. His article should be read by anyone interesting in the plumbing trade or any other skilled trade in the service and construction industries where apprenticeships are available.
I grew up in a town of twenty thousand near Tulsa. My family lived on five acres of land. So there was always plenty of work to do helping my parents keep up the property. When I was fourteen, I began taking typical jobs for someone that age like mowing lawns, moving dirt and rocks and hauling hay. But I wanted to learn the skills I needed to earn a good living and be able to support a family and myself once I left high school. So in my senior year I began taking classes at the local vocational school for heating and air conditioning. When I graduated from high school, I was encouraged by a friend to look into a plumbing apprenticeship that was available. I applied and was accepted. This was a five-year apprenticeship program at no cost to me where I also earned money while I trained. My pay increased every six months as I moved through the program. While I was training, I worked during the day and learned from journeyman on job sites and also took academic classes at night.
When I became a journeyman, I first worked for a plumbing contractor who was involved in building new schools and hospitals as well as water treatment plants. I worked my way up and became a supervisor in charge of teams of plumbers that ranged in size from two to thirty depending on the project. The work was interesting. We built systems not just to supply water and handle waste, but also medical gases and natural gas systems. After ten years, that contractor got into financial difficulties during a recession and went bankrupt. I was able to help successfully merge that business, including the people and equipment, with another local contractor who was better capitalized. I worked there for another 10 years.
In 2015, I went to work for the local Plumbers Union as a dispatcher. Construction contractors send notices to the union hall when they need plumbers for particular jobs. As a dispatcher, I work with journeymen looking for employment and match them to plumbing jobs with the local contractors.
What’s Involved in Being a Plumber
Before a plumber starts any job, you first have to determine the hours it is going to take to complete the job, the kind of materials, you are going to use and make sure the cost of the labor and the material is going to create value for you employer. You always want to make sure the contractors you work for make money. You do this by going over the blueprints, making sure everything is up to code and choosing the most cost effective materials and installation methods.
As a plumber, you work with a number of different kinds of materials. These include cast iron, copper, stainless steel, iron pipe and various types of plastic pipe. There are also new materials for piping being introduced like pex, which is a cross-linked polyethylene. This material is now being used in place of copper because it is less expensive and just as effective for many applications. But the selection of a material goes with the particular use. For example, when hospitals are constructed, copper is used for medical gases and polypropylene is uses in many applications where there are acids and other caustic materials in drainage systems.
Pipes can be fastened together by welding, brazing, soldering threading, mechanical joints, or no-hub coupling. This involves the beaded gasket consists of an elastomeric compound with strategically positioned grooves and beads. When tightened, the shield attaches to the grooves to provide exceptional sealing pressure and holding power.
The typical weight of the material a plumber working in construction is required to lift is between 30 and 50 pounds. If the installation is heavier than that, more than one plumber gets involved. When doing plumbing on new construction, there is a lot of kneeling. Residential plumbing also requires more bending compared to construction plumbing. Residential plumbing to me is more of a younger man’s game although I know of many people who have retired as residential plumbers.
If you can lead people and build teams, you can advance and become a plumbing supervisor. You still do a lot of physical work because you have to lead by example. But you get to choose how you work. Supervision also includes knowing how to create value by keeping the project on schedule and the costs within budget.
You can also advance into project management. This is primarily an office position where you learn the financial side of the plumbing business. Many plumbers go out and start their own companies after they have gained supervisory experience. But I would recommend that anyone considering going out on their own have some experience as a project manager. It is important to know how to properly bid a job and what hourly rate you have to charge a customer to be able to cover not just the plumber’s time but also the cost of the truck, gas tools, benefits and office overhead. These items can take up to two thirds of the hourly rate a plumbing company might charge a customer.
You also need to keep your skills up to date. Plumbers are regularly required to take classes so that they are current on new codes and new materials.
Plumber’s Apprenticeship Program
How to Prepare and Apply
- You need to know mathematics. So make sure you take basic math in high school as well as geometry.
- The selection committee will look at your high school transcript. The better your grades, the more likely you will be accepted.
- There are also some basic courses that you can take in technical and community colleges relating to plumbing and other trades. Many high schools work with these colleges and allow you to take college classes in your junior and senior years that will go towards your high school graduation. These kinds of courses can give you a leg up on other people applying for an apprenticeship.
- It is better to get into an apprenticeship program as soon as you can after high school. Once people are much over 26, I have seen that they begin to forget a lot of what was taught in high school, particularly math. This makes if harder for them to succeed in the academic part of the apprenticeship program.
- Plumbers on construction sites work as a team. Make sure that you have experience working with people in groups where you have had to support each other to reach a goal.
- Our plumbers union advertises openings in our apprenticeship program in the local media and by contacting the local community colleges and technical schools. But a lot of it is word of mouth where union members make young people they know aware of apprenticeship opportunities. You should not wait to read or hear about an apprenticeship class starting. Go to the union hall that runs these programs in your area and get your name on the list for the next program. Theoretically, everyone who applies for an apprenticeship program can be accepted. There are no longer any testing requirements. But not everyone is chosen. There is a selection process where a committee will review your high school transcripts, background and experience. Extra consideration is given to military veterans.
The Plumber’s Apprenticeship program, which is also called the pipe trades, is a five year program that teaches you to fabricate, install and service complex plumbing systems. The program also teaches you how to service and install water, gas and mechanical piping systems, fixtures in homes and commercial buildings and industrial piping systems used in manufacturing and chemical plants. There is also a strong emphasis in safety as well as how to deliver value by determine the time it should take to do a job and the kind of materials the job requires. Here is a summary of the subjects covered each year in the program:
Job safety and health
Use and Care of Tools
Rigging and Signaling
Pipe materials. Fittings, Valves, Hangers, Supports and Fasteners
History of Plumbing
Soldering and Brazing
Instrument and Tube Bending
Water Supply and Back-Flow Prevention
Plumbing fixtures and Appliance Installation, Controls and Accessories
Advanced blueprint reading and layout
Shielded metal-arc welding
Plumbing is a skilled trade with a proud heritage. The health of any community is greatly affected by the quality of their plumbing systems as well as the health and safety of the people working in buildings and manufacturing facilities. It gives you a lot of pride when you look at a hospital, school, water treatment plant or manufacturing facility that you helped construct.
It is also a skilled trade that has allowed me to earn a good living and support my family and also have health insurance and retirement benefits. As I get older and see other plumbers retiring, it is clear how important these benefits become as you grow older.
I would recommend plumbing as a career to anyone who is willing to put in an eight hour day for eight hours of pay and willing to take up the challenge of learning something new every day.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Plumbers
The median annual wage for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters was $49,140 based on the Bureau’s last survey in May of 2012. Salaries varied depending on geographic location and how they were employed in industries like construction or residential service. The top ten percent of plumbers in the survey earned $84,440 and the lowest 10% earned $29,020. The highest wages were paid in larger cities along the East and West coasts, the Great Lake states and Alaska.
There were 386,900 people employed as plumbers in 2012. The future demand for plumbers is projected by the Bureau to be strong and grow by 21% between 2012 and 2022. This means that the Bureau expects the country to need 82,300 additional plumbers over the next ten years and an equal number to fill positions as plumbers retire from the labor force.