If there’s one thing we can be sure of, plumbing isn’t easy. As a profession it demands theory and calculation whilst also presenting tricky physical problems and practical challenges in great variety. It can be very rewarding going from customer to customer solving problems and putting things right but it takes a lot of training and experience before you can do that without making big mistakes.
If you can gain that essential training and experience and enjoy the plumber’s life, plumbing can be a great way to earn a living for yourself or as part of a larger firm. It suits us down to the ground and we wouldn’t do anything else. Not only is there a national skills shortage of qualified plumbers but we’ve found plenty of the plumbers out there don’t live up to the standards we consider ‘good enough’ in some areas.
We think there’s a big need for serious and motivated people to get into the plumbing trade and to reap the rewards that come with being a successful plumber with high standards of skill and service.
So to encourage people young or older to think about a career in plumbing we made this page to share some useful information and share our own experiences, it’s hard, but you can do it if you try!
What is required to become a plumber?
If you want to work as a plumber, there are requirements in terms of qualifications and experience. To work as a Gas Safe Plumber the requirements are stricter, as is the testing, after all you can’t afford to make mistakes with a gas supply.
There are a bewildering number of qualifications relating to plumbing available and many ways to study for them. Part of the reason for this is that there are a great many plumbing specialisms (most outside of the field of household plumbing) and different types of plumbing or gas jobs require certain standards of general training and additional qualifications in those specialisms. All typical entry courses to plumbing combine both classroom training and practical experience before you reach a level where you can start calling yourself a qualified plumber. But with so much choice it can be hard to know where to start.
Options to get started with plumbing
To work as a regular water system plumber you need an accepted qualification that nearly always involves real work experience in addition to the classroom work. There are many options in how to get there.
Full-time college course
Often taken as a 2 year classroom course by 16 year olds as part of further education. A full time plumbing college course is typically followed by practical training in a placement in a real business as a junior plumber to complete a full recognised qualification. College courses are open to students of any age but come at a cost to those of us in the general public. If you aren’t a school student, local colleges have long waiting lists for these full-time courses and it can be a barrier for older people looking to become plumbers. The course is also costly, it was £28,000 for the full course last time we checked. It’s worth mentioning that financial help from the government is available in some circumstances, it’s always advisable to see if you qualify.
Fast track college course and then practical training as junior plumber
A fast-track college course is very much what it sounds like. You pay to study a basic plumbing qualification in a short intensive time (typically 10 weeks). It’s often a City and Guilds Plumbing Studies Level 2 Diploma qualification. Unlike a college course and work placement or an apprenticeship, this approach includes no practical experience and delivers a lower level of qualification and much less experience. In short without a qualification that includes work experience, you can’t become a full plumber let alone a gas-safe plumber. It is however fast and can get you started in a junior role gaining experience and working towards further qualifications that get you where you need to be. This is often best done alongside an employer, so our advice is don’t go the fast-track route unless you know exactly how you are going to move on with your career afterwards.
Apprenticeship (usually 4 years) alongside college training
Perhaps the most traditional way to learn a trade, an apprenticeship gives you regular college work alongside practical guidance on the job from your sponsor. It takes a significant commitment and investment from a plumbing business to sponsor an apprentice. But an apprenticeship will you take you through every detail of the trade. For an apprentice it means spending years earning a small income whilst working hard on jobs and working hard in college. Both sponsor and apprentice take on this challenge so that once the time has been served and the qualifications gained, the apprentice becomes a great asset to the sponsor’s business and of course gets paid at a competitive rate and starts reaping the rewards of the hard work.
It is our view that apprenticeship is the hardest route and yet that makes it the best. There needs to be real trust between sponsor and apprentice but great plumbing teams are built by making investments in good people. At SC Plumbing, Sheryl is studying a City & Guilds Level 3 Diploma in Plumbing and Domestic Heating as an apprenticeship with Shaun. This qualification will set her up to become Gas Safe registered not long after finishing the apprenticeship but it also means Sheryl will have attended literally thousands of plumbing jobs alongside Shaun by the end of her 4 year apprenticeship. You can’t ‘fast track’ that kind of experience and the proficiency it brings.
Work as a plumbers mate
Sometimes a qualified plumber will hire an assistant who’ll learn the trade on the job. This can earn you a wage and expose you to the work of plumbing but without formal training, you can never become qualified and take on jobs on your own. In the right situation working as a plumber’s mate could be the start of realising you want to commit to plumbing and progress to training or an apprenticeship with your employer. We wouldn’t advise just working as a plumber’s mate for the long term because you won’t gain the full range of skills or many qualifications or reap the rewards that go with them.
Becoming a Gas Safe plumber
Before you can get Gas Safe registered, you will need to take get your ACS in Gas. This stands for Accredited Certification Scheme and it’s the industry recognised route to be assessed and gain the certificate of competence required to join the Gas Safe Register.
At the core of this certification is the CCN1 assessment in gas safety. There are other assessments for different aspects of gas work but the CCN1 is mandatory for all. These assessments do not forgive errors and require all to display an expert knowledge and proficiency in a range of subjects like gas regulations, gas pipe work, gas analysis and gas control. These rigorous standards ensure gas work is done properly across the U.K and reduces the number of awful mistakes to a minimum, we’re glad to be tested so hard.
The requirements to apply to become a Gas Safe Plumber and be assessed can be quite complicated because there are lots of valid qualifications out there and many different types of Gas Safe qualification codes (that enable you to do different aspects of gas work). Find out more from Gas Safe about how to become Gas Safe Registered.
How Shaun did it
I left the Army a qualified mechanic and I wanted to get into something more stable than the mechanic industry. I chose plumbing because it seemed to allow me to be independent and run my own business my way.
I applied and funded myself to do an NVQ night school course in plumbing over 2 years.
After that course I got a job fitting bathrooms and worked there for 2 years. I also did a plastering course and starting fitting bathrooms for myself for a few years.
I was working as a lorry driver alongside doing my own bathroom work to fund my plumbing studies. It was very very hard work.
A few years later when I was comfortable with water plumbing I went to night school again for 2 years to get an NVQ in gas plumbing. Again it was very tough going to night school alongside working in the days, the courses aren’t cheap but it was the only way to get qualified.
Once I had my NVQ in gas I moved on to becoming Gas Safe registered plumber and started working for myself offering a full range of plumbing services. I have since done a range of courses and continue to work toward further qualifications to work in fields like oil heating. I’m very glad I went through the hard work to get qualified.
How Sheryl is doing it
Sheryl first approached local colleges enquiring about plumbing courses. At first the waiting list appeared to be a matter of years and although government funding was available to cover course costs of around £28,000 there appeared to be no way to get started any time soon.
After looking into various options she talked to a plumber who recently quoted her for a boiler. This plumber turned out to be Shaun of SC Plumbing. After some conversation it became apparent that some COVID related funding was available to contribute to the cost of an apprenticeship and they started to make a plan.
The colleges had long waiting lists for 2 year full-time courses but actually had availability for apprenticeship courses without delay. So for many months now Sheryl has attended college once a week learning theory whilst spending the rest of the week out on the road with Shaun learning in person.
Find out more about Sheryl’s career in plumbing so far.
Our tips for people thinking of a career in plumbing
Aim to excel and exceed expectations
Being an expert plumber isn’t easy, from the theory work to using tools expertly in awkward spaces. Simply aiming to ‘get through’ your training or once qualified, ‘get through’ your jobs will slow your progress and disappoint your customers. In plumbing it profits you to aim for excellence, learn everything in as much detail as possible and work hard to turn best-practise into firm habits. There’s a shortage of plumbers in the U.K but the shortage of excellent plumbers is even more severe, aim to be an excellent plumber and work hard toward that goal every day.
Work with the best
It really pays to get experience working alongside well trained plumbers with high standards. What you learn on the job will shape your habits for the rest of your career. If you get placed with someone excellent, that will set you up to build on that excellence, if you work with a sloppy plumber, that’s not good news for your habits.
Earning your stripes takes hard work
Be prepared to work hard for little immediate reward for years to become fully trained. Serve your time and get the best out of your training and it’ll set you up for life.
Keeping up to date takes continuous learning
When you are qualified, you can expect to work hard for a good reward but you’ll need to work toward further qualifications and update your knowledge to truly become a master plumber and remain one. The range of plumbing specialisms is vast, regulations change and technology changes. Becoming a fully qualified plumber able to work with domestic gas is quite an achievement but it’s only the start. A truly great plumber has ambitions to further their skills and maybe adopt some specialist qualifications and they stay up to date with regulation changes and the technology behind boiler systems. If you build-in investing in knowledge into your working week, it allows you to grow and prosper as a plumber and maximise your options and earning potential.
Tips for women wanting to become plumbers
We’re aware that there aren’t that many women in plumbing. Both Shaun and Sheryl want to convey their support for any woman who is interested. As such we’ve put together some top tips for women interested in a career in plumbing.
Expect the industry to welcome you
Sheryl will testify that in her experience few people treated her any differently as a woman. In fact there has been far more extra positivity from classmates, tutors and customers who’ve found themselves working with Sheryl.
The physical aspect can be challenging
This advice applies to everyone but Sheryl has found some of the physical tasks hard to handle and at first doing them day after day was very tiring. After months of only taking on heavier and heavier tasks, Sheryl finds it easier to handle, in part because of better technique reducing the need to do it all with strength and in part because she’s become physically stronger and more used to the workload. Determination and patience will get most people through the physical challenge of the job but it drives it home that being fit and fully-functional is essential to your livelihood as a plumber.
Customers are overwhelmingly positive
So far Sheryl has been greeted with some surprise but always with acceptance and support by customers. Many have said they prefer having a woman in their house than an unknown man. So if you’re thinking of becoming a female plumber, it’s unlikely to count against you.
You can do it!
Sheryl has found that the path to becoming a plumber is largely the same for women as for men. There may be some extra physical challenges but there are positives too. If you put your mind to it and learn to be an excellent plumber you have as good a chance as any man at making an excellent living as a plumber. You can do it.
Government advice from the National Careers Service
Information about Government financial support for vocational courses
Full list of Gas safe recognised qualifications
Advice from Gas Safe about becoming Gas Safe Registered
List of qualifications recognised by the Water Safe organisation