At a glance
- Average plumbing salary is £24,500
- Need to be physically fit, and be prepared to get your hands dirty and fit into small spaces
- There are few apprenticeships, and college courses can last up to three years full-time and four years part-time
- Variety of employment options are open once qualified, including contracting and self-employment
- Franchises such as Dyno-Rod offer quicker way into the trade
In the mid-1990s, few would have predicted that plumbing would become a lucrative business - and yet that is exactly what happened over the next few years, creating a new gold rush for trained personnel.
In Labour's first term the party promised that 50% of young people would go into higher education by the end of the decade. The increasing numbers of young people heading to university contributed to a declining trend in terms of the number of people taking vocational training and becoming skilled tradespeople, resulting in a shortage. Naturally, profits and wages soared.
It's no surprise that many experienced plumbers set up or buy their own businesses
Unfortunately for would-be plumbing entrepreneurs, however, the level of publicity the shortage of plumbers received a few years ago means that competition for a college place is now fierce.
"It is harder now than getting into university," says Kevin Wellman, operations director at the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers (IPHE), who warns: "This has led to the rise of intensive courses, which may be suited to some disciplines, but not for those entering the plumbing and heating industry, where practical skill, along with the mass of theory and regulations knowledge, takes years to learn."
Of the 26,000 people reported to be in training in 2006, only about 1,000 to 1,500 would have found employment, according to the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (APHC). With so many people joining the dash for cash - including brain surgeons and city slickers, if some fanciful media stories are to be believed - and an influx of plumbers from new EU countries, the skills gap has been more than plugged.
Average wages, which were exaggerated in the first place, have fallen to an average of £24.5k according to the Office of National Statistics.
No surprise, then, that many experienced plumbers set up or buy their own businesses. After a few years' hard graft, you'll hopefully be able to employ other plumbers and concentrate more on administration and marketing - and then perhaps you can earn the sort of money the papers used to talk about.
In the meantime, says the IPHE on its website, "you will have to be prepared to get your hands dirty, have a head for heights, be willing to fit into small and cramped spaces, and you will also need to be ready to carry out physically tough tasks day after day.
"It is important to do the job right - especially considering a plumber doesn't come cheap. You must be a 'people person' with good communication skills and you must take pride in your work. You have to respect people's properties and uphold high standards in plumbing to protect the public health."
The IPHE recommends that every potential plumber attains NVQ Level 3, which involves three years' full-time or four years' part-time training - and not just in practical skills. Students need to understand regulations related to health and safety, buildings and water.
Additional qualifications, such as the Gas Safe Register (formerly, CORGI), will be required if the student wants to deal with gas installations. There are a number of shorter courses, including, unbelievably, a two-week course.
But Clive Dickin, CEO at the APHC, thinks it's time to get real: "No way can anyone become a skilled plumber in two weeks. The usual duration of an NVQ Level 2 course is two years, and this should also include on-site training at a reputable plumbing company.
"The NVQ 2 qualification is the bare minimum, and as an association we are committed to plumbers achieving NVQ Level 3 as being a more realistic basis on which to serve public and commercial interests, given the technical complexity of today's plumbing systems. Despite popular perception, plumbing requires considerable skill and a broad range of technical knowledge to ensure public health and safety.
"There's an awful lot more to it than changing washers or unblocking drains."
Once qualifications have been obtained there are a number of options. Some will work for an experienced plumber with contacts, others for a larger firm.
Operating as a sole trader appeals to those who have a family and wish to have full jurisdiction over their workload. Working for a large firm provides you with a firmer guarantee of regular work, however.
For those with no previous experience of the industry, franchising is the only direct way into becoming an in-work plumber.
Dyno-Rod Plumbing is one example, and is focused on emergency plumbing work rather than the full repertoire, offering franchisees a full 'from scratch' training package. Franchisees require working capital of around £45k to start and can work from home.
The company estimates that a turnover of £120k is possible in the first year, doubling and tripling in the second and third years respectively. Although you won't have the complete autonomy of a contractor or sole trader, you will be given a 'territory' of residential and commercial properties to patrol, and you will benefit from the marketing and buying power of a large company.
Being a self-employed plumber on the other hand is very affordable, albeit at a significant cost to your time given the amount of training required. True, being a plumber is not as lucrative or as easy as media-driven hyperbole might have had you believe, but you are answerable only to yourself, and if you work hard enough you can make a decent living.
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