Lynn Farrington (25), self-employed
How did you get into the job? I got into the job because I was ripped off by a plumber who was fixing my bathroom. As I've always been very good with my hands, I was watching him and thinking 'I could do that'. I just didn't have the confidence or the formal qualifications to do the job myself. When I got the bill, I nearly had a heart attack and that gave me the impetus to go to college and learn formal plumbing skills. I did a foundation course, the initial plumbing qualification - I'm currently studying for my higher plumbing qualification.
Job history: After I initially qualified, I did a two-week stint of work experience as one of four plumbers on a building site for luxury apartments. After that, finding work was quite difficult as they were paying the minimum wage and I've got a child. This gave me the idea of going self-employed and doing basic maintenance work. I've now moved on to doing complete bathroom renovations. A lot of customers feel intimidated by have some big, burly workman wandering around their house. When they see me they feel more at ease.
Best/worst bits: I absolutely adore the job, and it might sound cheesy, but I love the look on a customer's face when they see a job well done. The one thing I really don't like is the mountain of paperwork that has to be done. My partner complains that he doesn't see me enough when I am in the house as I always have so many estimates and invoices to fill out.
Advice for wannabees: Try and get to know local plumbers and get advice from them. Hang around plumbers' merchants to see how the industry works and ask local plumbers if they need any help with jobs. Avoid 'fly-by-night' plumbing courses that claim to teach you the ropes in a couple of weeks. They're a con; you just can't learn a trade that quickly. Stick to going to the government-recognised colleges.
CV essentials: The days are gone when people would say 'Johnny's not very good at school, he can go and become a plumber'. You have to have your GCSEs behind you. English, maths and science are essential and it's good to show some practical skills on a CV.
It is possible to learn the trade on the job but the qualifications recognised in the plumbing industry are run by City & Guilds. The qualifications you will initially need are the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level 2 and 3.
- NVQ 2: You are technically a plumber once you have the City & Guilds qualification NVQ 2 (or SNVQ in Scotland) and two years' experience in the industry. NVQ 2 covers water, sanitation and drainage and usually takes two years to complete. You can generally do the course as day-release (one day at college, four on site), full-time (two or three days per week) or in the evenings (two or three evenings per week). Some colleges run a fast-track NVQ 2 in one year, although you will normally have to pay quite a lot to do this.
- NVQ 3: Most self-employed and professional plumbers have to have an NVQ 3 which normally takes up to two more years and covers system design, gas, unvented systems and water regulations.
- Alternative routes: There are also private colleges which provide plumbing courses of varying length, cost and quality. New Career Skills is one of them and others advertise on the web. Be careful when applying to these as you have to be aware that you will not receive a City & Guilds qualification at the end of these courses.
Plumbers install, maintain and repair water supplies, sanitation and waste disposal systems in domestic and commercial premises. They also work with various types of heating systems. Plumbers work to plans and diagrams, and all completed work must comply with strict building regulations.
Plumbers usually work a 40-hour week but lots of plumbers work overtime.
You can apply to do these courses at the Level 2 and Level 3 technical certificates at a college or training centre. There is a lot of competition for the places at the training colleges and there is also likely to be an aptitude test.
Technical certificates cover the theory, fundamental knowledge and some practical skills required to move on to the NVQ qualifications. They don't prove occupational ability as a plumber, only the NVQ can do this. But, the technical certificates can be used as a stepping stone to employment within the building services sector.
In addition to formal training the skills and interests that it's important to have are: a good level of physical fitness; good problem-solving; a methodical approach to tackling a job; not to have a fear of heights, as many outdoor jobs will involve ladder work; be able to work as part of a team as well as alone; be able to drive.
Personality/Who it would suit
It takes years of training to become a plumber and the pace of change in technology is rapid. Because of this, perseverance and a love of learning is vital. You will need to have an understanding of science and on a day-to-day basis you will need to have a good head for heights and be able to carry out heavy-duty work.
Plumbers play a very important role in society that is vital to public health (taking into account clean water, heating systems and sanitation). And how could we do without central heating and hot baths? Because of this, prospects for qualified plumbers are very good because of the need for skilled workers. With the right skills and training, plumbers can transfer into the ventilation, heating, electrical, refrigeration and air-conditioning industries. There are also opportunities for people to progress into design consultancy, management and teaching.
The salaries vary nationally with the highest salaries being in London and the south-east of England. The starting salaries of newly qualified plumbers range from £17,000 to £21,000. Experienced plumbers can earn much more depending on workload.
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Pros and cons
by Mo Kanneh