Becoming a Pipefitter: Job Description & Salary Information

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A pipefitter's median annual salary is around $50,660. Is it worth the training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a pipefitter is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Pipefitter

Pipefitters and plumbers have some similar job duties. However, while plumbers deal mostly with water and gas pipes in residential and commercial settings, pipefitters work mainly in industrial settings. Below are some pros and cons that might help you decide if becoming a pipefitter is a good career fit for you.

Pros of Becoming a Pipefitter
Good job prospects (21% growth from 2012-2022 for all plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters)*
Good job security and benefits (many pipefitters are union members)*
Overtime opportunities*
Decent salary ($50,660 median annual wage for all plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters)*
Paid apprenticeship programs*

Cons of Becoming a Pipefitter
Higher-than-average risk of illness or injury*
Fluctuating hours (may have to work nights and weekends)*
May be on-call for emergencies*
Long apprenticeship (4-5 years)*
May have to work in inclement weather*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description

Primary job requirements include being able to design, install, maintain, repair, remove and replace piping and valve systems in an efficient and safe manner. Piping systems may be used to deliver or evacuate water, high and low-pressure steam, acids and slurries to or from various structures. Pipefitters may be required to work at extreme heights on scaffoldings or riggings, in confined spaces in buildings, underground or under water and in inclement weather. You may be called on to climb ladders in towers, often over 200 feet in height, lift and carry equipment or objects exceeding 50 pounds and wear cumbersome breathing apparatus all while performing your job.

A pipefitter must be able to read and interpret blueprints, manufacturers' manuals, sketches and schematics. Pipefitters need excellent manual dexterity and mechanical skill in order to properly use the necessary tools and equipment. In the process of maintaining systems, pipefitters are often required to troubleshoot. They must be able to recognize and diagnose a problem or potential problem and apply the optimal corrective or preventative measures.

Salary and Employment Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that employment opportunities for pipefitters, plumbers and steamfitters could increase 21% from 2012-2022. This is faster than the national average for all occupations. The increase may be due in part to the expected increase in construction and maintenance of factories, power plants, buildings and ships. In 2014, the BLS determined the median annual salary for the professionals in these fields to be roughly $50,660.

Education Requirements

The BLS states that trade schools and community colleges offer formal programs in pipefitting that can lead to a certificate or associate's degree. These programs may sometimes be used as a career starting point. However, most pipefitters are graduates of apprenticeship programs. In order to qualify for an apprenticeship program, you must be at least 18 years of age and hold a high school diploma or its equivalent. Programs may be offered by individual companies, most often in cooperation with the United Association, which is the union of plumbers, fitters, welders and HVAC service techs.

Apprenticeships can last as long as five years and consist of didactic and practical on-the-job training. In addition, an apprenticeship is a paid position. Apprentices are typically paid 30%-50% of what a journeyman receives. At a certain point in the program, you can decide to specialize as a plumber, fitter or HVAC technician. Once you've completed the program, having successfully passed a variety of examinations during the course, you qualify as a full-fledged journeyman pipefitter.

Licensing

Some states require pipefitters to become licensed. Though requirements vary by state, you'll typically need to complete an apprenticeship program, have 2-5 years of work experience and sit for a state-administered examination. You may need a special license to work on gas lines.

Top Skills for Pipefitters

Apprenticeship programs sponsored by the United Association contain a yearly minimum of classroom and practical training. In each year of the 5-year program, apprentices receive at least 246 hours of didactic instruction and 1,700-2000 hours of on-the-job training. Among the skills developed over the course of a program are the following:

  • Blueprint reading
  • Layout
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) drawing
  • Threading and grinding
  • Welding
  • Rigging and brazing
  • Plasma cutting
  • Valve installation and repair
  • Gas arc cutting

What Employers Are Looking for

Employers place a high value on experience when seeking pipefitters. Many employers are looking to hire physically fit applicants that are able to work under adverse conditions. Most often, employers require pipefitters to have completed an apprenticeship program that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. Depending on the job location, an employer may require that applicants be licensed by the state. Below are a few actual job postings from employers during April 2012:

  • An automobile manufacturing company in Michigan is looking for a journeyman pipefitter. Applicants must hold a U.S. Department of Labor Completion of Apprenticeship Certificate as a Pipefitter and provide proof of eight years of qualifying work experience in a manufacturing environment.
  • A Virginia company, in the aerospace and defense industry, is seeking candidates for positions as pipefitters. Applicants must be willing to work under extreme conditions, at great heights in a shipyard environment. Applicants must be willing to work varied, assigned shifts as necessary. Applicants may be tested by the company for specific job-related abilities and qualifications.
  • A manufacturing company in Alabama wants to hire a pipefitter with at least one year of job experience. Applicant should hold or be willing to test for a Class B Commercial Driver's License.
  • A petrochemical manufacturing company in Texas seeks a mature pipefitter with good interpersonal skills. Applicant should have completed an approved apprenticeship program and have at least two years of qualifying experience. Applicant should be willing to work at great heights and be able to lift and carry 60 pounds unassisted.
  • An Illinois automotive and parts manufacturer is looking for a plumber-pipefitter who has completed an approved apprenticeship program or has at least eight years of work experience or a combination of both. Applicant must be qualified in blueprint reading, grinding, layout and installation. Additionally, good knowledge of pneumatic, fluid and steam systems is necessary.

How to Stand out in the Field

According to the BLS, some journeymen pipefitters decide to specialize in a certain area. Specialization may require extra training, but it could distinguish you from the crowd. Some typical specializations include:

  • Sprinklerfitters (install and repair fire sprinkler systems)
  • Steamfitters (install and repair pipes that move steam under high pressure)
  • Gasfitters (install and repair pipes that provide clean oxygen to hospital patients)

You can further increase your visibility and employability potential by becoming a master pipefitter. Individual states set their own requirements for a master pipefitter designation. For example, Massachusetts requires applicants to have held a license as a journeyman pipefitter for at least 2,000 hours. Applicants must also have completed 100 hours of American Society of Mechanical Engineers code instruction in areas such as boiler and pressure vessel code and power and process piping.

Alternative Career Paths

Boilermaker

If you're interested in a similar occupation that has a slightly higher mean annual wage, consider becoming a boilermaker. Boilermakers install, maintain, repair and replace large containers, such as boilers and vats, that are meant to hold and store liquids or gasses. Generally, boilermakers learn their trade by way of a 4- to 5-year apprenticeship program sponsored by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. You'll need a high school diploma or its equivalent to qualify for an apprenticeship program. The job can be hazardous because of the work environment and the use of dangerous tools.

The BLS projected that employment opportunities for boilermakers were expected to increase 21% from 2010-2020. This is faster than the national average for all occupations. Even though boilers last a long time, there is a need for constant maintenance and upgrading. In 2011, the BLS determined the mean annual salary for boilermakers to be about $57,000.

Millwright

If you're not particularly interested in plumbing, but would like a physical job with similar earning potential, you might think about becoming a millwright. Millwrights deal with the installation, assembly, disassembly, repair, removal and reassembly of machines. In order to do their jobs quickly and correctly, millwrights must have a firm grasp of the function of the machine in question. Through the use of hand tools, welding equipment and sophisticated measuring devices, millwrights see to it that what comes apart, goes back together safely and correctly.

According to the BLS, job opportunities for millwrights are expected to increase only five percent from 2010-2020. This may be due to an expected decrease or a de facto moratorium on the general purchase of new equipment by industry over that time period. Therefore, even though opportunities are expected to increase, it's at a much slower rate than the national average for all occupations. In 2011, the BLS determined that the mean annual wage for millwrights was about $51,000.

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