Heard the stories of city slickers giving up their six-figure salaries to become plumbers? Civvy Street unblocks the hype to uncover the real opportunities offered by this vital trade.

Six years ago Bruce Greig worked in the City of London. He needed a new sink fitted in his kitchen, and so naturally called on the services of a plumber. Little did he realize that the experience would inspire him to change career.

“I literally spent three days waiting for various plumbers to come,” he says. “The only one who eventually turned up (late) wanted to charge an extortionate amount and insisted on replacing the existing (brand new) pipework.” Eventually, Bruce ended up doing the job himself, and realized that there were probably similar jobs around the house that could be done by a smart, flexible handyman. “So I resolved to set up a business which would offer better service, and lower prices, than I had experienced.”

Bruce’s company, 0800handyman, has since gone on to win several business awards and, for the last two years, has been expanding its geographical reach through franchise operations across the UK. His success demonstrates that skilled trades such as plumbing can be the basis of a good and worthwhile career.

Around the time Bruce was getting started, newspapers were full of stories of a growing shortage of qualified plumbers – particularly in London and the south-east of England. In a classic example of the effect of market forces, this shortage was pushing up plumbers’ hourly rates to almost unbelievable levels. As a result people were swapping their suits for overalls and allegedly earning in excess of £70k a year.

Things aren’t quite that simple, though. “We know that a lot of professional people changed their careers to become plumbers,” says Carol Cannavan of The Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (IPHE), “but I would be surprised if many of them are still working in the industry. To be a successful plumber you have to be a problem solver and enjoy the hands-on aspect of the work. Although the media gave the impression that a fortune can be made by being a plumber, this is not the case generally.”

It’s going to be even less likely in the future, again thanks to the vagaries of supply and demand. “During the early 2000s the industry experienced a shortage of plumbers,” says Clive Dickin, Chief Executive Officer at the Association of Plumbing & Heating Contractors (APHC). “Such has been the explosion of interest since then that there are now far more new entrants than can ever gain full employment.” However, that doesn’t automatically mean that plumbing’s career potential is going down the drain. “There is now a skills gap,” Carol Cannavan tells us, “which isn’t quite the same thing as a skills shortage. There are thousands of people working as plumbers, but not all of them are qualified or have the right skills for the job.”

Currently, anyone can call themselves a plumber and set up in business, regardless of the skills and qualifications they may – or may not – have. However, organisations such as the IPHE and SummitSkills – the sector skills council for the building services industry – repeatedly emphasise the importance of proper training and gaining the appropriate National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications (N/SVQs).

Decent qualifications are increasingly important at a time when a proliferation of so-called ‘fast track’ training establishments are claiming to turn out ‘qualified’ plumbers in as little as a fortnight. The APHC is understandably concerned about the trade’s reputation. “No way can anyone become a skilled plumber in two weeks,” says Clive Dickin. “The usual duration of an N/SVQ Level 2 course is two years, and this should also include on-site training at a reputable plumbing company. It’s not just about completing a training course; work experience in a company is also a fundamental requirement in becoming competent.”

An N/SVQ Level 2 in Plumbing requires you to have practical work experience in all aspects of plumbing – sanitation, hot and cold water installation, and central heating – while Level 3 also covers gas installation. “The N/SVQ Level 2 qualification is the bare minimum,” adds Clive Dickin. “At the Association we are committed to plumbers achieving NVQ Level 3 as 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.”

These qualifications are far from being the end in themselves; you can continue training to reach N/SVQ Level 4 or Level 5, or earn qualifications in related subjects such as welding or electrical installation; which can be useful if you want to transfer into another industry later. Continuing professional development is important because technology moves so fast, which is why the IPHE runs a range of technical evenings and seminars allowing its members to keep up to date with the latest developments in the industry.

According to the IPHE, to be a good plumber you need to be “a practical sort of person that gets satisfaction from doing a job to the best of your ability.” You also need the skills “to work out complex equations, the flexibility to install different systems, the knowledge to understand how and why different systems work, the ability and initiative to problem solve, a thirst for knowledge of new technology, a creative mind, sound judgement and – most importantly – professionalism and honesty.” Other useful attributes, according to SummitSkills, include being able to work both “on your own initiative as well as in a team,” an ability “to follow all safety instructions given by persons in authority” and being “a good communicator.”

It’s also important to remember that being a plumber is a very physical job; this is the kind of trade where you can expect to get your hands dirty – literally! – and will need to be able to carry and use a range of different tools and other equipment. Much of the work will be on-site, quite possibly in locations ranging from the small and cramped to those high above ground.

It’s a fact of life that wherever people settle down, plumbers are sure to follow. 21st century buildings require sanitation, heating, plus hot and cold water systems; it follows that we need people to install and maintain these often highly complex systems to ensure our overall health and safety.

Plumbers can work for plumbing or mechanical engineering services contractors, or directly for private companies or public sector bodies such as local councils. A significant number choose self-employment (often after a few years experience in the trade), either from scratch or buying into an existing franchise scheme. Whichever option you choose, there is the potential to go far if you have the skills. “Many plumbers,” insists the IPHE, “progress to design, consultancy, teaching and management, making the plumbing and heating industry a career with a future.”

Although many more people have entered the profession in recent years, the IPHE’s Carol Cannavan believes “there will always be opportunities for the multi-skilled person.” However, it is best to forget the stories of earning £70k-£120k a year. According to the IPHE, self-employed plumbers will earn £30k-£40k (depending upon how much time and effort they put in) while those employed by a company will earn “in the region of £25k” after a couple of years experience. It’s worth bearing in mind that you won’t necessarily have to work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5; it is possible to fit a lot of plumbing work around other commitments such as childcare.

Plumbing is not – despite what you might have heard – a fast way to get rich; indeed, like any trade, it’s something that takes time to learn – there are no short cuts when it comes to picking up experience. Gaining such skills, however, is well worth the effort; good plumbers are always in demand, it’s a trade with a future, and it can even lead to running your own business.

Singer and reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne’s first job, aged 15, was as a plumber’s assistant.

Not only was Michael ‘Lord of the Dance’ Flatley’s dad a plumber, but Flatley originally followed his dad into the profession – he even established his own company, Dynasty Plumbing.

Holywood tough guy Lee Marvin was a plumber’s apprentice before he started acting.


The Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (IPHE)
01708 472791

Association of Plumbing & Heating Contractors (APHC)
024 7647 0626

SummitSkills Ltd
08000 688 336

Learning & Skills Council
0870 900 6800