How to Become a Plumber: Part 4, Getting Started

There are several paths into the trade, depending upon where you live. You’ll have to research your options. In some places a labor union has the trade locked down. You can play ball with them or relocate to a freer place.

I my case, as I said earlier, I answered an ad and filled out an app at Roto-Rooter. They were glad to train a beginner because they could teach me their way. Although they were a full-service plumbing company, I learned the small subset known as drain cleaning. Most plumbers, I have found, dislike drain cleaning because they don’t do it full-time and, therefore, they aren’t good at it. When you’re not good at something, it is frustrating. A plumber will get mad and declare that the pipe needs to be ripped out and replaced, but a real drain man will stay with it, finagle, fiddle, and utter voodoo spells until he finds the key that unlocks the door and allows sewage to flow once again. We’re a special breed. The plumbing trade needs drain men badly. If I had been willing to stay at Roto-Rooter, I could have made more money as a drain man than I presently make as a licensed plumber who owns his own business.

Shops advertise. Check around. If you’re changing careers, it may seem humbling to hire on as a helper (and you may need a wife’s income to make ends meet until you get a raise), but I assure you that the shops are starving for good men. If you have the kind of honor and integrity that I described in the last chapter, they’ll have you running the joint by Christmas (so that they can have some time off!) and your compensation will be moving up right along with your job responsibilities.

After a decade or so of working for plumbing shops, I went into business for myself with what is called in Tennessee a “state contractor’s license.” This was created as a way for people to enter trades without going the old union route of helper > apprentice > journeyman > master. I had to get references to sign off on my qualifications and I had to sit for about six hours of tests. I also had an accountant prepare a financial statement showing that I was solvent. It wasn’t easy. You have to have already worked in the trade in order to apply for such a license, but it did allow me to get away from the shops and go on my own.

A shop may run an ad, a friend may introduce you to his boss, or you might just fill out a generic job application form such as this and carry it through the front door with a big ol’ smile: “Hi, I’m Kevan Barley and I’m looking for a job. I wanted to drop off this application and maybe shake hands with the right person if he or she is available.” I’m speaking literally: most plumbers are either drunks or dopeheads. When a quality guy comes in and politely asks if he can leave a job app, it’s like a drink of water in the desert. “Are you a plumber?” “No, I’m just a good worker, but I hope to be a plumber one day. For now, I’m hoping maybe the shop could use a good worker.” Someone will probably ask you to have a seat. If not, expect a phone call before the day’s end.

Not all shops are equal. Try to find out where the best men work, or who has the best reputation. A manager at a plumbing supply house might know. You could ask your friends to ask their plumber, if they have one. Word tends to get around. If you hire on and a shop disappoints you, you’ll know where the best shop is after a year and you can change employers if you want to. Always leave on good terms.