Every time you turn the knob on your water faucet or gas stove, or flush a toilet, say a little thanks to the unseen tradespeople who keep things flowing smoothly. After all, our gas and water doesn't just magically appear to make life easier. Someone has to design and build the complex piping systems that deliver them to us. That someone is a pipefitter.
Pipefitters are the professionals who design, build and install all types of piping systems for commercial, industrial and residential buildings. They are typically part of the building construction team, installing pipes to carry water, gas or chemicals. They also maintain and repair systems when the building is complete. The systems they build might be water, hydraulic, heating and refrigeration, condensation, air, steam, chemical or gas.
Pipefitters often start with a blueprint, reading the drawings to decide how best to do their jobs. They might also determine the type of pipes that will best fit the structure and the tools needed to build it. They measure, cut, solder, bend, thread and install valves to puzzle the pieces into the finished system, then test the system for leaks. Installation takes dozens of specialized tools, including chain cutters, pipe bending and threading machines, pipe wrenches, screwdrivers and welding torches.
There's more than one road to becoming a pipefitter. Most enter the field through an apprenticeship that combines several years of classroom education and on-the-job training, working under the supervision of an experienced pipefitter. Trade unions often offer paid apprenticeships that let students start at much lower wages than journeyman pipefitters and gradually earn more as their skills increase. You can also earn two-year degrees in pipefitting and steamfitting at some community colleges.
Job Outlook and Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups pipefitters under the broader job category of "Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters." The BLS predicts that the number of jobs for these workers will increase 26 percent from 2010 to 2020, with an estimated 107,600 new jobs created in that time. That compares to a 14 percent projected growth rate for all occupations. According to the BLS, the median wage for pipefitters, plumbers and steamfitters was $46,660 a year as of May 2010. The top 10 percent of earners made more than $79,920 a year. Starting rates for apprentices is usually between 30 and 50 percent of the wages paid to their experienced, licensed colleagues.
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