As with all UK professional trades these days, you have to put some serious time and effort into getting qualified before you can hit the ground running. The USA is no different and, in many cases, the requirements are actually more stringent. 

You don’t need a university degree to become an American plumber, but you will need a minimum of a high school diploma (or equivalent) to get the ball rolling.

Candidates must clearly demonstrate proficiency in basic Maths, English, and Algebra and, in some cases, Physics and Chemistry.

Although full time technical training programs do exist, the vast majority of newcomers enter the profession through an apprenticeship programme, working alongside an established plumber or plumbing company to gain real world experience. On average, these programs last four to five years, depending on whether the candidate wants to pursue a career in the residential, commercial, or industrial sectors, and to what level.

In the USA, because apprentices must be paid at least the minimum wage as they train and the employer is expected to foot the bill for all classroom training costs, quite often a strict pre-selection process exists. For example, in major city locations (such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) where workers are more plentiful, it’s commonplace for potential candidates to have to first prove their dedication to the job by putting in some time as a basic labourer or ‘dogsbody’ before they can land an apprenticeship contract.

At some point, a trainee has to decide the level of training they want to attain. If they are happy being a jobbing plumber (journeyman as they are known), then they can limit their training to around two years, depending on which state they intend to operate in. 

However, if they decide they want to get more involved in bigger projects, then they can push on for a master plumber license. This takes around five years, of which two must have been spent as a journeyman. Both options culminate in a strict licence exam process, but, once passed, a plumber can only operate in the state they are licenced to do so. 

If they want to break out into different regions, they will have to sit the appropriate exam, depending on the state. This may include having to partake in yet more state-specific training and, in some cases, even city-specific training. 

The exams are made up of dedicated sections that each account for a percentage mark of the overall score, broken down as ‘planning and estimating’ (21%), ‘roughing-in and top out plumbing systems’ (our first fix and second fix) (26%), ‘finish plumbing installations’ (15%), ‘service repair and general remodelling’ (not newbuild) (20%) and, finally, ‘on-site safety’ (18%).

Not only are there plumbing training exams (both practical and theory), but before a licence can be granted, the newly qualified plumber must jump through even more hoops before they can work unsupervised. For example, they must undergo a criminal background check and be fingerprinted. 

Also, part of their training covers business law to ensure they stay on the right side of the tracks and are familiar with not only their legal obligations but their customers’ legal obligations too. To make sure this part of the training has sunk in, they must pass a generalised business law exam. As with the actual plumbing exam, the business law exam is broken down into sections; ‘requirements’ (12%), ‘bonds, insurance, and liens’ (10%), ‘contract requirements and executions’ (23%), ‘licensing requirements’ (8%), ‘safety’ (15%), and ‘public works’ (7%).

A plumber that is qualified to work on gas in the UK is generally known as gas engineer or heating engineer; in effect a group within a group. However, in the USA, the terms ‘gas engineer’ and ‘heating engineer’ do not exist. Those who work on gas are still referred to as plumbers, as ‘plumbers with a license to work on gas’ – that is in effect the same as our gas/heating engineers, but without the title. In most states, once you reach master plumber status, it is a given that the tradesperson in question will hold the relevant licence to work within the gas side of the industry. 

If someone is satisfied with training to the level of journeyman, they have to be employed and cannot work for themselves. To become self-employed, they must put in the time and first become a master plumber and then can fly the nest after five years. The general feeling in the industry is that this is a good thing as it guarantees that all self-employed plumbers have a reasonable amount of prior experience before they set out on their own.

Once qualified, and as far as continuing education is concerned, most state licensing boards do not require the periodic resitting of exams, unlike with UK rules, such as the need to renew your Gas Safe-registered status, for example. They take the approach that if they are qualified and working within the industry, it is unlikely that the individual would have forget the rules and regs. 

However, they do expect people stay ahead of emerging technologies and regulation changes, and therefore encourage plumbers to join certain trade organisations that do require a small amount of continuing education – which isn’t a bad thing!