6 Lessons I Learned as a Plumbing Apprentice

Plumbing: it’s an amazing career. But for an apprentice just starting out in this trade, there’s a lot to learn. It’s easy to make mistakes. As a journeyman plumber with 17 years in the trade, I’ve definitely taken my lumps. Don’t worry: if you’re looking to carve out a plumbing career, I’m here to help. Here are 6 lessons I learned as a plumbing apprentice.

1. Show a genuine interest in learning.

When I started, my attitude was simple: “Yes, sir, no sir,” and “Yes ma’am, no ma’am.” But I didn’t always pick up what everybody was putting down. By watching apprentices that were older than me, I learned to get more involved in the work the journeymen around me were doing. If a journeyman was working on a piece of pipe, as he went to measure it, I would grab his saw for him. It was simple, but when he set that tape measure down, the saw was right there and ready for him. This kind of hands-on approach showed that I was really paying attention to what he was doing and how the process worked.

Be that apprentice that’s there and ready for the next task. I know when I’m plumbing with an apprentice dnd I’m cutting a piece of pipe, I love to see them hand me a deburring tool — I know they’re thinking about the next step in this process and how we’re putting this pipe together. There’s a purpose to all of this. If somebody has a passion, you can really pick up on it.

2. Ask a lot of questions.

Here’s what they told me when I started in this thing: payday was on Friday, don’t bite your nails, and poop runs downhill. But . . . why did we size this water closet with a three inch drain line? Why was it mandatory to have a two-inch vent? Why were there these certain requirements? And those were questions that I didn’t necessarily ask — because in the beginning, I was overwhelmed. There was so much information! I would focus on the task in front me that was it. But I should have asked questions to the journeyman I worked with: “Hey, what is this half-inch water line coming up right here for? What is a water closet?”

Today, as a journeyman plumber, I appreciate getting a lot of questions. And if a journeyman’s not willing to explain what’s going on to an apprentice, then he’s really not fit to be in that position. The only way this trade is going carry on is by teaching the new generation of plumbers. So, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If somebody’s  gruff at you for asking a question, just be open about it. Say, “Hey, I want to understand this more so I can be better at benefitting you and benefitting the company.”

3. Keep up on your coursework.

Man, I did not like school. I didn’t want to go to college because I did not want to do homework. I thought: the original four year degree, the apprenticeship! This’ll be easy! I go to work and they’ll pay me to go to school and I won’t have to do any more homework! Boy, was I wrong. A week before I needed to renew my license, I hadn’t done any studying. Now I was suddenly forced to cram 360 days’ worth of information into just a few days. I finally realized the harsh truth: not only am I not really understanding the material, but I’m not able to apply it every day at work, either.

Plumbers have a certain code that we follow — it’s basically our Bible: the Uniform Plumbing Code. Once I started to apply myself to learning the code, things started to stick out. All of a sudden I was on the job site and thought, “Oh, okay, that’s a wet vent. Now I understand this. Oh, that’s a continuous waste.” There were things that just started poking out to me because I was involved in that coursework.

Making schematic drawings also helped me immensely. Water pipe sizing. Waste sizing. Taking actual residential houses and plumbing them out on a piece of paper. Now, I may not have been able to walk into the building at that time and plumb it out, but I could definitely tell you the fixture load and what was going take place and what the pipe needed to be. And it was because I got myself involved in the book. Information means money in this business. If you can learn this code and actually apply it out in the field, you’ll make good money and advance a lot faster. I know I could have definitely advanced a lot faster if I would’ve taken it more seriously from day one.

4. Check your ego at the door.

Boy, does this one hit home for me. Once plumbing became a real career for me and I started picking up on the bookwork, I started getting a big head. I wanted to be that knight in shining armor — here at Williams we call it the “master apprentice.” In other words, I was a know-it-all. And someone who thinks they know it all can negatively change the dynamic of how a job site works.

People around the shop want camaraderie. They want fellowship and teamwork and unity. My inflated ego? It ostracized me from everybody else, because I stopped thinking about how I could help the team and cared only about myself. It took a couple years to realize this. My problem was my know-it-all attitude —  and I wasn’t even a journeyman yet! If you check your ego at the door, your career will take off a lot faster.

5. Be neat.

Think about the word plumbing itself: it’s stuff that’s level. I can see when I walk into a room if a pipe has grade or if it has back grade. I can tell when that plumber was drilling out those holes if they were putting it a quarter inch per foot on the grade.

Among the plumbers that have taught me, there’s one man that stands out. When he ran his waste pipe, he took time to line the letters up all on the face of the pipe — when you turned a corner, you could read them from left to right. It was like a story. All those letters perfectly lined up!

This stuck with me. It’s just focusing on the cleanliness of the product, even though it’s going be buried behind sheetrock or buried underneath the ground or buried in the ceiling. When we walk away from a job, we should have a feeling of, “Yeah, man, I did a good job on this.” It also says something about the company that you work for. When I come to work, I’m a representation of the name on the t-shirt, and I want them to look the best. I want to trust that when an inspector comes in with the general contractor, they won’t have a ton of questions. The work will look good, clean, and neat.

Neat work, especially when you’re an apprentice, takes time. Don’t worry. Over the course of four years in an apprenticeship, you will get faster at it. But starting from day one, take pride in what you do.

6. Collect as many tools as you can.

During my third year as an apprentice, I saw the opportunity for growth: it was time for me to start tooling up. I remember when I got my first impact driver. Man, I was proud! These tools that we use on the daily, they mean something. As a plumber, I want to have the tool to do the job.

But let’s be real. These tools can be expensive. And that can be overwhelming for someone new to this trade. Some companies offer tool incentives, where they help you buy tools on an installment plan. When I was starting out, that’s how I bought my first cordless kit: an old employer took a draw out of my paycheck every week until I paid it off.

Nowadays, whenever I see an apprentice show up on the jobsite tooled up and ready to go, I know this person is ready to go to work.

And stick with it!

I’m so grateful for the trade of plumbing. Looking back, the biggest piece to my puzzle was to stick with it. For so long I was unsure if this was the career for me. Once I truly committed to becoming a plumber, my life drastically changed. Had it not been for the trade of plumbing, I don’t know where the heck I’d be. It’s now something that I see myself doing 20 years from now, helping other young people come into the trades and teaching the stuff that has been taught to me.

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