For many people, choosing a career and sticking to that decision is more difficult than it sounds. The fact is, ⅓ of college students end up changing majors within the first three years of school, so it’s very commonplace to really have no idea what you want to be when you “grow up.”
With SO MANY options to consider, pinpointing that one perfect fit can be frustrating. And sometimes, it’s strictly trial and error, like enrolling in an intro class only to discover it’s totally not what you thought it was going to be. Or maybe just the opposite—you fall in love with that profession and know you found your thing.
With trade careers being thrust into the spotlight as an underappreciated yet great post-secondary option, it can add to the confusion because of how many more choices you have.
Let’s take a look at three of the popular trades: plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. What are they, what makes them so great, and what can you expect if you head into one of these trades?
What Are They?
Skilled trades jobs are hands-on careers, taught through community college or trade school programs, apprenticeships, or a combination of these. Because there are more jobs available than there are skilled tradespeople, there is a desperate push for visibility, starting as early as with middle school students. Primary schools are so eager to promote the message of college, that choices like trades have been mostly ignored until recently.
Choosing a trade such as plumbing, electrical, or HVAC will almost guarantee you a steady job and good income once you complete your training—which isn’t always the case for your bachelor degree-holding peers. Many times, they’re going from job interview to job interview with no prospects of employment on the horizon. You, on the other hand, with your electrical, plumbing, or HVAC training, are fighting off job offers that are coming in fast and furious. In other words, trades careers come with a more certain future.
What Will I Be Doing?
Each of the three trades being compared here work within different areas of a structure, but are involved in the same basic industry: construction. And, more than occasionally, they’ll collide.
Plumbing, for example, sometimes needs pipes welded. HVAC techs may find they need some welding or plumbing to complete a job. HVAC techs programs will, very often include welding, as well as the fundamentals of plumbing in the coursework. And, plumbers that have welding experience have greater job prospects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Plumbers work on the design, maintenance, and/or repair of the plumbing piping system in a structure, whether it’s residential, commercial, or industrial. Many plumbers choose to be self-employed or start their own plumbing business.
Electricians work on either installing new electrical systems or repairing older ones. You can choose to specialize. Your biggest decision will be whether you want to go the residential or industrial path. Neither choice is wrong, and both can be rewarding as well as lucrative.
HVAC technicians work on heating and cooling systems. You’ll maintain, repair, design, or install the systems in a residential, commercial, or industrial building. Specializing is less likely for HVAC techs, but there are other careers within the industry such as refrigeration mechanic and HVAC engineer, both requiring more schooling. But with your HVAC tech background, you’ll be off to a great start.
How To Get There
To become a welder, electrician, or HVAC technician, you must be properly trained. Whether you decide to go through a college program or a union or contractor apprenticeship is completely up to you. Across the board for the three trades, training length is fairly similar.
Plumbing: Plumbers typically start their careers by taking an apprenticeship. These last four to five years, at 2,000 hours paid training per year. One of the benefits of an apprenticeship is that you’re earning while learning. And as your skills increase, so does the money you make.
Electrical: You can complete an electrician program in a few months to two years, depending if you go to a trade school or community college. However, you’ll still have to complete an apprenticeship, which will take four years. You’ll complete 144 hours of classroom learning, and 2,000 hours of hands-on, paid training.
HVAC: Similar to electrical and welding, HVAC programs take anywhere from a few months to two years to complete. You can choose trade school or community college to enroll in your training program. There are apprenticeships available through your local union or contractor association that will take three to five years to complete. In one, you’ll have hands-on learning while earning an hourly wage. Plus, you’ll have classroom hours, too.
To Get A License, Or Not Get A License; That Is The Question
To get your license for HVAC, welding, or electrical (or any other profession, for that matter), you must first graduate from an accredited program. Enrolling in an accredited program is always your best bet; it has been evaluated by a judging body to make sure it’s offering quality education within that particular field. Licensing bodies generally only allow students to get their license if they graduated from a school deemed worthy. This holds true across all three trades, and really, the majority of industries.
Licensing requirements will vary by career, as well as state. And sometimes, even the city you’re working in will have its own set.
To find licensing requirements in your neck of the woods:
Plumbing: You can find plumbing licensing requirements by clicking on your state.
Electrical: You can find electrical licensing requirements by clicking on your state.
HVAC: You can find HVAC licensing requirements by clicking on your state.
How Much Will I Make?
This is an important factor. Your job is your livelihood. How much you make determines most aspects of your life, from your housing situation, to your transportation, to what you wear, and more. There’s peace of mind when you know that you can support yourself, and your family, with those paychecks you’ll be bringing in.
Plumbing: The median salary for plumbers is just over $52K, but many make well over $91K and higher. The highest paying industry is communication equipment manufacturing, with the average salary in the $85K range. Evening and weekend hours may be expected, but you’ll get overtime pay in return. States paying top dollar to their plumbers are Hawaii ($79K), New York ($78K), and Illinois ($77K). What’s going to really determine the salary for you is experience, skill, location, and the company you work for.
Electrical: As an electrician, you can expect your median wage to fall in around $54K. With more experience, you’ll make in the $90Ks or higher. Most electricians join a union, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being the most popular option. You’ll find the highest paying jobs within the natural gas distribution industry ($97K), followed by the personal goods and household repair and maintenance ($90K). The highest paying states are Hawaii ($78K), D.C. ($77K), and Alaska ($77K).
HVAC tech: HVAC technicians earn a median salary of $47K. With more experience under your belt, you can earn in the $75K range. During your apprenticeship, you’ll earn about half of what you’ll make once you’re an experienced HVAC technician. Aerospace product and parts manufacturing is the industry that pays the highest salaries at over $74K. The second highest paying industry is electric power generation, manufacturing, and distribution. That salary is $72K, on average. The states paying the highest salaries for HVAC technicians are D.C. ($68K), Alaska ($64K), and Hawaii ($62K).
Will There Be Available Jobs?
The skilled trades careers, including plumbing, electrical, and HVAC, are in need of professionals to fill the gap being created by those who are retiring. And, there are a lot of upcoming retirees because the average age of tradespeople is 55. So, if you’re considering going into plumbing, electrical, or HVAC, now is a great time. You’ll be in a position to work in apprenticeship under a master, and then step in to fill the gap he or she leaves upon retiring.
Plumbing: Through 2026, 75,000 new jobs will be opening. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a technology you should familiarize yourself with; it’s going to also increase chances of your success in the industry.
Electrical: Close to 57K new jobs will be available through 2026. Specialize in “green” or alternate electrical technology. It’s an emerging industry, and you’ll find even better job prospects.
HVAC: Through 2026, the employment growth outlook is projected to be 15 percent, which translates to close to 49K new jobs opening during that time frame. Commercial and residential construction will be your bread and butter.
Whether you choose plumbing, electrical, or HVAC as your career, know that the fields are filled with opportunity.
Quick View Comparison
How do you choose what trade you’re best suited for? It can be a hard decision, especially when there are so many to pick from. Start with where you believe your strengths are, where your interests lie, and what type of career path you’re looking for.
Among HVAC, plumbing, and electrical, the salary differences, along with job prospects and future growth, aren’t so incredibly different after all. What you’re going to have to decide is which of the three is most compelling to you; where you can see yourself working for years to come.
To break down the three trades, here’s a side by side (by side) comparison. Now, keep in mind when you’re looking at the salary, the one listed is a median, which means 50 percent of that career makes more and 50 percent makes less. And, there are many factors going into your personal paycheck such as where you work, your experience, and who you work for. This means, your salary may be much more or less than the median. The rest of the information is national, so it’s similar across the United States.