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Comparing Skilled Trades: Plumbing, Electrical, and HVAC

Comparing Skilled Trades: Plumbing, Electrical, and HVAC

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 3 years of their schooling. It's much more common than some people realize to not have a major in mind when graduating high school.

With so many options to consider, pinpointing one career can be difficult. With trade careers being thrust into the spotlight as well, your options are expanded. We'll take a look at three popular trades: plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. What they are, what makes them so appealing, and what you can expect if you head into one of them.

These are Skilled Trade Jobs

Skilled trades jobs are hands-on careers, taught by community college, 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 middle school.

With the overarching push for students to attend college, educational options like the trades and the opportunities they can lead to, have been overlooked. In fact, choosing a trade such as plumbing, electrical, or HVAC can almost guarantee a steady job and income after your training is complete. The same cannot be said for those who hold a university degree.

At the end of the day, if you are interested in pursuing the trades, they can lead to a more stable path in terms of future employment.

Job Descriptions

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 coincide.


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 also 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

HVAC technicians work on heating and cooling systems. You’ll maintain, repair, design, or install the systems in a residential, commercial, or industrial setting. 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 may be off to a great start.

How to Become One

To become a plumber, 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 accepting an apprenticeship, but plumbing trade school programs are available too. These last 4 to 5 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 2 years, depending on whether you decide to enroll in a trade school or community college. However, you’ll still have to complete an apprenticeship, which will take around four years. You’ll complete 144 hours of classroom learning, and 2,000 hours of hands-on, paid training.

HVAC: Similar to electrical and plumbing, HVAC programs take anywhere from a few months to 2 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 3 to 5 years to complete. In one, you’ll experience hands-on learning while earning an hourly wage. Plus, you’ll have classroom hours, too.

Do I Need a License?

To get your license for HVAC, plumbing, 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 have graduated from a school deemed worthy. This holds true across all 3 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 Money Will I Make?

Your desired salary is important to consider when thinking of a career. Many trades are lucrative, but just how much you earn can depend on your experience, licenses, state, etc. All statistics have been extracted from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Plumbing: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for plumbers was $63,350 in 2021. Evening and weekend hours may be expected, but you’ll get overtime pay in return. What also factors into your salary is experience, skill, location, and the company you work for.

Electrical: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for electricians was $63,310 in 2021. Most electricians join a union, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being the most popular option.

HVAC tech: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for HVAC technicians was $54,690 in 2021. HVAC technicians can enjoy fast training and a rewarding career path.

Are There a Lot of Jobs Available?

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. So, if you’re considering going into plumbing, electrical, or HVAC, now is a good time.

Plumbing: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that demand for plumbers is expected to increase 5 percent by 2030. This is slightly slower than average, but it is still a viable career path. 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: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that demand for electricians is expected to increase 9 percent by 2030. This is as fast as the national average for all careers. Specializing in an emerging industry like "green" or alternate electrical technology may be a smart move, and lead to better job prospects in the coming years.

HVAC: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the demand for HVAC technicians is expected to increase 5 percent by 2030. While this is a little slower than the national average, HVAC is still a promising career to pursue, just ensure you choose an accredited school to remain competitive in the job market.

To Sum it Up

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 the 3 competitive trades, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical, decide which is most compelling to you. What industry can you see yourself working in for years to come.

Know which trade you'd like to get into?

Apply to plumbing training near you today!

Apply to electrical training near you today!

Apply to HVAC training near you today!

Or, explore different trades and other programs here!

Further reading: Training for a High Paying Career in 6 Months or Less