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?
These Are Skilled Trade Jobs
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 can 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.
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 Become One
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 but plumbing trade school programs are available too. 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.
Do I Need A License?
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 Money 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 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?
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 good 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: 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 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.