GCSE results day: A career in plumbing


In Apprenticeships, Education, Training

It’s GCSE results day and whatever your haul of qualifications, one thing is for sure, you have big decisions ahead. Once you know your grades, you can start planning your next career move. If you are considering entering into the plumbing and heating sector, there’s a few important things you need to know. Our latest blog covers some of the key questions from those wanting to enter the trade.

What is the industry like?

The plumbing industry holds diverse career paths, good wages and the opportunity for individuals to run their own business. Because of this, many plumbers stay on the tools for the whole of their career, and may find their calling in drainage, plumbing, heating or even renewables. Others progress to design, consultancy, teaching and management.

A role in the plumbing and heating industry offers a career with many opportunities. Deemed as critical workers, good plumbers are always in demand, whether that’s in people’s homes, on building sites, working on infrastructure such as water or gas, or installing and maintaining commercial or industrial systems.

Find out more about career pathways in the plumbing and heating industry.


What skills do plumbers need?

On the tools, plumbers engage in a physically demanding role, but it’s not all about brute strength, it also requires dexterity and the ability to work in some pretty cramped places! You’ll need a head for heights, good visual-spatial awareness and common sense. You’ll also need a decent grasp of maths, science and communication skills for dealing with clients and other trades.

You’ll need to be practical and organised. You’ll also need to adapt and commit to continuous learning. The pace of technological and regulatory change can be rapid in the plumbing and heating industry. You will always have to be open to learning new things and changing working techniques and practices.


What entry qualifications do I need?

This will vary depending on home country and qualification applied for. Some courses have no formal requirements, but a good basic understanding of English and maths will be expected. Others will require English and Maths qualifications at Level 2. This equates to GCSE grade C - A (pre-2017 GCSE qualifications) or grade 4 - 9 (new GCSE qualifications). A good science grade would also help.

When it comes to the Trailblazer Apprenticeships in England, employers set the entrance criteria. So, someone who can prove they have the right attitude and aptitude for the role may gain it without hitting Level 2 for English and Maths. However, it will be expected that apprentices hold a GCSE in both English and Maths at grade 4-9 on completion of the apprenticeship, which will mean adding study for Maths and English GCSEs alongside that for the apprenticeship.


How do I join the industry?

Traditionally there have been three main ways into the industry:

  • Via an apprenticeship
  • Via a college course / private training provider
  • Via working towards this role, e.g., as a plumber’s mate or labourer without formal qualification.

Visit our Apprenticeships page to get the full lowdown on plumbing apprenticeships in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Find out more about college courses and private training providers and how to pick the best course and provider for you.

Find out more about CIPHE Approved Training Centres.

Or if you are thinking about changing your career, see our guidance for career changers.

It is rarer nowadays, but there are those who learn a trade while on the tools, but without also attending college for a formal qualification. Today there are several tradespeople operating under ‘Grandfather rights’ – those with great knowledge and skill, but no qualifications. However, their number is set to fall as steps are being taken to phase out those working on commercial building sites without formal qualifications from 2025. The CIPHE’s advice to anyone hoping to enter the trade via this route is to study for a formal qualification alongside their day-to-day work.


How long does it take to train?

This varies depending by what home nation you are studying in.

In England the industry recommended Level 3 Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician apprenticeship normally takes up to four years to achieve. However, there is flexibility to allow either those with pre-existing experience and qualifications, or particularly gifted students to finish earlier.

In Scotland the Level 3 Domestic Plumbing and Heating modern apprenticeship usually takes three years to complete.

In Wales apprenticeships have been split into NVQ Levels:

  • NVQ Level 2 (the entry level qualification) usually lasts two years full time.
  • NVQ Level 3 is the industry recommended qualification and takes an additional year full time, taking the total apprenticeship to three years.
  • From September 2022 a new Level 3 Building Services Engineering – Plumbing & Heating will be available.

In Northern Ireland apprenticeships are also split into two levels:

  • A Level 2 qualifications would normally last two years full time.
  • A level 3 qualification would normally take a further two years.

However, there is some flexibility as the apprenticeship duration can vary and can be agreed between the apprentice, training contractor and employer.


What Level do I need to train to?

It’s really important the learner knows what qualification they will gain at the end of their course and if it will deliver the right knowledge, skills and experience to be gainfully employed in the industry.

The bottom line is that it takes years to train to be a plumbing or heating engineer, and most of that time is spent learning the physical skills required to do the role. If your course does not include mastering those skills in a workplace environment, it will not provide you with an industry-recognised qualification.

The below is a basic breakdown of the course Levels:

  • Level 1 courses are an introduction to the industry only and will not leave you qualified to undertake employed plumbing work.
  • A full Level 2 qualification gives an entry-level qualification at NVQ Level 2 or equivalent. The course must include on-the-job work experience to provide you with an industry-recognised qualification. Classroom / workshop only qualifications will not be adequate.
  • To receive the most comprehensive level of training, the CIPHE recommends undertaking a full Level 3 qualification at NVQ Level 3 or via an Apprenticeship.
    • For instance, those starting an apprenticeship programme in England will receive a Level 3 qualification, plus registration for a CSCS card, as well as eligibility for registration as an Engineering Technician with the Engineering Council UK on completion of their apprenticeship.
    • For those undertaking the college or private training provider route, the NVQ Level 3 can be undertaken once the learner completes the full NVQ Level 2. This once again requires work-based experience, and should take a further year, full-time to complete*.

*In Northern Ireland it can take a further two years.


What can I earn once qualified?

The following figures are regularly cited as average earnings:

  • After gaining industry recognised qualifications, an individual in an entry-level position can expect to earn around £15k-£20k on the tools.
  • After gaining more experience in the industry, this can rise to anything between £25k and £45k, with the average UK wage hovering around £30,000-£32,500.
  • In cities such as London, the average earnings will be higher due to the increased expenses and cost of living.
  • Likewise, plumbing isn’t a 9-5 office job, so those prepared to work unsociable or long hours have the potential to earn more.

As in any industry, there are highflyers and exceptions to the rules. Depending on how well your career or business progresses, you could earn considerably more than £45,000 per year.


Is it easy to get on a course or apprenticeship?

When it comes to work-based training, the plumbing and heating industry is in the depths of an employer shortage. Most businesses are sole-traders or SMEs and not in a position to easily take on an apprentice or trainee. This means there is a big gap between supply and demand.

To get an apprenticeship, you need an employer. There are a number of ways to find one and where you start to look will depend on where you live.

For apprenticeship vacancies in England visit: https://www.gov.uk/apply-apprenticeship

For apprenticeship vacancies in Scotland visit: https://www.apprenticeships.scot/find-a-vacancy/

For apprenticeship vacancies in Wales visit: https://careerswales.gov.wales/apprenticeship-search

For apprenticeship vacancies in Northern Ireland visit: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/search-apprenticeship-opportunities

Those going down the college / private training provider route will need work experience to complete the full NVQ Level 2/3 Diplomas. Finding a course may be easy, but finding an employer for your work-based experience can be extremely hard. In some cases the college / training centre may be able to help, but in others it will be up to you to find an employer. You can find our tips on gaining work experience on our training providers page.


How do I find a reputable training course?

Look out for a training provider with CIPHE Approved Training Centre (ATC) status. View our directory of Approved Training Centres.


Additional support for trainees and apprentices

Once an individual has enrolled on an accredited course or an apprenticeship, they can apply for Trainee membership of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering.

This will give them access to an e-learning portal, which is packed with learning modules, demonstration videos, literature and technical information. Leading manufacturers have contributed modules, which cover a wide range of topics, including renewables. Trainee members benefit from a range of discounts and special offers. They will also be eligible to apply for awards and bursaries.

Another benefit of membership is that it shows employers you are on the right track from the very start of your career - holding professional development and high standards at the core of your work ethos.

Trainee membership currently costs just £30 annually – this includes access to learning support and delivery of P&H Engineering magazine four times a year. Those undertaking a course via a CIPHE Approved Training Centre will also receive their first year of Trainee membership for free.

For further details please contact the Membership Department at membership@ciphe.org.uk or ring 01708 463116.