Doing plumbing and becoming a plumber are horses of a different color — only incidentally related and with a distinctly different significance. It’s like what you can expect to get when calling someone certified in First Aid as opposed to phoning a physician for your medical needs.
As a matter of fact, more than one doctor has told me that plumbing systems like the ones we install, maintain and repair for our residential and commercial customers here at O’Grady Plumbing are frequently used in medical school to describe the human anatomy and how it works. Pretty cool. And I get it. When one thing goes wrong, there’s often a domino effect in which several things need to be worked out before a successful solution can be achieved.
And only a true master of the trade can figure that out. If I use the wrong tool or come up with the wrong plan of attack to a plumbing problem, things could become catastrophic. Same thing for a doc: If she guesses at the diagnosis or uses the wrong instruments during surgery to fix me, I’m out of luck.
Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single plumber who has come out of a technical secondary school with much more than a basic concept of plumbing. That’s because the only way to truly become a plumber is to learn from an experienced mentor.
I’ve been hanging around plumbing all my life. My earliest memories were riding along with my Dad in the South Bronx and Harlem, sitting in the passenger seat of a 1970s banana yellow van. I was just a 6-year-old at the time. Dad taught me all my young mind was willing to learn before getting bored. I was certainly fascinated, and I probably knew the names to all of the tools and parts of the business by age 10. But I’m sure I wasn’t old enough to hold and turn a wrench until I was 15. I got a good blast of plumbing experience from a young age until I turned 21 and was able to legally order my own drinks.
That’s when I decided college was a great idea — until I realized there was too much money in plumbing and that I knew enough about the trade to do more than just get by. So I went to work, putting my mind to the task of learning to be the best in my game.
I remember working on a building half a lifetime ago somewhere in the South Bronx. I was tasked with performing a mercury test on a vacant apartment for a NYC agency formed to take over properties that the landlords had simply walked away from.
Services in the building were virtually impossible to get for the residents stranded in the projects. I recall a gentleman stopping me in the hallway and relating a plumbing problem in his apartment. Seeing the frustration and helplessness in his eyes, I took the time to quickly resolve the issue.
In another instance, a nice woman had me over to her dilapidated house to change out a few washers on the shower valve. After a job well done and an hour and a half of my time, I handed her a bill for $90. She smiled at me and told me all she could afford was $60.
I am grateful for the education I received in an impoverished area where plumbers dared not to venture. I continued to learn, paying close attention to quite a few mentors who had the patience to teach me. And it’s through years of training that you become a tradesperson. Smart enough to consider yourself the Bobby Fischer or Elizabeth Warren of what you do, yet humble enough to know you will still make mistakes.
If you are seriously interested in learning the plumbing trade, you’d better be a thinker and problem solver who is always willing to take the advice of your mentors and learn what they have to offer. A good plumber rarely makes mistakes and will get the job done in much shorter time adding value both in the finished product and the bottom line.
This means the people who hire you can anticipate a clean job and a solid install with the best products in great time. And what can you expect to earn as a journey-level plumber? According to figures from 2014, you can earn more than $100 an hour when you include salary and benefits. Of course, you’d better be worth it as a great problem solver or your days will certainly be numbered.
And if you do want to make it in this field, one piece of advice: Don’t chew your nails (think about it).
About The Author: Paul O’Grady is the founder and general manager of O’Grady Plumbing — San Francisco’s multi-generational residential and commercial plumbing company. O’Grady grew up in the plumbing business and his company is backed by three generations of plumbers. At O’Grady Plumbing, Paul manages a team of master plumbers who build, repair, maintain and retrofit plumbing systems and equipment throughout San Francisco and San Mateo.