In an earlier Field Guide, we looked at the the wide range of specialties in the home improvement world, from architects to handymen. This time, we focus in on a few of the highly skilled trades–electrical, plumbing, and HVAC (heating,ventilation, and air conditioning), and what it takes to become a tradesperson in each of these fields.

To work in the various building trades requires training and on-the-job experience. No one ever became a great carpenter or brick layer by simply reading a book or watching a youtube video! It takes a lot of practice and guidance as well as studying. Some of the trades–-especially those having to do with your utility services (water, sewer, gas, and electric)–have special certification and licensure requirements due to the technical nature of their work. In a union shop, the path from apprentice to master is managed by the union. In a non-union setting, it is up to the individual to take the classes and pass the tests necessary to move up through the ranks in their chosen career field.

The Trades

Each trade–plumbing, electrical, and HVAC–have their own particular requirements, and in some cases, sub-trades. It can be a little confusing to keep track of them all, but here are a few examples of the different types of specialties within each of these trades.


There are so many different specialties when it comes to the “pipe trades.” Here are a few:

Residential or Commercial: A residential plumber specializes in piping water, gas, and waste lines in single or multi-family dwellings. A commercial plumber works on commercial or industrial buildings and apartment buildings over three stories. They may also run oxygen lines in hospitals.

Pipefitters and Steamfitters: These are the folks that run big pipes carrying steam, hot water, or chemicals in industrial applications. A pipefitter may be found on-site assembling the piping at an oil refinery, installing a boiler to heat a high-rise building, or piping a rocket to launch into space!


Electricians are to wire what plumbers are to pipe. Some of the electrical specialties include:

Linemen: These guys do a tough and dangerous job. They work on the transmission and distribution lines that get the electricity from the power plant to your home. The lines are high voltage, and working outdoors in all kinds of weather can be brutal. When your power goes out in a storm, these folks are out in the storm, risking their necks to restore your service.

Wiremen: This is what we usually think of when we say “electrician.” Wiremen work on commercial or residential projects, installing wiring, switches, outlets, and circuit panels, or repairing existing ones.

Telecommunications Specialists: Telecommunications technicians handle telephone, cable, video, computer networking, and all of the other low-voltage I.T. systems that you use in your home or office.

HVAC Technicians

Heating and cooling professionals are called upon to do a little plumbing, a little electrical work, and sheet metal fabrication for ductwork.  In some cases, particularly in commercial applications, they may add an R to the end of HVACR, which stands for refrigeration. All of the coolers and freezers at your local restaurant or grocery store are installed by HVACR technicians as well as the climate control systems.

In many cases, an HVAC technician who works as part of a small, residential installation and service company will probably be called upon to do a little of everything. In a large outfit, techs tend to specialize–one person might be the best “tin knocker,” someone who mostly does ductwork, where another person might handle all of the thermostats and other controls.

Acquiring a License

All licensure of tradespeople are handled on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis. Unlike other laws, local building codes and laws supersede state and federal requirements. In almost all cases, a given state will require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED to enter the trades. Then some special vocational coursework and training is generally required, which can be arranged through a union or a local community college, or in some cases, taken online.

A young tradesperson then begins 3 to 5 years of on-the-job training as an apprentice working under a licensed master in their trade. They will then take a rest and move up to what is known as a “journeyman.”  A journeyman is a fully-qualified tradesperson, but more experience and another test is required to finally get a master’s license.

Even then, in most places, continuing education is required to maintain a master’s license. As you can see, the trades require a high level of skill and competence, which is one of the reasons that there are is almost always a need for more young people to join the trades. Upper level trade positions are generally well-paid and relatively secure.

Differences by Trade and State

As I mentioned, not every trade has the same requirements, and they can even vary from state to state. For instance, in Texas, a plumber’s apprentice must be at least 16 years old, but need not have a high school diploma. They must be sponsored by a licensed plumber, and they must work 10,000 hours and complete 1,000 hours of classes, paid for by the employer.

Texas: Texas has four levels of experience: apprentice, tradesman, journeyman, and master.

Illinois: In Illinois, however, there are only two levels of state license, plumber’s apprentice and plumber. In Chicago, a plumber must also hold a city license, which includes apprentice and journeyman. Remember, as I said before, Cities can have their own requirements, above and beyond state or federal laws. They must be at least 16 (18 in Chicago). They must have a high school diploma or GED and they must have a valid driver’s license. Coursework and on-the-job requirements are essentially the same as in Texas.

Connecticut: An electrician in Connecticut “must be at least 20 years of age, have an eighth grade education or its equivalent, be of good moral character, and possess the requisite skill to perform electrical work.” A licensed electrical contractor must have two years experience as a Connecticut licensed journeyman, and a journeyman must have four years of on-the-job training plus 576 hours of training at a technical school.

Iowa: In Iowa, there are seven levels of certification: apprentice, journeyman A, journeyman B, master A, master B, electrical contractor, and special electrician. These “special” licenses were designed so that individuals, most often farmers, could be certified to work on their own property.

As for the HVAC technicians, they also must complete a similar combination of on-the-job training and coursework. In addition, they must pass certain testing and certification by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to handle the refrigerants that they use in air conditioners and coolers.

Choosing a career in the trades can be a very fulfilling, with continuous opportunities for advancement both financially and educationally. If you are hiring a plumber, electrician, or HVAC technician, remember that licensure does not assure you that you will be happy with their services. Just like accountants, lawyers, and teachers, licensing only assures minimal competency. Years of experience, a good reputation, and good references along with licensing should be examined when considering a contractor.


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