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What Pipefitters Do and Why They're Important

A pipefitter perches over a metal pipe while welding the end closest to them. The welder wears a long-sleeve dark blue shirt and dark grey gloves. They are also wearing a tan and grey welding hood.

Pipefitters, though often overlooked, play an indispensable role in various industries that form the backbone of our daily lives. They are skilled tradespeople who contribute significantly to construction, energy production, and infrastructure development. Despite their essential role, pipefitters tend to be overshadowed by more well-known trades, such as electricians, masons, and plumbers. 

We spoke with Aerotek Account Manager Tanner Fasold who has over seven years in helping construction companies find quality skilled trades professionals. He elaborates on what pipefitters do, why their work is crucial and why to consider pursuing a career in pipefitting. 


Defining Pipefitters

Pipefitters, as the name suggests, are tradespeople who specialize in managing complex piping systems. While this might initially seem like the work of plumbers, there are significant distinctions. Plumbers primarily handle simpler piping systems designed for water and related fixtures like toilets, sinks, and showers. In contrast, pipefitters tackle heavy-duty piping systems used in large-scale structures, energy facilities, and chemical plants.

The pipes managed by pipefitters are typically of a larger caliber and are constructed from diverse materials, including concrete. Moreover, these pipes often feature advanced pumping systems designed to distribute various types of fluids efficiently. The substances transported through these pipes range from oil, gasoline, and chemicals to steam, hydraulics, and even food products. 

“Pipefitters have very similar duties to plumbers and pipelayers. Generally, it’s only the industry, material or even just the location that separates them. A good rule of thumb is pipefitters work indoors in some type of industrial setting.  Similar to plumbers in respect to indoors they differ by the type of material the tradesperson works with. Pipefitters are going to work with heavy-duty industrial grade piping systems for manufacturing plants, heavy-duty machinery, shipyards, powerplants, etc. When thinking pipefitters think BIG piping,” says Fasold.

The Path to Becoming a Pipefitter

Becoming a pipefitter typically follows a structured path, although the specifics may vary based on the chosen specialty, such as mechanical or steam pipes. The journey often starts with a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. With this educational foundation, individuals interested in pipefitting can embark on a one-year training program commonly offered at community colleges or vocational schools. Some high school students with a keen interest in the field may have the opportunity to intern or enroll in introductory pipefitting or trades courses, gaining early exposure to the profession.

“Various trade schools will offer apprenticeship programs for pipefitting. Also, there are options to do apprenticeship programs with some companies where you would work in the field and on certain days or nights and take classes for four years. Other options are to get a foot in the door with a plumbing or pipelaying role, understand the application/physics of piping systems and then apply to a pipefitting company down the road with applicable experience,” says Fasold.

The curriculum of a pipefitting program covers a mix of relevant subjects, including mathematics, chemistry, physics, as well as blueprint interpretation and hands-on experience in pipefitting and welding techniques. This comprehensive education equips students with the necessary skills to pursue an apprenticeship upon graduation. During the apprenticeship, individuals work under the guidance of experienced senior pipefitters, gaining practical knowledge and often receiving compensation for their efforts. After successfully completing the apprenticeship, pipefitters can choose to work independently, establish their own practice, or join existing teams of skilled tradespeople.

A Career Path in Pipefitting

Certified pipefitters have the flexibility to shape their careers according to their preferences. They can opt to join established trade organizations, establish their independent businesses, or work as freelancers. As they accumulate experience in the field, pipefitters can transition into management roles, taking on responsibilities as supervisors or team leads. In these roles, they often engage in training and mentoring activities, passing down their valuable knowledge to the next generation of pipefitters. Eventually, as they approach the later stages of their careers, some may choose to practice less intensively, focusing on teaching and preparing for retirement.

“Pipefitters have a ton of career opportunities. Relatable trades such as plumbing, pipelaying, welding and millwright work are all relatable trades a pipefitter could transition into. Let alone they have access to different industries – manufacturing, power production, shipbuilding, gas and oil, renewable energies, and general construction,” says Fasold.

Earnings Potential in Pipefitting

For those considering a career in pipefitting, the financial aspect is undoubtedly appealing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pipefitters in the United States earn an average annual salary of approximately $60,000 without the prerequisite of an advanced degree. Moreover, the pipefitter job market is projected to grow steadily, with an expected annual growth rate of 2%, aligning with the average market growth rates.

Distinguishing Pipefitters from Plumbers

Generally, plumbers and pipefitters work indoors. The material and industry are generally different.  For example, in building a high rise with apartment units — plumbers would be installing your hot and cold-water supplies and drainage after use. Pipefitters are responsible for getting the large mains tied into the city water and into the building and having the large gauge pipe accessible for the plumbers. Not all, but a lot of pipefitters know how to weld. Likewise on the backend for drainage into the sewer system or any storm water collection,” says Fasold.

To gain a clearer understanding of the differences between pipefitters and plumbers, it's essential to highlight several key distinctions between these two trades:

Installation Techniques

Plumbers primarily employ hand and cutting tools to assemble and shape pipes used for water distribution. In contrast, pipefitters commonly rely on welding and heat-joining methods to connect larger, thicker, and heavier pipes designed for diverse material transport.

Fluids Transported

Plumbing systems are dedicated to transporting water for everyday use in sinks, toilets, and showers. Pipefitters, on the other hand, manage pipes that carry a wide range of substances, including liquids and gasses. This distinction necessitates varying installation and maintenance approaches.

Pumping Systems

Plumbing systems typically connect to municipal pumping systems that supply water under pressure. Pipefitters may need to design or customize pumps to power their specialized pipes, adapting them to the unique materials and substances being transported.

Pipefitters often don’t get the recognition they deserve since they work behind the scenes, ensuring the smooth operation of crucial industries that power our society. While more well-known trades often overshadow their profession, pipefitters play a pivotal role in constructing, maintaining, and advancing the infrastructure and energy sectors. The career path to becoming a pipefitter is accessible and financially rewarding, with ample opportunities for growth and specialization. For those planning to start or switch to a career in pipefitting, Fasold suggests being determined, yet flexible. 

“Get into an apprenticeship program and stick it out through completion. Skilled pipefitters in any in many industries receive great wages. If the apprenticeship programs are too expensive, build your resume by getting into plumbing or pipelaying role. Gain experience and win an interview in a few years,” says Fasold. 

When you’re ready to explore pipefitting jobs — explore our job board.