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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Why are plumbers always in demand?
The Magazine answers...

Plumbing has not changed over the years
No sooner has Britain's shortage of plumbers been plugged than the Australians have started trying to recruit them. Why is there such demand for them?

If there's a shortage of plumbers, everyone knows about it, without having to read the papers.

The bathroom leak can't be fixed for weeks because they're all busy.

That was the situation in the UK a couple of years ago, but the gap has now been filled by newly-trained apprentices and plumbers from abroad.

Plumbers can be seen as a bellweather for economic health
During a housing boom, they are in demand
But now Australia wants ours. Plumbers are one of the professions on its wanted list as it raises its annual target figure for skilled workers coming into the country. So why are plumbers in such demand?

"It's very indicative of how the economy is doing because demand for plumbing services rises when the economy is doing well," says Peter Wright, an associate professor in labour economics at Nottingham University's Globalisation and Economic Policy Centre (GEP).

Question Mark - from original architect's doodle design for BBC TV Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
"Most people's perception of plumbers is that they are people they ring when they have a leak, but many are employed in the housing sector."

The recent shortage in the supply of plumbers in the UK was partly due to the expansion of higher education which drew people away from skilled trades, he says. Apprenticeship schemes became less prevalent and there was a lag before higher education colleges stepped into the role.

"Demand for apprenticeships rose rapidly during the late 1990s with the booming economy. As people became wealthier, they spent money on their houses and there was increased house-building."

Australia is probably undergoing the same experience, he adds.

Hyped career

Carol Cannavan, of the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (IPHE), says that over the past few years there has been a flood of people entering the industry in the UK.

"What sparked it was the media exaggerating stories about plumbers making a fortune. We had other skilled workers like bank managers saying they wanted to change their career to become a plumber because they had seen in the paper how much they could earn.

Follow the NVQ route (SNVQ in Scotland)
This combines theory and practical work in class with on-the-job experience
All recently qualified plumbers need to hold Level 2, although Level 3 is preferred
It can take three years and cost 3,000 to reach Level 3
Source: IPHE
"But they discovered when they got on the courses that you have to be a practical person and want to learn how things work, so it's not for everyone."

Because being a plumber is not a protected title like solicitor, people could call themselves a plumber after attending a four-week course, she says, but it takes three years to train properly.

Since this rush, and the arrival of new plumbers from Poland, IPHE members have reported this year that work has dried up.

Robot plumbers

One of the reasons why plumbing is significant is that the relative price of such services has been driven up by other household goods getting cheaper, says David Greenaway, a professor in economics.

"Because it's a trade job that we all from time to time call upon, people get puzzled when what they regard as - although skilled - still a tradesman job, that seems to be getting so expensive relative to other things they are buying."

Plumbing has not really changed and so it looms large as a problem, as something expensive
Columnist Tim Harford

Plumbing, like being a waiter or taxi driver, hasn't become cheaper or more efficient over time because it can't, says Tim Harford, a columnist at the Financial Times.

"In 50 years we won't get robots doing the plumbing so what we find is if we looked at the economy 50 years ago, something like plumbing wouldn't have really stood out. People didn't really have much money.

"But now you can buy amazing televisions and cars that are cheaper and better than 20 years ago.

"All this amazing stuff and yet plumbing has not really changed and so it looms large as a problem, as something expensive."

A selection of your comments appears below.

It has taken me literally five years to find a plumber I can phone, who will come out and quote the job when he says, then to actually do the job quickly, efficiently and to the price quoted. Admittedly his price is not the cheapest but for five years I tried to just get a plumber to quote me for a job and I got turned down over and over because it was a "small" job (refitting a shower I don't call small) or plumbers just not turning up when agreed. He's coming back soon to work on my kitchen. Now where can I get an electrician of similar quality.
Simon, Tamworth, UK

I trained doing plumbing at college for three years, attained the required skills and passed all exams, but even then when trying to join a plumbing firm was told I was no good unless I had three, four or even five years experience! I'm not a gas engineer, I'm a plumber so not gas install qualified, yet this seems also very highly sought. I also tried applying for Australia. I obtained the necessary points, but when the immigration office called for a chat, they clearly told me I was no good because you need to be in the industry for at least 5 years....There can't be that much of a shortage of plumbers anywhere as it's been really difficult to find work. If I had to rely on it being my sole income, I'd be on benefits. It's true there are not enough apprenticeships out there, and people like me could really use some help! I now go it alone, but there still isn't enough money for me to leave my current role.
Roy Donovan, SE. Essex

Most minor plumbing jobs around the home are easy to do. People should be more prepared to tackle things themselves. The most important thing is to have the right tools, not to try and "make do" with unsuitable ones.
Robert Clark, Cambridge UK

Plumbing had me by the short ones for a while, then I finally figured out how to sweat pipe and not start a fire under the bathroom sinks cabinet and it was off to the races, gutted my bathrooms and put new ball valves in, new faucets, new toilets, sinks, etc. Saved me several thousand dollars, the kitchen is next. I'm also an engineer and picky, rather do it myself than have some ham fisted person do it. Now plumbing a house from scratch, that takes some knowledge of flows and venting. A word of advice though, when plumbing don't chew your nails....
RichP, Effort, USA

I live in East Anglia and I am a careers adviser. Plumbers can earn up to 35-40,000 annually. There is an extreme shortage of apprenticeships in this area and a waiting list for college entry. There is a shortage of tutors to teach student plumbers in college as tutors can earn up to 40,000 per year in industry compared to a college salary of up to 27/28,000. A tutor also has to take college students through the NVQ qualifications and the paperwork this involves. In this area most of the plumbers are one man/woman companies and they don't want to take on apprentices.
L Pettit, East Anglia UK

The plumbing in my house is now cheaper as I can do remedial/minor work myself. I paid 60 for a 6 week course and has saved me loads of money in that time, re-plumbed a toilet, installed a garden tap and fixed a leak from dodgy plumbing by a "professional" plumber.
Simon Woodley, London

Another big reason is the fact you need to work as a plumber in the first place to get any sort of recognition! So, say you're in IT right now, you'd need to quit, get a job as a trainer plumber for half your wage then train on the job as no training exists outside of the plumbing trade itself! Sure you can do a paper course but then try to ACTUALLY do something in a house, behind a bath, inside a wall etc. and it's a different story. IT can be learned at home, in a classroom, over the internet and more, without leaving your current job. To get paid well in plumbing requires sacrifice first, which can be a gamble or just not an option if you have semi-high standards of income already.
Pete Thompson, Rugby

Australia wants Britain's plumbers? Have they ever used Britain's plumbers? One suspects not. What's the problem in Australia, aren't plumbing charges high enough, jobs not being done shoddily enough? Tell British plumbers that in Australia they won't get cups of tea made for them when they walk in the door, and I doubt we'll lose them.
Andrew, Edinburgh

Most of the people coming into this country are not skilled plumbers, they may have connected a hose pipe to a tap at one time, but do not have the skill required to do the job, they are mainly butchers, backers and anvil-makers, and don't have a clue about plumbing, as I unfortunately found out when a sub-contracted (so-called plumber) came into my house to do a job, I had to ask him to leave as he didn't even know how to remove the s-bend from our sink.
Andy, Croydon

Here in Canada, trades are in serious trouble and are seen as un-glamorous with career ambitious children. It seems to me that most youngsters who have ambition want to work in front of a computer and those who don't will simply end up working a McJob of some description. It seems that getting your hands dirty as a tradesperson is un-trendy when the reality is the opposite. I shy away from hiring trades because the chance of getting the job done properly is about 20%. I have expelled tradesmen and refused to pay because of shoddy work and normally end up completing the job myself to be sure it is completed correctly. Just watching Holmes on Homes (I am sure it airs in the UK) confirms this problem. I have personally become a very proficient plumber, electrician, carpenter, bricklayer, plasterer, decorator, cook and bottle-washer as well as being an electronics engineer by trade. There is REALLY good money to be earned out there as a competent trades person!
Dave B (Brit ex-pat), Keswick, Canada

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