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How Much Do Plumbers Really Make?

4 minute read
Frances Romero

Forget the jokes about sagging workbelts, dirty t-shirts and plungers — the day of the savvy, politically inquisitive plumber is now at hand. Much has already been said of Joe the Plumber‘s sharp ascent into the public eye over the past two days. Since the airing of the final presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama on Oct. 15, reporters have discovered the following about Joe Wurzelbacher, 34, of Holland, Ohio: He owes some taxes, apparently is working toward his plumbing license — though he has worked in the industry for more than a decade — and he voted for McCain in the presidential primary.

After the debate, fact-checkers were in a frenzy correcting McCain on several tidbits concerning the man who’s now the most famous plumber in the nation: his name, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (not Joe Wurzelberger); that Wurzelbacher would face “much higher taxes” turns out would not be true after he admitted that the business he wants to buy likely wouldn’t make enough to be taxed under Obama’s plan; and more importantly, the fact that McCain apparently mistook Wurzelbacher’s desired salary of $250,000 for his current salary, which the plumber says is far less. Which of course begs the question: How much do plumbers actually make? The standard assumption is that they earn a pretty decent wage. Americans want and need working pipes, just like they want and need their trash collected every few days — sanitation being another service always in demand by consumers and not always in demand by job-seekers, and typically pretty well paying as a result.

That said, a plumber’s earnings vary widely depending on the region in which they work and whether a plumber owns a business that employs others. Journeymen in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston are in higher demand and command higher prices — up to about $250,000 a year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2006 National Compensation Survey, pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters nationwide made an average of $23 an hour, or about $46,000 annually for a typical 40-hour workweek. But those numbers lump different occupations together and don’t give a complete picture of the current market. A pipelayer, for example, mostly installs pipes, while pipefitters and steamfitters install, maintain and repair pipe systems.

Organizations such as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association and The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) (which has endorsed Obama) don’t keep statistics on how much members take home, or on industry earning standards. But a representative at the UA says that owners of plumbing businesses would likely take bigger hits in economic hard times because they incur the production costs of keeping a company running. Paul Abrams, a spokesman for Roto-Rooter, the nation’s largest plumbing and drain service provider, says he has seen evidence of that. “We’ve had some people who owned businesses close up shop and come work for us,” Abrams says.

He notes that some master plumbers (about five to seven years experience) at the Cincinnati-based company make in excess of $100,000 a year. “A good plumber can pretty much write his ticket and make a good living with a good amount of experience,” Abrams says. The outsourcing boom that has sucked information technology jobs overseas, coupled with a dearth of workers in plumbing — a somewhat recession-resistant market — makes for an industry ripe for growth. As for Wurzelbacher, based on the region of the country he works in, the amount of experience he has, and the fact that he is unlicensed, he could be currently making anywhere between $40,000 and $70,000 — and no, he won’t get stung by the Obama tax plan even if he buys that business. Still, not bad for an average Joe.

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