Deciding on a career isn’t always easy. There’s no one job that’s best for everybody. Choosing the right career means taking into account your personality, interests, and goals.
If you’re considering a career in the trades, you have a lot of options. Many jobs in the trades offer job security, high wages, and a variety of potential career paths. But within the trades, there are also some big differences.
That’s why we’ve put together this list of nine big differences between the different trades. Trying to decide between HVAC vs. plumbing? Plumber vs. electrician? We’ve got you covered. Our list includes job prospects, salaries, training, and in-demand skills to help you choose the right career path for you.
HVAC vs. Electrician vs. Plumber: How Do They Compare?
|Number of Jobs||628,800||425,000||292,000|
|Expected Job Growth||14%||12%||14%|
|Degree Needed||GED/High school Diploma||GED/High school Diploma||GED/High School Diploma|
|Work Experience Needed||None||None||None|
The trades have a well-earned reputation for offering good jobs with a reliable income. Plumbers, electricians, and HVAC technicians are no different. For all of these jobs, the median annual pay is above $45,000. That’s significantly higher than it is in the U.S. as a whole, where the average worker earned $36,200 annually.
That said, there are still some differences in annual wages between HVAC technicians, electricians, and plumbers. When it comes to income, electricians come out on top. An electrician in the U.S. earns an average of $51,880 each year. A plumber earns just a little less, with a median annual salary of $50,620. HVAC technicians earn the lowest wages of the three, with a median annual income of $45,110.
Most electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians work full time, but part-time workers also earn a high hourly rate:
- Electricians: $24.94 per hour
- Plumbers: $24.34 per hour
- HVAC technicians: $21.69 per hour
Bottom line: For the highest paying job, consider plumbing or electrical work.
2. Job Growth
What about job prospects? Again, all three trades are expected to have high job growth over the next decade. While jobs in the U.S. as a whole are expected to grow by seven percent, these jobs all have expected growth of 12 percent or more.
HVAC and electrician jobs are both expected to grow by 14 percent by 2024. And plumbing jobs are expected to grow by 12 percent in the same time period.
Plumbers and electricians just entering the workforce can also expect more jobs to open up as older workers retire. The plumbing and electrical industries are likely to see a worker shortage in the next few years because so many older workers are retiring.
In some states, the impact of these retirements is already being felt. In Minnesota, 40 percent of electricians are expected to retire in the next few years. That means many homeowners and businesses are having a harder time finding a qualified electrician, and waiting longer for service.
Although HVAC technicians won’t see the same impact from retirement that plumbers and electricians will, this industry is already experiencing a shortage of qualified workers. Many employers report that finding HVAC technicians with computer and electronic skills is exceptionally difficult, and the many developments made to HVAC systems in the last few years have only increased the demand.
Bottom line: This one is a tie. All three of these trades offer a solid opportunity for stable, long-term career growth. For sheer number of job openings, electricians top the list. Between 2014 and 2024, there’s expected to be a need for another 114,700 electricians.
3. Type of Coursework Needed to Prepare
Today, having a certificate in the field can help you get an apprenticeship. Many states require a certificate for licensing.
As with most trades, the education needed for any of these jobs is very hands on. Expect to learn how to connect circuits, weld, and solder. That said, there are some differences in the types of courses you’ll take.
Courses for electricians focus heavily on electrical concepts and practices. Expect coursework to include:
- Electrical concepts
- Residential and commercial wiring
- Reading blueprints
- Connecting circuits
- Installing fuse boxes
HVAC technicians will take similar courses to obtain a certificate. HVAC certificate coursework usually includes learning about:
- Electrical concepts
- Air conditioning
- Duct systems
- Reading blueprints
- Soldering, welding, and sheet metal fabrication
Obtaining a plumbing Diploma means taking courses in:
- Water, air, and steam concepts
- Plumbing codes
- Installing and testing plumbing
- Drain and waste systems
Bottom line: The coursework for all of these trades is hands-on and should provide you with a broad overview of the field. It’s important to choose a field that’s a good match for your interests. If you enjoy working with electronics, consider an electrical certificate or HVAC training. If you prefer building and testing water systems, plumbing might be a better fit.
4. Length of Coursework
The length of coursework required for these certificates is fairly similar. The training needed for plumbers versus electricians is particularly similar. If you’re enrolled full time, it’s possible to obtain a certificate in about forty weeks.
You’ll spend slightly longer obtaining an HVAC certificate. That’s because HVAC technicians need to know the fundamentals of both plumbing and electricity. It’s still possible to complete an HVAC certificate in under a year, though.
Bottom line: For all of these programs, it’s possible to obtain your certificate in less than a year. If you’re working part time, it may take slightly longer.
5. On-The-Job Training
On-the-job training is exceptionally important in all of these fields. Most on-the-job training is conducted via an apprenticeship. You’ll work under the supervision of someone experienced in your field. An apprenticeship can last for three to five years. Once it’s completed, you’ll qualify for journeyman status in the field.
For electricians, HVAC technicians, and plumbers, the most common way to get an apprenticeship is via a union. Many unions have in-house apprenticeship programs, where you’ll learn hands-on skills in your field. You may also take additional courses. As an apprentice, you’ll receive an hourly wage for your work.
It’s also possible to find an apprenticeship on your own. This is less common than a union apprenticeship. Because it’s less common, there can also be less competition. However, you’ll need to do the work of finding a qualified technician to take you on as an apprentice.
State requirements for on-the-job training vary. That’s why it’s important to find out the requirements in your state before you begin your training. As a general rule, expect your apprenticeship or on-the-job training to last several years.
As a plumber’s apprentice, expect to put in approximately 8,000 hours of on-the-job training to get to journeyman status. This is usually somewhere between three and five years of work, depending on how many hours you work each week.
Like plumbers, electricians will go through 8,000 hours of on-the-job training to reach journeyman status. Expect to spend three to five years as an apprentice. However, some unions offer compressed apprenticeship programs that last just two to three years.
The length of an HVAC apprenticeship varies widely. If you’re considering this route, it’s particularly important to check your state requirements. In some states, an apprenticeship may include just two to three years of training. In other states, you’ll need to receive 10,000 hours of on-the-job training (five years) before reaching journeyman status.
Bottom line: The length of your on-the-job training depends more on your state than on your field of study. Check your state’s laws to determine their requirements. It’s important to note that even as an apprentice, you’ll have the ability to earn a high wage. Apprentices usually earn about half of what a journeyman does, and their wage usually increases as they learn more skills.
6. Licensing Requirements
Most states require electricians to be licensed. A few states require only Master Electricians to be licensed, but most require anybody who performs electrical work to have a license. Licensing requirements vary by state. In general, expect to prove your experience via your educational records and experience, or by taking an exam.
The National Electrical Contractors Association has a full list of state licensing requirements for electricians on their website.
Like electricians, most plumbers also need to be licensed. Forty-four states require plumbers to be licensed by the state. However, the licensing requirements vary by state. Some require proof of your education and a certain number of hours of work experience. Others require an exam before you can get a license.
The requirements for HVAC technicians vary by state. A few states require all HVAC technicians to have a license. Others only require an HVAC contractor’s license if you plan to go into business for yourself. Like electrician and plumbing licenses, you’re likely to need a certificate and work experience to obtain your license.
Bottom line: The licensing requirements for each of these jobs vary widely by state.
7. Employers and Job Settings
Because electricians are needed in so many fields, they have one of the widest varieties of job settings. Major employers include repair companies, utility providers, and construction contractors. Most electricians work full time. About one in ten electricians are self employed, which allows them to set their own schedule.
Many electricians choose to specialize in either electrical repair or in construction. Electricians who offer repair services are often in the field. They may work long days, or on evenings and weekends. Those who work in construction usually focus on designing and installing electrical systems. For these electricians, a standard Monday-Friday schedule is more common.
HVAC technicians can be self-employed, work for a repair and installation shop, or an appliance dealer. A few HVAC technicians work for construction contractors. Most HVAC technicians travel to homes and businesses to install and fix HVAC systems.
It’s not as common for HVAC technicians to specialize. Most HVAC technicians have a broad range of skills, and do everything from installation and maintenance. If you’re looking for a job with a wide variety of projects, being an HVAC technician is a good choice.
Like electricians and HVAC technicians, plumbers have a wide range of potential employers. Water providers and waste management companies are both major employers of plumbers. Other plumbers work for construction contractors or plumbing repair and installation companies. Most plumbers work full time, and about 11 percent of plumbers are self employed.
Like HVAC technicians, plumbers tend to offer a wide range of services. Many plumbers install water systems, maintain them, and repair them. Most plumbers travel to homes and businesses for projects, and working evenings or weekends isn’t uncommon.
Bottom line: There are ample opportunities for self-employment in all three trades. If you would prefer to work for a utility company or large contractor, plumbing or electrical certificates are your best bet. If you’d like to work on a range of different projects, consider becoming an HVAC technician.
8. Job Duties
What does an electrician do?
Most electricians choose one of two paths: installing new electrical systems or repairing and maintaining electrical systems.
Electricians who install wiring often work with construction or development companies. They are responsible for reading blueprints and installing wiring, circuits, and circuit breakers for new homes. Many of these electricians also work on commercial or industrial installations.
Electricians who provide maintenance or service often specialize in either residential service or industrial service. Electricians who work with homes and businesses troubleshoot problems and replace wiring and circuits when they break. Being able to solve problems and work quickly to cut down on downtime is important. Industrial electricians will perform similar jobs, but they may also work on more complex electrical systems.
What does an HVAC technician do?
HVAC technicians tend to provide installation, maintenance, and repair services. They’re less likely than electricians to specialize.
There are a wide variety of roles for an HVAC technician. People who like being out in the field may work for a repair company or an appliance dealer. You’ll be on the road frequently and get to work with a number of different systems. Another option is to work in a maintenance role in an office building, school, or hospital. HVAC technicians in this role are responsible for maintaining the building’s HVAC system. Many technicians with an entrepreneurial bent start their own repair and installation companies, too.
Many HVAC technicians will work with both plumbing and electrical systems at various points. Today’s HVAC systems are often connected with other systems. If you’re looking for a hands-on job where you can work with different types of systems, an HVAC technician role is a good choice.
What does a plumber do?
Plumbers are responsible for installing pipes, maintaining them, and repairing them. Experienced plumbers may design pipe installations for construction projects, homeowners, and utility companies. Plumbers also install and repair fixtures like sinks, water heaters, toilets, bathtubs, and showers.
Many plumbers focus on business and residential repairs. They may also contract with construction companies to install new plumbing systems. Whether you work on your own or for a company, expect to spend most of your day working in the field.
Bottom line: It’s important to choose a career path that fits your interest. If you enjoy electronics or electrical systems, consider becoming an electrician or HVAC technician. If you prefer assembling things on a larger scale, plumbing might be a better fit.
9. In-Demand Specialization and Skills
This is one of the areas where there are big differences.
Plumbers who can install low-water piping and fixtures are in high demand, and this is only likely to increase. Because building codes are getting stricter, low-water and energy-efficient fixtures are more common. However, not all plumbers have experience with these systems. If you do, you’re likely to be in demand.
For HVAC technicians, the most highly desired skills are troubleshooting skills. That’s because HVAC systems are getting more complex. Many employers report that it’s hard to find technicians with these skills. If you like to solve problems, there are a lot of open HVAC positions.
There’s a lot of demand for electricians overall, but those who can work with alternative energy sources are particularly sought after. Solar companies and wind generators are two examples of industries that are looking for qualified engineers. If you’re interested in sustainability, this might be a good career for you.
Bottom line: If you have an interest or skill that aligns with one of these in-demand areas, it might be worthwhile considering one of them as a career.