Career Guide for Painters

Painters apply paint and stain to interior and exterior surfaces. Most painters learn on the job and formal training is not required. Job prospects for painters are excellent as many people leave the industry for other jobs.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a painter.

Painter Summary

  • Most workers learn informally on the job as helpers, but some experts recommend completion of an apprenticeship program.
  • Employment prospects for painters should be excellent due to the large numbers of workers who leave the occupation for other jobs; paperhangers will face very limited opportunities.
  • About 45 percent of painters and paperhangers are self-employed.

Working as a Painter

Paint and indoor wall coverings make surfaces clean, attractive, and vibrant. In addition, paints and other sealers protect exterior surfaces from erosion caused by exposure to the weather.

Painters apply paint, stain, varnish, and other finishes to buildings and other structures. They select the right paint or finish for the surface to be covered, taking into account durability, ease of handling, method of application, and customers’ wishes. Painters first prepare the surfaces to be coated, so that the paint will adhere properly. This may require removing the old coat of paint by sanding, wire brushing, burning, or water and abrasive blasting. Painters also fill nail holes and cracks, sandpaper rough spots, and wash walls and trim to remove dirt, grease, and dust. On new surfaces, they apply a primer or sealer to prepare the surface for the top coat. Painters also mix paints and match colors, relying on knowledge of paint composition and color harmony. In most paint shops or hardware stores, mixing and matching are automated.

There are several ways to apply paint and similar coverings. Therefore, painters must be able to choose the appropriate paint applicator for each job, depending on the surface to be covered, the characteristics of the finish, and other factors. Some jobs need only a good bristle brush with a soft, tapered edge; others require a dip or fountain pressure roller; still, others are best done using a paint sprayer. Many jobs need several types of applicators. In fact, painters may use an assortment of brushes, edgers, and rollers for a single job. The right tools speed the painter’s work and produce the most attractive finish.

Some painting artisans specialize in creating distinctive finishes by using one of many decorative techniques. These techniques frequently involve “broken color,” a process created by applying one or more colors in broken layers over a different base coat to produce a speckled or textured effect. Often these techniques employ glazes or washes applied over a solid colored background. Glazes are made of oil-based paints and give a sleek glow to walls. Washes are made of latex-based paints that have been thinned with water which adds a greater sense of depth and texture. Other decorative painting techniques include sponging, rag-rolling, stippling, sheen striping, dragging, distressing, color blocking, marbling, and faux finishes.

Some painters specialize in painting industrial structures to prevent deterioration. One example is applying a protective coating to oil rigs or steel bridges to fight corrosion. The coating most commonly used is a waterborne acrylic solvent that is easy to apply and environmentally friendly, but other specialized and sometimes difficult-to-apply coatings may be used. Painters may also coat interior and exterior manufacturing facilities and equipment such as storage tanks, plant buildings, lockers, piping, structural steel, and ships.

When painting any industrial structure, workers must take necessary safety precautions depending on their project. Those who specialize in interior applications such as painting the inside of storage tanks, for example, must wear a full-body protective suit. When working on bridges, painters are often suspended by cables and may work at extreme heights. When working on tall buildings, painters erect scaffolding, including “swing stages,” scaffolds suspended by ropes, or cables attached to roof hooks. When painting steeples and other pointed structures, they use a bosun’s chair, a swing-like device.

Paperhangers cover walls with decorative coverings made of paper, vinyl, or fabric. They first prepare the surface to be covered by applying a compound, which seals the surface and makes the covering adhere better. When redecorating, they may first remove the old covering by soaking, steaming, or applying solvents. When necessary, they patch holes and take care of other imperfections before hanging the new wall covering.

After preparing the surface, paperhangers mix the adhesive unless they are using pretreated paper. They then measure the area to be covered, check the covering for flaws, cut the covering into strips of the proper size, and closely examine the pattern in order to match it when the strips are hung. A great deal of this process can now be handled by specialized equipment.

The next step is to brush or roll the adhesive onto the back of the covering, if needed, and to then place the strips on the wall, making sure the pattern is matched, the strips are straight, and the edges are butted together to make tight, closed seams. Finally, paperhangers smooth the strips to remove bubbles and wrinkles, trim the top and bottom with a utility knife, and wipe off any excess adhesive.

Work environment. Most painters and paperhangers work 40 hours a week or less; about 25 percent have variable schedules or work part time. Painters and paperhangers must stand for long periods, often working from scaffolding and ladders. Their jobs also require a considerable amount of climbing, bending, kneeling, and stretching. These workers must have good stamina because much of the work is done with their arms raised overhead. Painters, especially industrial painters, often work outdoors, almost always in dry, warm weather. Those who paint bridges or building infrastructure may be exposed to extreme heights and uncomfortable positions; some painters work suspended with ropes or cables.

Some painting jobs can leave a worker covered with paint. Drywall dust created by electric sanders prior to painting requires workers to wear protective safety glasses and a dust mask. Painters and paperhangers occasionally work with materials that are hazardous or toxic, such as when they are required to remove lead-based paints. In the most dangerous situations, painters work in a sealed self-contained suit to prevent inhalation of or contact with hazardous materials. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that full-time painters and paperhangers experienced a work-related injury and illness rate that was higher than the national average.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Painting and paperhanging is learned mostly on the job, but some experts recommend completion of an apprenticeship program.

Education and training. Most painters and paperhangers learn through on-the-job training and by working as a helper for an experienced painter. However, there are a number of formal and informal training programs that provide more thorough instruction and a better career foundation. In general, the more formal the training received, the more likely the individual will enter the profession at a higher level and earn a higher salary. There are limited informal training opportunities for paperhangers because there are fewer paperhangers and helpers are usually not required.

A high school education or its equivalent usually is required to enter an apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships for painters and paperhangers consist of 2 to 4 years of paid on-the-job training, supplemented by a minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction each year. Apprentices receive instruction in color harmony, use and care of tools and equipment, surface preparation, application techniques, paint mixing and matching, characteristics of different finishes, blueprint reading, wood finishing, and safety.

Besides apprenticeships, some workers gain skills by attending technical or vocational schools that offer training prior to employment. These schools can take about a year to complete.

Whether a painter learns the trade through a formal apprenticeship or informally as a helper, on-the-job instruction covers similar skill areas. Under the direction of experienced workers, trainees carry supplies, erect scaffolds, and do simple painting and surface preparation tasks while they learn about paint and painting equipment. As they gain experience, trainees learn to prepare surfaces for painting and paperhanging, to mix paints, and to apply paint and wall coverings efficiently and neatly. Near the end of their training, they may learn decorating concepts, color coordination, and cost-estimating techniques. In addition to learning craft skills, painters must become familiar with safety and health regulations so that their work complies with the law.

Other qualifications. Painters and paperhangers should have good manual dexterity, vision, and color sense. They also need physical stamina and balance to work on ladders and platforms. Apprentices or helpers generally must be at least 18 years old, in addition to the high school diploma or GED that most apprentices need.

Certification and advancement. Some organizations offer training and certification to enhance the skills of their members. People interested in industrial painting, for example, can earn several designations from the National Association of Corrosion Engineers in several areas of specialization, including one for coating applicators, called Protective Coating Specialist. Courses range from 1 day to several weeks depending on the certification program and specialty, and applicants must usually satisfy work experience requirements.

Painters and paperhangers may advance to supervisory or estimating jobs with painting and decorating contractors. Many establish their own painting and decorating businesses. For those who would like to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited English skills; Spanish-speaking workers make up a large segment of the construction workforce in many areas. Painting contractors need good English skills to deal with clients and subcontractors.

Employment as a Painter

Painters and paperhangers held about 450,100 jobs in 2008 of which 98 percent were painters. Around 36 percent of painters and paperhangers work for painting and wall covering contractors engaged in new construction, repair, restoration, or remodeling work. In addition, organizations that own or manage large buildings—such as apartment complexes—may employ painters, as do some schools, hospitals, factories, and government agencies.

Job Outlook

Overall employment is expected to grow 7 percent, reflecting as fast as average growth among painters but a rapid decline in the number of paperhangers. Excellent employment opportunities are expected for painters due to the need to replace the large number of workers who leave the occupation; paperhangers will have very limited opportunities.

Employment change. Overall employment is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2008 and 2018, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of painters will grow 7 percent, as retiring baby boomers either purchase second homes or otherwise leave their existing homes that then require interior painting. Investors who sell properties or rent them out will also require the services of painters prior to completing a transaction. The relatively short life of exterior paints in residential homes as well as changing color and application trends will continue to support demand for painters. Painting is labor-intensive and not susceptible to technological changes that might make workers more productive and slow employment growth.

Growth of industrial painting will be driven by the need to prevent corrosion and deterioration of the many industrial structures by painting or coating them. Applying a protective coating to steel bridges, for example, is cost-effective and can add years to the life expectancy of a bridge.

Employment of paperhangers, on the other hand, should decline rapidly as many homeowners take advantage of easy application materials and resort to cheaper alternatives, such as painting.

Job prospects. Job prospects for painters should be excellent because of the need to replace workers who leave the occupation for other jobs. There are no strict training requirements for entry into these jobs, so many people with limited skills work as painters or helpers for a relatively short time and then move on to other types of work with higher pay or better working conditions.

Opportunities for industrial painters should be excellent as the positions available should be greater than the pool of qualified individuals to fill them. While industrial structures that require painting are located throughout the Nation, the best employment opportunities should be in the Gulf Coast region, where strong demand and the largest concentration of workers exists.

Very few openings will arise for paperhangers because the number of these jobs is comparatively small and cheaper, more modern decorative finishes such as faux effects and sponge painting have gained in popularity at the expense of paper, vinyl, or fabric wall coverings.

Jobseekers considering these occupations should expect some periods of unemployment, especially until they gain experience. Many construction projects are of short duration, and construction activity is cyclical in nature. Remodeling, restoration, and maintenance projects, however, should continue as homeowners undertake renovation projects and hire painters even in economic downturns. Nonetheless, workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, a shortage of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Painters and paperhangers 47-2140 450,100 479,900 29,800 7
Painters, construction and maintenance 47-2141 442,800 473,600 30,900 7
Paperhangers 47-2142 7,400 6,300 -1,100 -14
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Painters

In May 2008, median hourly wages of wage and salary painters, construction and maintenance, were $15.85, not including the earnings of the self-employed. The middle 50 percent earned between $13.13 and $20.55. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.75, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $27.16. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of painters were as follows:

Nonresidential building construction $16.72
Building finishing contractors 15.48
Residential building construction 14.87

In May 2008, median hourly wages for wage and salary paperhangers were $16.76. The middle 50 percent earned between $13.64 and $23.08. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.82, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33.48.

Earnings for painters may be reduced on occasion because of bad weather and the short-term nature of many construction jobs. Hourly wage rates for apprentices usually start at 40 to 50 percent of the rate for experienced workers and increase periodically.

Some painters and paperhangers are members of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. Some painters are members of other unions.

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