Painters apply paint, stain, and coatings to walls, buildings, bridges, and other structures.


Painters typically do the following:

  • Cover floors and furniture with dropcloths and tarps to protect surfaces
  • Remove fixtures such as pictures, doorknobs, or electric switch covers
  • Put up scaffolding and set up ladders
  • Fill holes and cracks with putty, plaster, or other compounds
  • Prepare surfaces by scraping, wire brushing, or sanding to a smooth finish
  • Calculate the area to be painted and the amount of paint needed
  • Apply primers or sealers so that the paint will adhere
  • Choose paints and stains for desired color and appearance
  • Apply paint or other finishes, using handbrushes, rollers, or sprayers

Applying paint to interior walls makes surfaces attractive and vibrant. In addition, paints and other sealers protect exterior surfaces from erosion caused by exposure to the weather.

Because there are several ways to apply paint, workers must be able to choose the proper tool for each job, such as the correct roller, power sprayer, or brush. Choosing the right tool typically depends on the surface to be covered and the characteristics of the finish.

A few painters—mainly industrial—use special safety equipment. For example, painting in confined spaces, such as the inside of a large storage tank, requires workers to wear self-contained suits to avoid inhaling toxic fumes. When painting bridges, ships, tall buildings, or oil rigs, painters may work from scaffolding, bosun’s chairs, and harnesses in order to reach work areas.

The following are examples of types of painters:

Construction painters apply paints, stains, and coatings to interior and exterior walls, new buildings, and other structural surfaces.

Maintenance painters remove old finishes and apply paints, stains, and coatings later in a structure’s life. Some painters specialize in painting or coating industrial structures, such as bridges and oil rigs, to prevent corrosion.

Artisan painters specialize in creating distinct finishes by using one of many decorative techniques. One such technique is adding glaze for increased depth and texture. Other common techniques are sponging, distressing, rag rolling, color blocking, and faux finishing.

Work Environment

Painters held about 316,200 jobs in 2012, of which 36 percent were employed in the painting and wall covering contractors industry. About 41 percent were self-employed.

Because painters apply finishes to a wide variety of structures—from bridges to the interiors and exteriors of buildings—they may work both indoors and outdoors.

Painting requires a lot of climbing, bending, kneeling, and stretching. Industrial painters typically work outdoors in dry, warm weather. Those who paint bridges or buildings may be exposed to extreme heights and uncomfortable positions; some painters are suspended by ropes or cables as they work.

Injuries and Illnesses

Painters have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Falls from ladders, muscle strains from lifting, and exposure to irritants such as drywall dust are common risks.

Work Schedules

Most painters work full time. About 41 percent were self-employed in 2012. Self-employed workers may be able to set their own schedule. Those who paint bridges, buildings, and other structures outside are not able to work when it rains.

Education and Training

Although most painters learn their trade on the job, some learn through an apprenticeship.


There are no specific education requirements to become a painter, but high school courses in English, mathematics, shop, and blueprint reading can be useful. Also, some 2-year technical schools offer courses affiliated with union and contractor organization apprenticeships. Credits earned as part of an apprenticeship program usually count toward an associate’s degree.


Some painters learn their trade through a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship, although a few local unions have additional time requirements. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 144 hours of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training. Through technical instruction, apprentices learn how to use and care for tools and equipment, how to prepare surfaces, mix and match paint, and read blueprints; application techniques; characteristics of different finishes; wood finishing; and safety practices. 

After completing an apprenticeship program, painters are considered journey workers and may perform tasks on their own.

Unions and contractors sponsor apprenticeship programs. The basic qualifications to enter an apprenticeship program are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18
  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Physically able to do the work

Although the vast majority of workers learn their trade on the job or through an apprenticeship, some contractors offer their own training program for new workers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Those interested in industrial painting can earn several certifications from the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, also known as NACE International. The most common certification for construction painters is called Protective Coating Specialist. Courses range from 1 day to several weeks, depending on the certification program and specialty. Applicants also must meet work experience requirements.

Important Qualities

Color vision. Painters must be able to identify and differentiate between subtle differences in color of paints.

Customer-service skills. Workers who paint the inside and outside of residential homes often interact with clients. They must communicate with the client, listen to what the client wants, and select colors and application techniques that satisfy the client.

Detail oriented. Painters must be precise when creating or painting edges, because minor flaws can be noticeable.

Physical stamina. Painters should be able to stay physically active for many hours, because they spend most of the day standing with their arms extended.


The median annual wage for construction and maintenance painters was $35,190 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,980, and the top 10 percent earned more than $60,240.

The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 40 percent and 70 percent of what fully trained painters make. Apprentices receive pay increases as they learn to do more.

Workers who specialize in painting structures, such as bridges, tend to have higher wages.

Most painters work full time. About 41 percent were self-employed in 2012. Self-employed workers may be able to set their own schedule. Those who paint bridges, building exteriors, and other structures outside are not able to work when it rains.

Job Outlook

Employment of painters is projected to grow 20 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

The relatively short life of paint on homes, as well as changing trends in color and application, will continue to result in demand for painters. Investors who sell properties or rent them out also will require painters’ services. Nonetheless, the ability of many homeowners to do the work themselves will temper employment growth somewhat.

Growing demand for industrial painting will be driven by the need to prevent the corrosion and deterioration of many industrial structures by painting or coating them. Applying a protective coating to the inside of a steel tank, for example, can add years to its life expectancy.

Job Prospects

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

Job opportunities for industrial painters should be excellent because the number of positions available should be greater than the pool of individuals qualified to fill them. Although industrial structures that require painting are located throughout the nation, the best employment opportunities will likely be in the Gulf Coast region, where strong demand and the largest concentration of workers exist.

New painters and those with limited experience should expect some periods of unemployment. In addition, many construction painting projects last only a short time.

Employment of painters, like that of many other construction workers, is sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. On the one hand, painters may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, peak periods of building activity may produce shortages of painters.

For More Information

For details about apprenticeships or other work opportunities for painters, contact the offices of the state employment service, the state apprenticeship agency, local contractors or firms that employ painters, or local union–management painter apprenticeship committees. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor’s toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627 or Employment and Training Administration.

For more information about painters and training opportunities, visit

Associated Builders and Contractors

International Union of Painters and Allied Trades


Painting and Decorating Contractors of America

For general information about the work of industrial painters and about opportunities for training and certification as a protective coating specialist, visit

NACE International