- A child who shows a mechanical inclination early in school life should be nurtured towards a technical school
- A learner exhibiting that inclination later at school should complete matric at their academic school and enroll for an apprenticeship
- Thereafter, it would involve conversations with plumbing firms in the area to enquire about an apprenticeship
Enrolling a child at a technical college for plumbing involves making a number of decisions. For a youth who exhibits interest in becoming a plumber (or indeed any trade) while still at school, their route to an artisanal career depends on the grade at which their epiphany occurs, says Brendan Reynolds, executive director of IOPSA.
“Whether its grade eight, as opposed to grade 12, makes a difference. If it’s at a grade eight, a careers teacher should definitely encourage them to go to a technical high school. If it’s grade 10 to 12 when they’re already well established in the academic environment then it would be best for them to finish their matric where they are, because it’s always important to at least have a matric – though one also gets matric in a technical school.
“But even while finishing their schooling, they should go and talk to plumbers in their neighbourhood, or have their parents assist in this, to see if one would take them on as an apprentice. If that’s successful, after matric they can sign up to a technical college that most likely their parents would have to pay for – though it’s quite significantly less money than university. There is funding available from government, but it is difficult to access due to the high demand. Most parents in South Africa do find funding one way or another for their children’s tertiary education.
“Learning is not free: it’s either a government loan, savings or parents take out a policy, and finally bursaries which are less common. The same applies for technical college.
“It is a big decision for most parents to send their child to a technical college rather than a university. There’s this sense that middle class children will go into academic fields, and lower income children will go into technical or vocational colleges to become artisans. That’s nonsensical: for instance, you could have the child of the CEO of one of the top companies in the country whose child might be more inclined to a vocational or artisanal career. But that’s their inclination which has nothing to do wealth or education. It’s got everything to do with what the youth enjoys doing and what they’re good at.
“It’s all about the type of inherent skills that they have. Some children are just unbelievable in the things they can accomplish, whether building a piece of furniture or some artistic ability in which case their parents may send them to a fancy art school. But when somebody is skilled in artisanal subjects whereby they want to work with their hands to resolve practical real life problems, it sometimes happens that they’re looked down on. There’s an element of bias there that we need to change.
“Why do we place more value on someone who makes an app that counts our steps than the plumber that makes clean water come out of our taps and sorts out our sanitation? That plumber should be valued more because they actually do something real, tangible and meaningful for you, something that that adds value to everybody, to society and the environment. There are so many young people that have been pressured into going an academic route that’s completely the wrong fit for them,” he says.
“For instance, anecdotally I believe that even the majority of plumbers would encourage their children to get a university degree – because that is what society demands. Society wants to hear that you’re an IT programmer or banker. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. We’ve got to change that mindset, because it’s hurting people’s lives.”
Reynolds explains that a further step required in encouraging a career in plumbing is for everyone in the industry to get involved in the academic schools’ career days to explain how plumbing is a great career option, and a way to have kids at an early age can have their own business. The message has to be that plumbing is a highly sustainable business because as long as human beings drink water and use the toilet, they’re going to need plumbers. “People can’t survive without doing those two things, so there will always be a need for a plumber.”
The range of technical colleges are “sadly a mixed bag” with some fantastic colleges and some really dreadful ones, admits Reynolds. For this reason, IOPSA has set about accrediting them all to give learners a guide to where they should look. “My advice to young people or their parents is to have a look on the IOPSA website where there’s a list of IOPSA accredited colleges.
“The colleges apply for it, and pay a fee for our inspection. We do an audit of their facilities and that they have the necessary tools, the qualifications of their teachers, their health and safety. We go into quite some depth to make sure that these colleges are up to standard. They’ve already been vetted by the Department of Higher Education and by QCTO which ensures that the fundamentals exist.
“Our audit looks for more and we support them in terms of keeping their standards up, and inform them of opportunities for more training, additional lectures and additional teaching materials to keep the standard up.
“Thereafter, aspirant plumbers should make the time and effort to talk to plumbers in their area, because those plumbers also know which colleges are good.
The ARPL route
“The great thing about becoming an artisan is that one doesn’t have to go to college at all. This isn’t to be encouraged as one’s first option, but the potential exists to learn by extending one’s apprenticeship from three to rather four or five years to learn the trade, and then apply for ARPL (artisanal recognition of prior learning).
“That’s another way of going about it, to cut out some of the college part – but it’s not ideal and I don’t recommend that as the best way to go. But if you don’t have a great college in your area, that might be the better way to go.
IOPSA provides a lot of content online, which is readily available on YouTube, but Reynolds describes this as being only over and above the curriculum. “The curriculum for the most part teaches hand skills. It’s learning to physically do the job, so it’s not something one can do online.
“In South Africa this is all a little different from the rest of the world because we have a massive informal plumbing sector with a wholesale disregard for the law and plumbing standards. There’s also little or no enforcement of the law. This makes it extremely difficult for a plumber to achieve the kind of professionalism they might want. Professionalism is not just about status, but about income and building a sustainable business that can last generations.
“This is at an institutional level. If nobody in authority ever comes to check a homeowner’s plumbing when they build a house and tell them when something has been done wrong and must be corrected with a qualified plumber, it creates a certain perception about the low value the authorities place on plumbing.
“In contrast, on the electrical side when a person sells their house they’ve got to have that electrical certificate of compliance or they can’t sell the house. Homeowners are aware that if their house burns down because they’ve done shoddy electrical work on it that the insurance company is going to investigate it and might repudiate the claim.
“Therefore they use a professional electrician who’s properly qualified. It stems from the authorities’ attitude – and the absence of that perception towards plumbing serve to lessen the status of a plumbers in the community. That has to change through official enforcement of its regulations,” says Reynolds.
Written by Eamonn Ryan