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IOPSA aims to create regional plumbing communities to nurture young plumbers

    • PIRB is working on a technical schools programme which aims to digitise their plumbing curriculum
    • IOPSA is trying to re-establish and develop plumbing communities in areas where there coexist a technical school and technical college
    • At the same time, there are efforts to raise the profile and image of plumbing as a career choice for learners

While PIRB is working on a technical schools programme which aims to digitise their schools plumbing curriculum so they can then be replicated across other subjects, IOPSA is working from another angle to introduce students to plumbing, explains Brendan Reynolds, IOPSA executive director.

A technical school goes to grade 12 with a focus on technical subjects like plumbing, building, electrical and motor mechanics, with even ordinary subjects like mathematics having a technical bent to it rather than purely academic.

Reynolds explains IOPSA’s involvement with secondary education: “We’re involved with a number of technical schools where we do some guest lecturing, bring in some manufacturers to do demonstrations to the youth of different products and different aspects of plumbing. The aim is to create some interest and excitement among learners regarding plumbing among all the trades and we also host a skills competition to see who’s best at plumbing out of all the technical colleges in a province.

“We’ve donated textbooks, Plumbing Africa magazines, and various literature to a large number of schools. More importantly, IOPSA is trying to re-establish and link plumbing communities in areas where there coexist a technical school and technical college, connecting them with local plumbers, local plumbing manufacturers and the suppliers. These networks used to exist and acted as a funnel for apprentices to find jobs at local plumbing firms and for those firms to source their apprentices. But at the moment these entities do not work together, not even between a technical school and college,” explains Reynolds.

“The ideal scenario would be for a young person to come out of a technical school and go straight to the college while being supported by a local plumbing firm, with local manufacturers and retailers creating an environment that enables opportunities with extra-curricular knowledge and materials. That’s a long term strategy which we think can certainly improve our reach into schools and the youth,” says Reynolds.

The alternative, he explains, wastes time: a scholar enrolled at an academic school who later decides to become a plumber and enrolls at a technical college first has to learn the basics of plumbing – like how to read a basic plan, how to cut properly, how to measure properly and what the right tools are for the right applications, what are the health and safety rules.

“In contrast, if you look at the European university environment, if a learner for instance wants to become an accountant, they’ve already done the basics of accountancy at school. So their tertiary education can start at a higher level and therefore can end at a much higher level. The drawback of plumbing in South Africa is that we’re starting apprentices’ careers in plumbing at too basic a level, with the end result being lower than it might have been had that person entered the trade with the basics already in place from school,” he suggests.

Plumbing as a career of choice for students

“At the same time, we are trying to raise the profile and image of plumbing as a career choice among technical and academic schools alike. We had a meeting with 12 technical schools in Gauteng and found that plumbing was the default choice only when all the other disciplines were full – students would have to be forced into it.  It doesn’t have the right image among kids, so we’re simultaneously running an image campaign – to inculcate the idea among young people, parents and the public of plumbing as a career of choice,” says Reynolds.

This poor image is one that the plumbing industry all over the world suffers from. “It’s really sad, because it is such an important career and yet there is this perception that it’s not a career of choice. It’s an image that if you can’t do anything else you can still became a plumber. The reality is it’s an extremely important and highly technical career choice. And it’s becoming more and more important as the world faces ever growing water and sanitation challenges.”

Maybe plumbers themselves don’t resent this viewpoint because many of them have made a lot of money and done exceptionally well for themselves out of the trade. But addressing this false image is one of the aims among the plumbing communities that IOPSA is working on.

“We want to get plumbers to go and talk to youngsters in the technical schools, to get those youngsters excited about plumbing and to maybe do a little holiday work with a plumber, to start learning and seeing the opportunities in the trade. By building this community we will get everybody collectively working together for the betterment of the bigger industry.

“That is what happened in the past. But in the last 20 years or so we’ve all tended to work in silos. The technical schools operated with very little interaction, if any, with the community around them. The colleges were doing the same, as were the plumbers, the manufacturers and the retailers. Whereas if they work together, they can learn from each other – and generate a local impact. For instance, if the technical colleges started talking to the technical school they could ask them to focus somewhat on areas of weakness found at college when youngsters come into the workshops, where it may have been found that they haven’t learned a basic skill properly,” says Reynolds.

“In some regions this initiative hasn’t quite got going yet, in others it’s a slow process, while in others it is developing well. It’s patchy, but ultimately I think it’s going to have a massive impact in the way that young plumbers are developed.”

Reynolds describes the process: areas were identified which had a technical school and technical college in proximity. “We did an assessment of most of the colleges, to determine which were at a decent standard, and then linked these together with schools, irrespective of whether the colleges were public (TVET) or private.

“Not all saw eye to eye, and they can’t be compelled to partner – but we established pockets where it’s working quite well.”

The motivation of this strategy is that this used to occur naturally. A young person would be identified as being better suited to technical skills than academic skills and would be guided through the school system to go into a technical school. There they would be given a broad exposure to mechanical, building, plumbing, electrical, carpentry and others to determine which they prefer. It would be a natural progression to the technical college, and they would be started on that career path.

What has happened globally is a fixation on only going to university. Reynolds reports that even at technical schools, it is found that teachers lament the fact that their learners are not going on to university.

“We argue that technically minded learners shouldn’t really be going to university – they can if they want to, but we should really be guiding them and showing them that the technical and artisanal subjects provide great careers.

“We’re really trying to restore the natural order of things in which a youngster who has learned a little bricklaying, motor car mechanics, carpentry, a bit of electrical and some plumbing, who then decides to become a plumber having had that broad range of knowledge and experience. That plumber is in fact going to do a little bit of each of these other trades in his everyday work so this will make for a big improvement in the quality of his work as a plumber,” says Reynolds.

Trade schools allow a student to graduate with matric, but in different subjects. “There’s a subject called technical maths along with the better known core maths and maths literacy. Technical maths is really about things that artisans and technical people would use: measuring, drawing and calculating areas and volumes, which is far more practical than, say, calculus or other things one learns in academic math.

“If you’re going to become a plumber, an electrician or a carpenter, the curriculum needs to match what you need to know. There’s a whole range of matric subjects that most people are not aware of related to building, plumbing, electrical, carpentry that gives exemption for university entrance – or more appropriately for a TVET college,” says Reynolds.

Written by Eamonn Ryan

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