When a sector organises itself into an engine of inclusive growth, it can focus on the mutual interests of all stakeholders, including industry bodies, employers and educators. Working together enables them to identify sector needs, create jobs, and fill those jobs with young people who would otherwise be locked out of the economy. Setting these young people up for success with transformative training enables them to play a vital role in enhancing the sector and the economy.

Brendan Reynolds, Executive Director of IOPSA (Institute of Plumbing South Africa), says the realisation that construction and plumbing companies had stopped taking on apprentices was a wake-up call.

“Plumbing offers great opportunities. It features on the 2020 National List of Occupations in High Demand and is part of the government’s target to have 30,000 trained artisans in place annually to fulfil strategic infrastructure projects and Covid recovery plans,” he says. “If we can change employers’ perceptions of apprentices, we will see significant growth in apprenticeships and new employment opportunities to meet the government’s target.”

According to Reynolds, many young people arbitrarily choose trade jobs because they offer a faster route to earning a stipend. However, if a young person is not suited to the work, they will not succeed regardless of how desperate they are to make a living.

“A poor match between a young person and their chosen vocation is one of the reasons that our TVET colleges show low pass rates and aren’t producing the candidates our industry wants.”

Through collaboration and an enabling partnership between Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator and IOPSA, the plumbing sector has identified its challenges in appropriately sourcing and skilling young people as artisans, ready to tackle their apprenticeships with willing and supportive employers. In response, it has now introduced two game-changing education models for plumbing.

BluLever Education – an apprenticeship that takes itself seriously

BluLever Education, an organisation that develops artisans through holistic vocational education and skills training, offers a Red Seal plumbing qualification after a 3-year practical apprenticeship.

BluLever has designed a unique approach to apprenticeships that feature three months on campus and nine months of job shadowing and on-the-job training in the workplace every year. However, it starts with an intense 8-week induction leadership camp that equips candidates with the attitudes they need to succeed.

Harambee sources candidates for the programme through the sayouth.mobi platform, based on the attitudes and aptitudes most valued in successful plumbers. They are interviewed in one-on-one sessions with the BluLever team and attend a class-based session where problem-solving, teachability and hand skills are assessed before they are invited to the leadership camp.

Adam Collier, Co-Founder and Co-CEO at BluLever, says that they want candidates who will succeed as apprentices. “We want young people who are passionate about their work, interested in it, and willing to put three years into it.” Of the 509 applications received by Harambee, 47 youth were offered to join the programme, 45 signed acceptance letters, and 42 attended the leadership camp to begin their plumbing training.

Collier, who is recognised as one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2021 for his response to the new and unique challenges of the past year, says the BluLever apprenticeship takes itself seriously. Combining the focus on candidates’ personal qualities while enhancing their life skills through work-readiness training, technology skills, entrepreneurial thinking, and understanding the ever-essential ‘soft skills’, makes all the difference to the candidates’ future success.

BluLever attributes much of the success of its programme to the support of Harambee and IOPSA, particularly the relationships IOPSA develops with willing employers in the sector. Success depends on all stakeholders’ involvement, and BluLever has formed good relationships with over 80 companies at which trainees will be apprenticed. These range from small plumbing businesses to larger construction and maintenance companies. They have a vested interest in their apprentices because they contractually commit to them for the full three years, which includes paying their stipends for that period.

The ultimate goal is for the partnership to share programme learnings and successes with TVET colleges, with scale in mind, to develop more young people employers want to hire.

National Business Initiative introduces a new qualification

In 2019, IOPSA led a process to register the Plumbing Hand skills programme, which has created a new entry-level pathway for young people into the plumbing industry. The entry-level qualification offers a short, high-impact route to employment. It comprises 13 weeks in the classroom hosted by select TVET colleges identified by the National Business Initiative (NBI) in partnership with IOPSA. Harambee is responsible for recruiting, selecting, and matching trainees based on their likelihood of success, taking their attributes and interests into account. The host employer makes the final selection in many cases. Their plumbing hand works under the supervision of a qualified plumber to learn a vital role in offices, hotels, or any building with plumbing where small things often go wrong, like leaking toilets or dripping taps.

Alongside an intensive focus on plumbing skills, the curriculum includes an effective work readiness programme developed by Harambee, providing a range of modules such as behaviours and socialisation for work. In addition, the Allan Gray Makers programme introduces the opportunities and possibilities for business ownership and entrepreneurship.

This is followed by 6-9 months of structured workplace learning in a company under the supervision of a qualified, experienced plumber who acts as a mentor for the candidates, providing them with regular ongoing support and check-ins.

This much-needed intervention supplies the industry with the skills it needs while pathwaying young people into work as quickly as possible, especially those who don’t have the funding to study for three years on a stipend. It also increases their chances of progressing to a Red Seal plumbing qualification as they achieve an accredited qualification that places them on the road to apprenticeship, and they can work while studying.

“The Plumbing Hand programme provides a basis to shift the mindset of TVET colleges towards more employment-oriented programmes,” says Anthony Gewer, a programme manager at NBI. “The programme addresses the gap between theory and workplace application, laying the foundation for meaningful career pathways.”

To date, 66 TVET college students have enrolled in the plumbing programme, with 32 successfully completing it in 2020 and the remaining due to finish in November 2021. The current 86% pass rate shows a significant increase to what TVET programmes have previously achieved. The first cohort of Plumbing Hand graduates have been registered with the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB) as Technical Operator Practitioners and are now on their way to becoming qualified plumbers.

Not just a man’s job

A Gender Equity and Social Inclusion (GESI) strategy has been developed to assist and enable an element of IOPSA’s transformation strategy for the plumbing sector. The plan provides a framework to identify where and how additional support can be provided to individuals and employers to create an environment conducive to the participation of diverse groups, particularly women, who have previously struggled to access the sector.

Areas where the GESI work has made strides include a review of the plumbing curriculum with gender equity and social inclusion lens, enabling greater access to plumbing training and work opportunities, channels to support candidates and employers, and the development of social inclusion workshops to generate awareness on equity and social inclusion. A simple, yet very significant example of this is the awareness of the need for women’s bathrooms and changing areas in the workplace, which has not always been available until now, therefore creating a feeling of exclusion for women on plumbing teams.

Both programmes have a particular focus on gender inclusion. Neither BluLever nor NBI battle to attract women to a career in plumbing, with female participation in both programmes being well over 50%.

Kaela Wilson, marketing director for Women in Plumbing, an organisation that advocates plumbing as a viable career for females, says some gender-specific traits give women an added advantage in the job.

“Women have an eye for detail and patience for challenging situations,” she says. “They are also less threatening when coming into your private property or business, and women are better at communicating with the customer in an understandable and comfortable manner.”

Feedback from trainers and employers on the current female candidates is that they perform at the same, or better, levels than their male colleagues.

In their own words

Mothusi, BluLever apprentice: “The person I was before the boot camp is very much different from the person that I am right now. Now I am able to confidently interact with people, I’m able to confidently voice my concerns and stand my ground.”

Zanele, BluLever apprentice: “What attracted me is that there are not so many women that are doing plumbing. We all had the stigma of saying that it’s a man’s job. So I want to be that role model that tells other women that you can do it. I want to go into water and sanitation because water is a scarce resource in South Africa.”

Lulama, BluLever apprentice: “I believe that women have the drive and they have that energy and that motivation to keep on learning new things and to keep on upskilling themselves because we want to climb the ladder. Eventually, I want to upskill myself to be a master plumber.”

IOPSA research conducted two years ago found that of the 125,000 people who identified themselves as plumbers, fewer than 20,000 were actually qualified. The earning potential for unqualified or informal plumbers is lower (roughly 50% less) than their qualified counterparts. Their work is also less secure and offers fewer opportunities for career advancement. The result of this is a significant bottleneck that constrains inclusive industry growth. This new industry-wide approach to plumber training not only gives young people a pathway into vocational work but will also bolster the number of qualified plumbers in South Africa, who will not only earn more and advance further but can start their own businesses, which unlocks employment opportunities for entry-level youth, catalyses employment and has a multiplier effect on the increase in earnings for plumbers and growth for the sector.

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