Tapping into hidden skills to accelerate plumbing industry transformation

Artisan Recognition of Prior Learning (ARPL), which officially recognizes prior learning in the form of registered qualifications and unit standards, can be a powerful engine for transforming the formal plumbing industry and the construction sector in general. It does this by allowing more skilled and experienced tradespeople working in the informal plumbing industry to gain a recognized qualification. Closer collaboration between leading industry bodies, public bodies, education providers and industry could greatly expand the reach of ARPL to enable more people to access decent, safe and better paying jobs in the formal plumbing industry while maintaining the opportunity to do so grow and develop as professionals and individuals. Around 80% of the estimated 100,000 unskilled ‘plumbers’ in the informal sector are black Africans.

Additionally, ARPL has the potential to play an even greater role in addressing the country’s acute shortage of skilled plumbers, while supporting the National Development Plan’s goal of training the 30,000 additional tradesmen per year needed for major public works programs . The existing education and training system is struggling to keep up with the significant demand for professional plumbers. This accounts for the many industrial, commercial, hospitality and residential developments that require reliable and safe water and sanitation services in the country. In 2018, nearly 90% of all households in the country had access to potable water from on-site or off-site faucets or pipes. Meanwhile, just over 80% of all South African households had access to sanitation facilities.

Currently, more than 86% of all people working as plumbers are not qualified, with more than half of all workers in the industry currently working in the informal sector. Some of these individuals acquired their skills through working in the formal plumbing industry. They left their employers to service property owners who may not want to pay the fees charged by professional plumbers or who cannot afford these services. In some cases they are employed by professional plumbing companies and work ad hoc in the informal plumbing industry to supplement their income. Some individuals work in the informal industry to survive due to limited employment prospects, particularly for low-skilled individuals. The very low prices at which these people provide their services are unsustainable and endanger both the formal and informal plumbing industry.

Brendan Reynolds, executive director of the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), says the severe shortage of qualified plumbers and the increasing “informality” of the industry has long been a problem. “These issues threaten the sustainability of the professional sanitation industry and efforts to strengthen an industry that plays a key role in providing water and sanitation for health, hygiene and well-being. Added to this is the efficient use of water and energy. Consumers are also increasingly at risk from these challenges. Because unqualified plumbers have not received formal and structured training, they may not be aware of the latest plumbing standards and regulations. This is particularly the case in the informal plumbing market, where regulations and standards tend to be poorly adhered to and enforced. Among the many risks associated with poor plumbing workmanship are pipe leaks or bursts, which can result in costly property damage. In extenuating circumstances, entire plumbing systems may also need to be replaced at significant additional cost to the owner. Not to mention the many health and safety risks associated with poor quality plumbing. These include the potential contamination of clean drinking water, the spread of disease, scalding and, in some cases, explosions,” says Reynolds.

Unlike professional plumbers, the informal sector also struggles to keep up with the latest industry trends, such as B. “Green” sanitation systems that reduce water and energy consumption. This expertise is particularly important in a water-scarce country that is also struggling with a severe energy crisis. Many professional plumbers have completed training in various “green” plumbing disciplines. This enables them to better serve the high demand for sustainable sanitation solutions while improving and expanding their skillset to ensure they are always relevant.

IOPSA and the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB), the professional association of South Africa’s plumbing industry, continue to promote the ARPL program. By recognizing previous knowledge, skills and competences through appropriate assessment processes, ARPL enables individuals who have acquired their learning outside of traditional education and training to obtain certification. Traditionally, professional plumbers have completed a 3-year post-matrix qualification at a National Qualification Framework Level 4 and the necessary industry plumbing training before writing a trade exam.

Individuals who have worked in the industry for at least four years may apply to the ARPL to gain a qualification. Checklists and phase assessments are used to determine candidates’ readiness for writing their trading tests. If limitations in their knowledge are identified, candidates will be given the opportunity to complete gap training. Once candidates have completed this briefing, a portfolio of technical evidence can be assembled and used to recommend them for trade testing.

However, the ARPL program has its limitations. Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), which recently conducted extensive research into the effectiveness and limitations of the ARPL in addressing the sector’s “informality” and shortage of qualified plumbers, has put forward recommendations to improve the system.

Identified hurdles include the costs associated with participating in the ARPL. This prevents many self-employed people in the informal industry from getting involved. TIPS therefore proposes that the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Sector Education and Training Authorities and the National Artisan Moderation Body work towards eliminating the cost of the ARPL entirely. Another alternative is to offer a subsidy or incentive to make the program more affordable. To remove the cost barrier, IOPSA, PIRB and Harambee offer fully funded ARPL training with trade testing.

TIPS also suggests that education and qualifications institutions, vocational training institutions, the Quality Council for Jobs and Professions (QCTO) and DHET work with industry to find alternatives to the Red Seal QCTO qualification. For example, individuals might qualify to become assistant plumbers. This approach will ensure that qualified individuals in the formal market who fail the trade examination still have access to decent employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, TIPS has recommended that IOPSA and PIRB continue to encourage formal industry to register unskilled workers for the ARPL. This also includes making them aware of the advantages of the program and the importance of qualified employees.

Although training is beneficial for both employers and employees, some companies are still reluctant to send members of their teams to ARPL. Some employers cannot afford the time it takes employees to go through multiple processes before they are ready to write their trade exams. There are also companies that do not want to pay the higher wages that qualified employees demand. Some employers also fear that once employees are qualified to start trading on their own, they will leave the company. This means they lose skills and incur costs to replace them, while at the same time having to compete with more qualified plumbers in the formal market.

“Both IOPSA and PIRB are proud of the role we have played so far in transforming the South African sanitation industry, including through ARPL. We’ve made tremendous strides in promoting ARPL over the job title over the years. However, with the help of other key industry players, we can ensure that the program can play an even bigger role in addressing the profession’s ‘informality’ and the severe shortage of qualified plumbers,” concludes Reynolds.

For more information visit www.iopsa.org

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