World Plumbing Council Scholarship winner Ryan Marsh visited Melbourne earlier this year as a guest of Cooke & Dowsett where he was exposed to a range of plumbing disciplines that were very different to the way things work in his home country of South Africa. He is an ambassador for the profession in his country and is currently National Expert of Plumbing and Heating at Worldskills South Africa as well as Program Manager of CBMT/Skills – Building & Civil at Northlink College and a former Lecturer in Civil Engineering and Building Construction department. Here Ryan sheds light on what the industry is like in South Africa, and the big plans he has on the horizon from Abu Dhabi to Australia.

Can you talk to us more about plumbing in South Africa and how you are trying to change perceptions about plumbing as a career?

I respect and acknowledge the training system that is currently applied to train plumbers in South Africa. This system, along with a diverse apprenticeship background, has equipped me with the ability to excel exponentially within my industry. I however feel that it is time for this system to be renovated to encompass more modern developments in the industry, so that we are able to really train plumbers of the future, who are able to meet any challenges within an ever-evolving industry head on. I am currently at the helm of managing a practical training and trade testing centre, a position that I never dreamt of being in, but my need for establishing admiration for my skill has lead me here. As I progressed in my career as a plumber I realized that there are many inexperienced plumbers and layman who were ruining the image and reputation of plumbers nationally. I figured that the only possible way to change the mindsets and improve the skill sets of these individuals would be to migrate to education and training and thereby be able to shape their minds and hone their skills, so that they are able to comprehend the importance of plumbers and the work that they do.

You run some progressive training centres in South Africa, can you talk to us more about this and about what your objectives are?

I am fortunate to be in the service of one of the leading vocational training institutions within the Western Cape. The campus where I am based used to be run by a historical stalwart in vocation education and training, BIFSA for decades. Northlink college has taken over these training venues and continue to produce most of the building and civil artisans, juxtaposed to Indlela, previously known as Olifantsfontein in Johannesburg.

My objective as the program manager, is to modernize and adapt these traditional venues so that they are recognized as centers of excellence nationally, that offers training that is linked to the latest developments and market trends, but relative to the needs of industry so that that graduates are easily integrated into the much-needed workforce that will ultimately drive the growth of our economy.

What is done to push plumbing as a profession in South Africa? Is it perceived as a ‘dirty’ job – is office work the goal?

In South Africa, plumbing has been identified as one of the most critical scarce skills in our country. Hence, there is a huge drive by the Depart of Higher Education and Training, via the “Decade of the Artisan” initiative, to train and rejuvenate these trades that have seen a severely dwindling number, due to artisans being lured by lucrative overseas markets.

Added to this severe weather conditions such as the current drought that is being experienced in Cape Town, has highlighted the importance of highly skilled plumbers and routine preventive maintenance conducted on existing infrastructure. Interact Media South Africa has a publication titled Plumbing Africa which alongside the Institute of Plumbing South Africa also advocates the important role of plumbers and the development of the plumbing industry comprehensively.

To some the word plumbing will remain taboo, until they are faced with the stark reality of not having access to safe potable water or basic sanitation, to others the plumbing industry is just a job that pays good money and for the rest of us, as the proverbial saying goes, it is an honor to take care of the health of a nation.

Can you discuss any involvement you had with Community Plumbing Challenge when it came to South Africa last year?

I was fortunate to be involved in the Community Plumbing challenge that was hosted in Diepsloot from 2016-2017. Being able to experience first-hand, what the impact of your work has on the lives of those who are living in some of the harshest conditions due to abject poverty, certainly changes one’s perspective of things we tend to take for granted such as safe access to potable water and basic sanitation.

During my first involvement in the CPC I was able to take two students from the TVET sector in Cape Town along on the journey. I was amazed had how they too developed from everyday students that are only concerned about academics and good grades, into humanitarians with a great concern for the wellbeing of the community that that we were working in. Just like me they have come to realize that there is definitely another dimension to our skill as plumbers, a realm where the destitute and poorest of the poor are in desperate need of our expertise as plumbers, to restore not only access to safe water and sanitation, but to restore their dignity as well.

In a nutshell the CPC in Diepsloot reached a climax for me during July 2016, when I was tasked to participate as a team leader representing a South African team among three other nations, India, Australia and the USA.

We were presented with the challenged of designing a sustainable solution to some of the issues related to the prefabricated ablution units that we replaced and serviced during the previous challenge. The base where we worked from was a hub of creativity with all kinds of creative solutions coming to life. In the end one solution, a culmination of all the brilliant ideas was put together as the most sustainable option and implemented. The final highlight was being able to install these newly designed units into the community and finally being able to celebrate world plumbing day with our peers from across the world.

What are your thoughts on going to Abu Dhabi for the 44th International Worldskills competition?

The journey in preparation for the 44th International Worldskills competition has been a rollercoaster ride to say the least. I am sure, that not many people are aware of the amount of work that national experts need to put in to ensure that competitors are prepared well enough to enter the daunting competition arena. Competing against some of the world’s most technologically advanced first world countries, takes real courage. I would have to reference that one probably needs to be as tough as the legendary spartan soldiers, thankfully though the battle fought over the four days will not be with swords spears and shields, but instead with exceptional ability of competitors to perform their chosen vocational skill, plumbing and heating.