Taking the plumbing industry by storm

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo.

In a sea of male plumbers, one woman is working her way to the top, one toilet at a time.

 

In October 2013, the Ekurhuleni Artisans and Skills Training Centre, or EASTC, reported that a growing number of women were entering the artisan sector. In a statement, the EASTC said, “More and more females are coming through the training centres and doing just as well, if not better, in the artisan industry than their male counterparts.”

This may be true in Ekurhuleni’s case, but the number of female artisans in South Africa is still well below that of the number of males. Various reasons can be attributed to this inequality, including the way trades are seen as being traditionally male.

In the past years, there has been an increase in women who are breaking through this glass ceiling despite the obstacles they face. Lwazi Lutya, a 26-year-old aspiring plumber who studies under Sam Dubazana at the Plumbing Academy in Soweto, is among those women.

Lutya embarked on her journey to becoming a plumber for the same reason many others end up doing the jobs they do: she was unemployed and soon grew tired of having nothing to do. “I had been sitting at home for a long time,” Lutya says. “I completed my Matric but there were no jobs. I couldn’t get into school [tertiary education] because of funds.”

Lutya heard about a school, the South West Gauteng Technical and Vocational Education and Training College, informally known as Molapo, which was offering bursaries to aspiring students. Initially, Lutya wanted to apply for a business course to learn the kind of skills that would help secure employment for her in an office setting. But a college employee advised her against it. “He said, ‘You know what? Typing and being in front of the computer, that’s overdone. Why don’t you do something else? Discover yourself, find out what you can do with your hands.’”

Lutya considered civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, but chose plumbing because it would allow her to work with her hands and explore an environment in which women are a relatively uncommon sight. “When the course started, I read a lot. I didn’t know how complicated plumbing was. You just flush your toilet, you open your tap, and you forget about it. But actually, everything happening behind the scenes is quite big. That’s when I fell in love with plumbing,” Lutya says.

 


“That’s when I fell in love with plumbing.”

 


 

As is a problem with many TVET colleges, the college Lutya was attending did not offer a practical module. “I got bored,” Lutya says, and so she dropped out. Taking the initiative, Lutya visited the Mogale City Local Municipality and asked to be put on a project – any project – to gain some practical experience. Mogale City, like many municipalities, employ plumbers to maintain the municipality’s water infrastructure and work on new projects. Lutya was told that all of the municipality’s projects, at that point, were full but that she might be able to work on an upcoming project. Lutya’s persistence paid off: she was hired to work on what would be her first project – a breakthrough – by installing water metres in Kagiso, the township which she grew up in.

Lutya had never done anything like that before but she jumped in with both feet. “That’s where I learned how to use a chisel; that’s where I learned how to use a pick properly, and a shovel.”

Unfortunately, the project stalled indefinitely, and so Lutya found herself at a loose end again. But, not one to rest on her laurels, she went around to her neighbours, asking if they had any taps that needed fixing or small jobs that needed to be done. But her limited technical and practical knowledge could only take her so far.

She then joined a community development centre, where she passed the time doing a computer course. When she signed up for the course, she was asked what other areas she would like to focus on and, again, she chose plumbing.

 


 

"But 10 days is not enough to learn everything about plumbing.”

 


 

 

An opportunity arose a little while later to join another nine students at a difference development centre for a 10-day plumbing course, and Lutya grabbed the opportunity. “I was so excited,” she says. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be: because she was already involved in the computer course, Lutya was denied entry to the plumbing course. “I remember walking to my computer class, crying,” she says. Luckily for her, another student got a job and dropped out of the course and, once again, Lutya jumped at the opportunity.

"But," she says, "Ten days is not enough to learn everything about plumbing. But it was a step in the right direction.”

Lutya found employment at a school where the principal was impressed by seeing a young woman who was determined to make a success of her life. He hired her to maintain the school’s water infrastructure and make minor repairs around the school. “It was nice to know that someone believed I could become a plumber.”

Not satisfied with simply fixing taps for the rest of her life, Lutya took to the internet, and that is where she found the Plumbing Academy. Sam Dubazana took her in and, along with his other students, began to teach her what it takes to be a plumber.

“It’s so good,” she says, “because the community is our classroom.” The students study on the Academy’s premises, and then go out into the broader community to gain much-needed practical experience. “It’s a challenge to be here – a big challenge. Plumbing takes strength and I always say that strength is in the mind, but sometimes, it’s really hard being a girl. You need to be strong to be in the plumbing field.”

Nonetheless Lutya is not one to buckle before a challenge.

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