What’s the good of talking?

WPC – a plumber’s perspective

By Richard Bailie

I’m a plumber who had the opportunity to feel part of something bigger for the World Plumbing Conference. Over the two days, I came to realise that it was all about us, the plumbers. All the high-flyers were there because of us — not the other way round.

Most Plumbing Africa readers probably know that Cape Town recently played host to the 11th World Plumbing Council Conference held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. This is the second time that South Africa has been given the honour of hosting this international event. The first time was in 1999 at Sun City in the North West Province, when the country was still riding the highs of the 1995 World Cup and Madiba. A sense of optimism and infinite possibility was in the air.

I was privileged enough to attend the 2016 conference, and I made it my mission to soak up everything I could. I also made several uncharacteristic decisions to approach key people to introduce myself. I say uncharacteristic because I’m usually the guy in the corner minding his own business, trying not to be noticed. For these two days, however, I made a conscious decision to be bold and to be noticed, driven in large part by a realisation that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It paid off — well, for my psyche anyway if nothing else. This small-time plumber from somewhere north of Cape Town was able to mingle with the A-list without anyone knowing that I was just a local one-man plumbing business.

I spoke to Sun Kim, the programme officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a Boeing engineer of almost three decades to boot. I chatted to the president of Plumbers Without Borders, Domenico DiGregorio, who is doing wonderful work and is a wonderful guy too. I met the president of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, and I introduced myself to Professor Mike Muller, the conference chair. I met Lea Smith, the president of IOPSA; connected with the editor of Plumbing Africa; and I had a 15-minute conversation with the guest speaker of the gala dinner, Lewis Pugh. All uncharacteristic of me indeed.

Out of my comfort zone

Why, though? Why did I have such a desire to step out of my comfort zone? I suppose the question really is, why did I feel as if I would be a bit of a nuisance to them; just another person they felt obliged to ‘nod and be nice’ to?

You see, everyone I spoke to and all the talks I attended all had something in common. And as the conference unfolded and the students bent their pipes in the skills simulation hall, a common thread began to take shape in my mind. At first, it was a bit hazy, but soon it became very clear: it’s an honour to be a plumber. People injuring their hands and getting dirty while plying their trade. Ruining jeans and bending pipes. Checking levels and mixing concrete. Explaining the why and the what-for to Mr Jones and unblocking overflowing drains. You see, the conference is dedicated to the plumbing industry. It dawned on me that all this policymaking, deciding, arguing, negotiating, meeting and greeting ... all this talking was in the hope that I would go out and bruise my left index knuckle again as I did last week. I realised that without boots on the ground, nothing will ever be achieved. Lea Smith posed a question to one of the speakers on Thursday morning, “On a scale of one to 10, please rate the importance of the plumber on the ground in your estimation.” I think the answer was a high nine to 10. I did think that it was a left-field question and a bit out of context, but I enjoyed the answer nonetheless.

Importance of the plumber

That afternoon during a speech by Shayne La Combre, the incoming chair of the World Plumbing Council, Smith again quite out of context, posed the same question to La Combre, “Please give us an indication of the importance of the plumber on the ground in this whole affair.” Again, the answer was a rating of nine. I began to realise the profundity of Smith’s actions: this was why we were all here — the halls, the costs, and the logistics of it. The following day, during the final keynote address on the effects of global warming by Dave Viola, the COO of the IAPMO Group, Smith again asked, “Dave, bearing in mind the gravity of the big issues you’re talking about, and in this context, please give us an indication of how vital you think the plumber is?” Before Smith could finish, Viola had answered, smiling, “11. It’s 11.”

So, what good does talking do? I mean, if we’ve just established that the most important cog in the proverbial wheel is the person turning the spanner, what’s the good of talking? Well, the average plumber would walk into that conference feeling just as I did that first morning — quite insignificant, a little daunted, and with a sense that all this high and mighty stuff is just a bit over his or her head. The truth is, people are just people and most of us would feel this way. Plumbers in particular in this country have a penchant for feeling unworthy, however misplaced. Another truth is that many plumbers did not attend the conference because it is not regarded as an affordable exercise, and so they did not experience the same upliftment as I did.

So what now? Have we returned to the same old predicament whereby the people thatreallyneed coaching, re-enforcement, guidance, and upliftment are the ones being left out in the cold? To a certain extent, yes, it would seem so, but there is something we all can continue doing, and that is to talk. Talk about your trade with pride; shout it from the rooftops, because you are the people that matter. The more talk that happens the more people will be reached and the more the collective chests will start to swell. A hand will swing the spanner, but talking gives it value.


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