Building South Africa's future

elea Blog

A growing interest in plumbing

Parl grew up in a South African community where water and sanitation are ongoing challenges. She often watched her uncle do repair work, which sparked her fascination for artisanship at an early age. Her eyes beam when she speaks about him: "He is my role model, a natural problem-solver, and a jack of all trades." Even today, whenever she faces a challenge, her uncle is there to help her find a solution; he is ever supportive and always has her back. Hence, it comes as no surprise that when Parl reflected on her purpose in life and career options, she concluded: “I love helping people.” It did not take her long to decide how she could achieve this – with something she had always admired, being a problem-fixer like her uncle.

"I love plumbing wholeheartedly, I fell in love with it."

Today, the 24-year-old is in her second year of a plumbing apprenticeship at BluLever Education in Johannesburg. Yet she had to fight for this career choice, repeatedly arguing with family and friends about it. “It is very unusual for a girl to become a plumber. You get questioned all the time. But I am used to it by now.” However, after witnessing the skills she had developed and the repair work she is able to do, her family and friends slowly changed their minds. Now her family fully supports her decision. “At the end of the day, they realized that this was something that I loved.” A further benefit is that she earns a stipend during the apprenticeship, which allows her to gain independence and further confidence in what she can achieve in life.

Advocates for artisanship

The demand for artisans like Parl is substantial, reflecting a global trend. The 2018 Manpower Report highlights skilled trade roles as the most challenging to fill, both in South Africa and worldwide. However, significant obstacles stemming from insufficient investment and innovation in vocational training still exist, and these are compounded by societal perceptions that vocational training is inferior to pursuing a higher education. Thus, faced with disapproval from family and friends, the majority of school graduates often overlook the option of a career in artisanship and opt instead for university studies, which often leads to scarce or mismatched job openings after graduation.

"We need to change the narrative. In fact, I need to bring that change."

Apprentices such as Parl, alongside companies like BluLever and its ecosystem partners, are actively contributing to the reshaping of this narrative. They take vocational education seriously and are modernizing outdated curricula by developing highly effective, forward-looking training solutions that catalyze positive change within the artisanal ecosystem. Stepping onto the BluLever premises, one encounters a dynamic atmosphere within an ultra-modern campus that is nestled in the trendy Braamfontein neighborhood of Johannesburg. Amidst this vibrant setting, students and teachers are collectively challenging stereotypes and presenting skilled trades as an attractive pathway to stable, well-paying jobs. This career path also offers a frequently overlooked benefit: it is easy to start one’s career as an artisan and, later on, even one’s own business.

The colorful entrance of the BluLever campus in Johannesburg.

A group of apprentices doing calculations with their facilitator at the BluLever workshop, a training area on the campus.

Women on tools

Women like Parl are a common presence at BluLever, as the company is actively working towards achieving a better female representation in their cohorts (see their Women on Tools campaign). BluLever recognizes the challenges that women face in this male-dominated industry and is committed to creating an inclusive environment where they can voice their opinions and contribute meaningfully, thereby promoting diversity and equality. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, these women are in an excellent position to find a job, considering the 280'000 positions that need to be filled in South Africa in plumbing alone. BluLever notes that the South African artisanal sector encompasses 2.1 million jobs, which means that over 40'000 artisans must be trained annually to meet the industry’s needs. The substantial demand for artisanal development aligns with the broader goal of preparing (South) Africa for the future, in anticipation of the demographic shifts and rapid urbanization that will increase the demand for skilled youth, sustainable job opportunities, and increased infrastructure development.

Skills to succeed

The BluLever learning journey kicks off with a leadership base camp — an intensive two-month life-skills and work-readiness program. This phase not only marks the final selection process for the apprenticeship but also acts as a platform for young participants to take charge, thereby fostering the development of their maturity, confidence, independence, and open-mindedness. Once the participants for the apprenticeship have been successfully selected, they embark on a three-year program, spending three months per year on campus and nine months per year on construction sites with employers. In addition to teaching profound technical skills, the BluLever learning journey is constantly preparing apprentices for the professional world by providing them with soft skills (i.e., mindset, self-awareness, self-leadership), as well as job-readiness skills.

Parl emphasizes that to be successful "you need passion, confidence, and know how to communicate." Her advice to fellow apprentices is to consistently ask questions and not be afraid to say: "I do not know this. Can you please show me how it is done?" She outlines the importance of continuous learning through observation, asking questions, and practical application and suggests: "You just need to find one person to whom you are comfortable asking questions, and you will be good."

“To interact with other people on campus and on-site helped me so much to grow. Now, I feel in charge and know that my opinion matters.”

A group activity during leadership base camp in the beautiful setting of Magaliesberg, South Africa.

Parl is refining her practical skills at a training area on the BluLever campus as part of a workshop.

Increasing impact

BluLever’s aspiration is to positively impact as many lives as possible. In the next ten years, they aim to provide training to 22’000 South Africans and to expand their training across Africa, with the overarching objective of creating widespread impact.

Their model is built to scale based on the following:

  • A blueprint is created to easily replicate systems, culture, and working methods for multiple locations.
  • Modular learning units allow for adjustments across trades whenever modules fit multiple trades.
  • BluLever’s training approach is leveraged to address problems within a broken education system and offers sustainable solutions to improve it.
  • BluLever invests in ecosystem partnerships to multiply the number of solutions across sectors and trades.

The impact is also reinforced by the students. Parl adds: “I want to employ women and guide those who aim to start their own businesses." Having experienced firsthand the significance of helping women to discover their path and navigate the field of artisanship, she is determined to offer support and guidance to others.

"It was not easy, and you need all the support you can get. I want to provide that support to other women."

About BluLever

BluLever is changing the narrative around blue-collar jobs for youth in South Africa. The company has developed a skill-building model that provides a pathway for students to formal employment while also covering their financing needs. By partnering with entrepreneurs and key industry players, BluLever has built a blueprint for vocational training. Since 2023, elea has been an active investor in BluLever and aims to strategically support it in its ambition to expand across Africa.

Author: Romy Sauer, Communications Specialist at elea Foundation for Ethics in Globalization