WorldSkills Expert Focus

In the next installment of our Expert Focus series we connect with the man responsible for guiding young U.S. Plumbing and Heating competitors through their life-changing WorldSkills adventure. Great to meet you ...



When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a plumber​. Nobody in my family was a plumber; I just decided, and so that was ​what I wanted to be​! I come from a family of educators, so my mother said I had to go to college. But because I had always enjoyed working with my hands, I decided to start a plumbing apprenticeship instead. Later on, when the industry wasn’t doing well, I did decide to go back to school … which meant I was working full-time and going to school full-time. While I was already a licensed plumber, I also gained a BA in Industrial Education from ​Kean University in Union, New Jersey​. It didn’t finish there: I went back to study again later at ​Rutgers University in Brunswick, also New Jersey, and got a master’s in Vocational Education. ​I now have teaching certifications in special education, industrial education and vocational education.​ So today I wear more hats than most plumbers do! 

Robert (better known as “Bob”) can usually be found training students in the HoHoKus School of Trades at Eastwick College, New Jersey

I am lucky where I am today. I am the Plumbing and Heating Instructor at Eastwick College, HoHokus School of Trades. Eastwick College allows me be progressive in what I do. Not all schools and districts allow that. Because of my background, I feel I can also relate well to my students, explaining how something is done in the field or sharing experiences, good and bad.
I think I could make a lot more money today working as a plumber, than as a plumbing teacher!But joking aside, a big problem that we face in the United States right now is that across the majority of our industries … plumbing, carpentry or electrical … the average contractor is in their mid-to-late fifties. There is going to be a great skills shortage, coming up. Unfortunately, here we seem to keep telling young people that they need to go to college or university if they want to make a better living. But right now, with all the changes we have going on nationally, there are better opportunities than ever to explain to young people that following apprenticeships and training can provide a living as good as, if not better than, the college and university route. I think that European countries, for example, hold tradespeople in higher regard than we do. However, I do also believe that our perception in the U.S. is slowly changing. I am optimistic, and hope that it will continue that way.

Bob’s first taste of a WorldSkills International competition came in Germany, at WorldSkills Leipzig 2013.

I first got involved with WorldSkills in 2012. I was asked by our PHCC co-chair and SkillsUSA if I would be willing to be an Expert: I thought about it and agreed that I would like to try it. My first real competition experience was at WorldSkills Americas in 2012 in São Paulo, Brazil: this large regional event was hosted in the same location as the international competition would be three years later. Following this, I went to my first WorldSkills competition in Leipzig, Germany, in 2013, then back to Brazil for WorldSkills São Paulo 2015. So WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 will be next in this journey.

With these experiences behind me, the advantage now is that I have a completely different perspective of WorldSkills competitions and training … which is important. It is continuity of what to expect, understanding differences and similarities in materials and tools, and making sure the training meets the competition demands. This is a challenge SkillsUSA continue to face: when Experts jump around, information can get lost. 

Bob at work during the Plumbing and Heating competition at WorldSkills São Paulo 2015.

We in the U.S. take water for granted. I keep pointing this out to my students, because general lack of awareness is common in the northeast coastal area, where we live. Other parts of the country, such as California, have water-use restrictions in place. I have also done some volunteer work with Glenmary Home Missioners – we are talking about 30 years ago – in communities in the Appalachian Mountains. We worked in homes there that didn’t have any indoor plumbing at all. Most people don’t even realize or think that these kind of problems exist in the U.S., but they do.

Licensing, codes and standards vary from state to state. For example, where we are in New Jersey, the National Standard Plumbing Code (NSPC) is primarily used. The licensing exam is based on this, so for that reason I teach NSPC in class for the most part. The three main codes used across the U.S. are the NSPC, the Uniform Plumbing Code® (UPC) and the International Plumbing Code (IPC).

Many contractors that own businesses near to state borders often need to hold more than one license, if those states operate by a different plumbing code. They might have to pass another test. For example, if you live in north Jersey and go a few miles one way you are in Pennsylvania … go a few miles the other way and you are in New York or Connecticut. It can be difficult for these businesses ... extra expense, too, renewing licenses and keeping up to date.

Typical workshop setup at a PHCC State Plumbing competition in the US.

Our national skills competition is organized by SkillsUSA. It’s a chapter-run program, and usually local schools will run the first stage of the competition. The winner of that usually goes to a regional or state competition. Then the winner of that goes to the national competition, which is usually the last week of June. At that stage we usually have around 50 competitors, secondary and post-secondary, and we have plumbing-industry professionals and other sponsor representatives involved in the judging.

Typical workshop setup at a SkillsUSA Plumbing and Heating national competition.

We reuse materials from our Plumbing competition Test Projects as much as we can. For the most part, the projects are taken down and cut up. Some of the bigger sections are donated to local schools to reuse, and the rest goes back to scrap and goes into buying more material for next year. SkillsUSA reaches out to different local agencies, inviting them to collect leftover pipe and cast iron once a competition is finished.

Asher Ciccone and Bob during and after work at the recent China International Skills Competition in Shanghai, China – June 2017.

The US competitor for Abu Dhabi is a young man named Asher Ciccone. He is from Massachusetts: he was born and raised there, and then trained there at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School in Northamption, Massachusetts. That is why I consider myself as more of a mentor to him, than a trainer. I have done some special training with him for WorldSkills, but he has had an instructor there for several years. He is an apprentice now, working out in the field. So he has experience in real-life plumbing.

(Left) Asher Ciccone in action during the recent China International Skills Competition in Shanghai, and (right) with other international Plumbing and Heating competitors at the event.

In June 2017 Asher and I traveled together to take part in the China International Skills Competition in Shanghai, as part of the current WorldSkills training program. The day before we were due to fly, Asher got called out on a plumbing job and spent four hours helping that person. That says it all, about the type of committed young guy he is.

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