WorldSkills Expert Focus

In the penultimate piece of our Plumbing and Heating Expert Focus series, we touch down in the city of Cork, Ireland, to connect with a lecturer who has overseen the progression of hundreds of young Irish apprentices down the years, tasting WorldSkills gold along the way for good measure. A pleasure to meet you ...



I am a Plumbing and Heating lecturer/co-ordinator in the Centre of Craft Studies at the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT). I started here in 2001, having previously worked in industry and then with the former Training and Employment Authority of Ireland – known then as FÁS (An Foras Áiseanna Saothair, in Irish). In my role at CIT, I have worked with hundreds of apprentices at this stage!

I have been involved with WorldSkills since 2013, but have been an examiner at the Irish National Skills competitions ever since 2001. The plumbing competitions are often run in the capital, Dublin, so I travel back and forward between there and Cork (the “true capital” ☺) when they take place.

Pat (second from left) has been involved as an examiner with the Irish National Skills Competitions for over 15 years.

We have a variety of plumbing standards and codes in Ireland. We have our own Irish building regulations from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, known as the Technical Guidance Documents. The National Standards Authority of Ireland is also producing a new code of practice for the plumbing and heating trade: SR50-1 is Domestic Plumbing for Hot Water and Heating, SR50-2 is for Thermal Solar systems and SR50-3 is for Domestic Plumbing Cold Water Services. These standards have been developed and introduced over the past four or five years. I think this is a good thing, and hope they will help make things clearer for everyone in the industry.

Important issues facing the plumbing industry in Ireland today are the maintenance and progression of our standards, and the enforcement of these standards. Sub-standard work is not really the issue, but unregulated work is. We don't have a Plumbing and Heating licensing system here except for gas work: we have what is called a National Crafts Certificate. When you do your apprenticeship and you complete all your exams, you get a National Crafts Certificate, which exists in the form of an ID card. There isn't a culture of customers asking to see an ID card though. I have worked in other countries where licences were mandatory, and I can see the benefits of it in terms of maintaining and keeping standards in place. I think our government should migrate the current National Crafts Certificate system to a new licencing system; it would be a simple switch.  

I would say that if you were to ask most plumbers here, “Where is your plumbing regulation book?” they would probably scratch their head and reply, “What do you mean?” They often don't realise how much of the regulations they do know, based on the high levels of competency that are built into the on-the-job training in this country.

Can you spot a young Patrick O'Riordan, on the first day of his own Plumbing apprenticeship class in 1982?

The Irish apprenticeship system is designed to react to industry. Today, we have seven phases to an apprenticeship: Phases 1, 3, 5 and 7 are done by an employer, while Phase 2 is delivered by local “ETBs” (Education and Training Boards) and Phases 4 and 6 are delivered by the Institutes of Technology. Each of the phases with the employer are around six months in duration, and the Phases with the Institutes are 11 weeks in duration. The overall apprentice system is managed by an organization called Solas. It is a national system; there are no private providers of apprenticeships here yet. But I think that it could eventually go this way. 

Around 15 years ago, Ireland was in the middle of a large construction boom and in terms of apprentices going through the Institutes of Technology, it was like a conveyor belt. In our centre alone, every 11 weeks we had about 192 apprentices going through. And there are six other centres across the country! We were feeding into an industry that required that amount.

Plumbing apprenticeship workshops in Cork Institute of Technology today.

All these apprentices would have had a job outside, in industry, before being sent to be trained. It was not that we were training somebody who would then need to go out and find a job. In one sense it is not a bad system: the apprentice has to get the job first and then gets trained. We are actually reacting to the market by doing it this way.

But in the down times that followed the construction boom, I think we could have taken the opportunity to alter our system slightly: also take on apprentices who may not have a job. It is still important to supply young people with an avenue, give them something to go out into the world with beyond just a secondary school education, whether they are going to be working at home or going abroad.

Shaking hands with An Uachtaráin (President of Ireland) Michael D. Higgins following WorldSkills Leipzig 2013, and with a Plumbing and Heating gold medal to show for it: Pat (far right) with WorldSkills Ireland Champions and Experts.

Countries need to be sending their best young people to the WorldSkills competition, and if the best people happen to be 23 or 24 — just above the current age limit of 22 — then I say, so be it. We have witnessed our Irish National Competition winners being ineligible, and unable to go forward to the International competition, because of their age. I think this is becoming a growing issue across the WorldSkills membership because many countries find their young people are staying in education longer, and not getting into the workplace young enough. In Ireland, we probably didn't see it as much of an issue in the past, but we are starting to now.

We are going to lose many good people and the standard unfortunately will drop because we are not going to be able to send our best people to compete due to their ineligibility based on their age.

A well-earned tea break with David Donegan during training for the upcoming Abu Dhabi event.

The Irish Plumbing and Heating competitor for WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 is David Donegan, a young man from the County of Wicklow. I have been training him from the start of August, which equals 10 weeks before we are due to go to the competition. He has been on campus here at CIT, training in the workshop … I go in and out to him, keeping an eye on him. It isn't intensive, one-on-one, as everybody has a day job; we all have to keep that going too.

David Donegan working in a public area of Cork Institute of Technology as part of his training preparation.

You are not going to make someone change in 10 weeks. It really comes down to the selection process, beforehand. The selection is key. You get the right guy like David, and you know he will work by himself and is self-motivated. He knows what he wants to do, and he knows what he wants to get from this experience. That is the way I approach it: he is the plumber, he is the expert. I am only just the facilitator. We've had some good results managing our training in this way, in the past!

Ciaran Coady (above, far right) won gold for Ireland in Plumbing and Heating at WorldSkills Leipzig 2013, in Pat O'Riordan's first international competition as Irish Plumbing and Heating Expert.

I think our National Competition is too low-key … it is not really promoted enough. We need to be showing off our craft skills by making a bigger, more public event, which in turn could bring in badly needed sponsorship and provide more opportunities for more skill areas to participate. I think WorldSkills does this really well … it says, “This is what young people can do, these are the skills that they have.” The general public in Ireland don't appreciate this enough: We don't seem to acknowledge the fact that the guys we produce are highly skilled and are well respected for their skill level across the world. I think a high-profile National Competition event would show the public, industry and business across Ireland the world-class standards in action … the best work, the best speed and the high skill levels our young people are working to … and that these are the standards that industry should follow, expect and aspire to.

We won gold in Plumbing and Heating at WorldSkills Leipzig 2013 (Ciaran Coady, pictured above), and after that young man went back to his employer, Jones Engineering Group, I was informed that many of the apprentices in that company changed their attitude toward the way they worked … following his win. There was a new air of excitement about the place, and everybody felt part of a winning team, sharing his success. Everybody in that company upped their game as a result. For me, that is what it's all about: raising the standards of the plumbing industry at local, national and international level.

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