Increasing Quality of Life in Underserved Communities Through Upskilling

IWSH’s Senior Director explains how two projects increased safe plumbing in two communities.

By Robyn Fischer

The economic justice movement was started by motivated individuals with the desire to strengthen U.S. impoverished urban and rural communities and Native American reservations.

Strong economies start with healthy communities offering robust job opportunities. The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector exists to promote health and safety, which improves quality of life and the environment—yet plumbing poverty is a real concern in underserved communities.

In the Navajo Nation, for example, 30+ percent of people live without a tap or toilet at home and are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. This inequity is compounded by the fact that there isn’t a deep bench of plumbers or role models.

To solve this challenge, we need to simultaneously get safe plumbing systems installed, upskill a workforce to build and maintain our work, and empower motivated residents with the knowledge needed to fully adopt change.

Two projects we did for the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation (IWSH) last year showed promise in how we do that.

Navajo Nation Trade School

Recognizing the need for plumbing skills within indigenous communities, IWSH engaged with Navajo Technical University and constructed a hands-on wet lab facility and classroom, developed a 34-credit curriculum (one academic year), and trained a licensed Navajo plumber to be the instructor for the program. The first class of students completed the program in December 2023 and are now ready to pursue apprenticeships and certifications.

We want to scale this education model by offering training facility construction, curriculum input, and instructor training to provide a pathway for indigenous communities to enter the plumbing trade. It will include materials and training for qualified instructors who teach the Entry Level Plumbing Curriculum to pre-apprentice level students.

Engaging High School Students in Rural Alabama

Residents and 12 students from high schools in rural Lowndes County, Alabama—where an estimated 80 percent of households live without adequate plumbing systems—received hands-on training to use the IWSH Household Plumbing Survey, which evaluates indoor and outdoor plumbing systems.

Paired with professionals, they learned how to identify areas where skilled and qualified plumbers can make repairs or upgrades. Community members were exposed to plumbing as a vocation and the power they hold to address water quality and quality of life in their own communities.

A train-the-trainer program for the IWSH Household Plumbing Survey is in development for use across the country.

What We Learned

Neither Lowndes County nor Navajo Nation projects are one and done. These are scalable empowerment models that can be accelerated across urban, rural, and indigenous communities with the right training, facilities, curriculum input, and instructors. Here are three key learnings when mobilizing a program in your community:

  1. It’s vital to work with community-led groups to implement meaningful solutions. Understanding local culture, history, and barriers prior to any project is necessary to understand how best to craft interventions. Partnering with local technical schools and upskilling instructors already embedded in the community provide assurance and can increase the likelihood of program adoption and longevity.
  2. Program participants deploying into the community is an essential part of driving change. Locally trained, skilled tradespeople have greater social trust among residents within their communities. Residents need skilled plumbers to upgrade or install products, and they are more likely to accept change from people they know.
  3. Ensure programs are inclusive, including taking the time to recruit women. Some of these communities are culturally unique or remote, and women may not be offered equal opportunities or be informed about jobs that are considered nontraditional. Plumbing programs can help women strengthen their identities while learning how to identify problems, understand systems, and provide services.

ASPE members will be interested in the details behind these and other IWSH projects, so I invite you to read our IWSH 2023 Impact Report.

About the Author

Robyn Fischer is IWSH Senior Director, North America. She works with stakeholders to implement a variety of solutions that promote equitable access to clean water, safe sanitation services, and broader natural resource management. Robyn is a passionate advocate with experience in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), international development, federal budget and appropriations, water resource management, U.S. freshwater policy, water reclamation and reuse, climate change adaptation, and coalition management.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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