My Training as a French Plumber in AFPA Limousin Campus
My training as a plumber - strange but true
You might think from this title that you are about to read a surrealist, fictional story, but not in the least. This is a factual account of my training at AFPA (Association de formation professionnelle des adultes), the adult training college in Limoges.
I spent a few months completing a pre-training course, women into building, before entering the ten month plumbing course and qualifying as an Installateur en Thermique et Sanitaire (Level 5), an installer of heating and sanitation; in other words, a plumber.
Just how did an English 'lady' painter become an old-fashioned French plumber? More to the point, how can you train as a plumber in France and what can you expect from your training?
The move to France
Having decided to move to France, and to Limousin in particular, we found the ideal property for us in the tiny, rural hamlet of Videix, situated about halfway between Limoges and Angouleme. It's only minutes away from the quaint, medieval town of Rochechouart with its magnificent chateau, now a centre for contemporary art, and we're about half an hour from Saint Junien and La Rochefoucauld. Not only did that mean that we were surrounded by beautiful countryside with lots of walks, but also the area is steeped in history and has a rich culture and cuisine. To top it all we have a wonderful lake with two beaches, restaurants, nautical centre and horse riding stables only minutes away. What more could we want?
Well, employment! We soon discovered that if any job was going, no matter how small, badly paid or menial, then it wouldn't be us who would be doing it. Property here is incredibly good value because there's no work here. Simple.
The Clinique de Jouets
My husband and I applied ourselves to learning French and renovating our house to create a gite and guest house, but in the meantime I registered as a job seeker, a demandeur d'emploi. It was through this that I was lucky enough to be sent on a government 'back-to-work' scheme and I became an Agent de conditionnement in the Clinique de Jouets.
I imagined toiling in some Victorian sweat house but instead had the time of my life with a small group of French women who were absolutely full of fun and devilment. We sorted out donated toys, made and decorated boxes and together they were given to children in need at Christmas. It was great for my French.
So how did this lead to a plumbing course?
Women into Building
In the office at the Clinique de Jouets, there was a poster advertising adult education in the building trades and once spotted, I knew that this was for me. I've always been a serial house-renovator, but was aware that most of the profit was going to the three trades I didn't feel I could do myself, electricity: plumbing and damp-proofing. Not only would we learn a trade, but it would be one that wasn't reliant on language; we were never going to master French well enough to get a professional job in France. So I goaded my husband into applying for the electricity course while I set out to tackle plumbing. Together we were going to make a formidable team.
It was arranged though the poor soul put in charge of making us ladies employable, that I would be enrolled on a pre-qualification course at AFPA called Women into Building. This was ideal for me as this was a taster course and I was able to dip my toe into tiling and cabinet making before plunging into plumbing. I also made it my business to visit the masons and keep a keen eye on what they were up to, learning such useful arts as how to make false stone and how to build with breeze blocks.
What was it like to train as a traditional French plumber?
Well, scary. Going into the plumbing atelier for the first time was like going into Dante's hell. A huge warehouse of a space was filled on the ground floor with men of all ages banging and beating metal, showering sparks everywhere, heating steel to red hot temperatures with chalumeaux, blow torches (is that the word in English?) and there was so much noise that you couldn't hear yourself think. Had I made the right choice? Shouldn't I just go and do the more female-friendly painting and decorating course?
I'm so pleased that I didn't give in.
What did we do on our plumbing course?
So, there I was, the only woman in my studio (there was a French woman also training to do plumbing, but she was put with the other group, divide and rule?). I was given my little maison, a room with space above where we could practice installing various systems on two levels, and I sorted out a place to keep my stuff as there was only one changing room with lockers in and that was full of scantily clad French men! Of course the lack of women's toilets, regularly the top excuse in the UK for not employing women in men's jobs, isn't an obstacle in France where it's more common for the two sexes to share.
That done it was to work. We started with old-fashioned steel radiators, learned how to put threads onto steel pipes and bend them accurately. Great emphasis is put on neatness. Neat curves in exact parallel paths, sturdy fixings, clean jobs. We then progressed to copper, a little lead interlude, fixing showers, sinks, wash basins and toilets. I had a little disaster here as, having been told to be very careful not to break the wash stand, I ... broke my wash stand! Utter embarrassment. I learned from that always to tie your stand to the pipes when positioning your basin.
We went on to learn the intricacies of under-floor heating, pumps, valves and water heaters. We studied, in theory, how to deal with central heating boilers and make 'bottles' out of steel to enable water to be delivered at different temperatures. We were taught how to cut and weld, to brase and to solder and, because our tutor Fred, was a good mate of the roofing tutor, we had day's tuition in how to deal with zinc gutters.
We delved into the mysteries of evacuation, pipe sizes, tap-fixing and even did a bit of trouble-shooting. (Pity that didn't extend to how to deal with the workings of the French toilet).
Over ten months we learned a good deal, did work placements, honed our skills and studied the theory. Finally, it was time for the exam!
I can't say that I was a star pupil. Indeed, in all honesty, I have to say that I was definitely in the bottom third. Having said that our year was, apparently, exceptionally talented. We had two absolute stars who did the most beautiful work with astounding speed. I was really too slow.
The exam is a test of lnowledge, skill and of time. We had seven hours to install a system which displayed all our skills. At the end the installation should be complete, leak free and aesthetically pleasing. It is a great credit to my tutor that I managed to pass. The guys were gallant enough to acknowledge that I had to struggle with the language, and sensitive enough not to point out that I was also quite old - the second eldest in the group.
A man's world?
Did I face opposition on the grounds of sex? Not that I noticed! (One of the plus sides of not speaking the language.) Indeed, without the help and support of my fellow students I wouldn't have completed the course. They were ever-ready to translate, from hard-to-hear-or-understand French into clear, easy-to-understand French. There was no doubt in my mind either, that the plumbers were the creme de la creme of the building world. Charming, funny, talented, knowledgeable and skilled. Being French, they also took a great interest in cooking and much of the lunch time discussion revolved around recipes and good dinners amongst many other fascinating topics.
My first plumbing job
Actually it was my first and last job as a French plumber (to date). I dutifully went around the Interim or temping agencies and signed on for work and it wasn't very long before I received a call. Unexpectedly, they were actually going to employ me as a plumber's assistant. Great stuff. So, away I went with all my safety gear, (French tradesmen place speed before security), and my toolbox in hand.
Now, I have to tell you that I'd imagined working as a plumber in houses - that was my experience as a plumber's client to date, so you might understand how shocked I was to find that I was going to be putting great steel pipes six meters high in a great shed that was to be the new Ford garage in Limoges. I had my first experience of working with a nacelle, a kind of box that is then raised up mechanically, I don't know what it is in English, and found myself whizzing around at roof-height ducking beams to avoid being beheaded. Certainly health and safety issues here.
Alas, my first and only job lasted but three weeks. Since then I've put my skills to use by designing and installing, (OK, my husband actually did most of the installation), the plumbing of our newly converted gite and helping out in the service of friends. I can't wait to get on with my next renovation project though!
What am I doing now?
After the course it was back to the original plan to run a guest house, gite, otherwise known as holiday home or vacation rental, and hold painting holidays in our French farmhouse.
The gite is finished now, all is in good working order and I couldn't wait to find another wreck or ruin to bring back to life. We have now sold the B&B and have have indeed found our dream farmhouse - if in a bit of a ruinous state. Have we taken on more than we can cope with? Perhaps yes!
And if we need to return to Britain? Well, I've heard that women plumbers are in great demand in the UK.
In the meantime, what better skills to have than plumbing?
There are several ways to bend a copper pipe
- How to Bend a Copper Pipe With and Without Plumbing Tools
There are several ways to bend copper pipes, but it is useful to know which are the best tools for your job and how to bend pipes without special tools. Every plumbing job made easy.
Useful links for those thinking about training in France
- Accueil Ple emploi | pole-emploi.fr, fusion des sites anpe.fr et assedic.fr
The National French office for employment and unemployment benefits.
- Courses available for adults at AFPA throughout France
Campus de formation AFPA : formation professionnelle diplmante pour adultes, perfectionnement, reconversion professionnelle, remise niveau, VAE, mtier.
- Accueil Ple emploi | pole-emploi.fr, fusion des sites anpe.fr et assedic.fr
Questions & Answers
Are there any technical skill courses at AFPA Limousin taught in English?
I don't know generally, but at AFPA, the courses are in French. My French was poor, and I managed to get by with diagrams and help from my colleagues. I did the course because it is a manual skill, so not so reliant on language.
© 2011 Les Trois Chenes