Winning hearts and minds in challenging times

This certainly wasn’t the year that Mel Gumbs had planned as CIPHE president but it hasn’t been uneventful for him.

The COVID-19 outbreak has limited his chances to meet members and represent the Institute at events but the other big issue of the year has handed Mel the opportunity to talk about diversity and encourage BAME people to join the industry.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, speeded up by the death of George Floyd in the United States, has moved the issue of diversity very quickly up the agenda.

Black History Month, celebrated every October, created an opportunity for Mel to bring the CIPHE into the conversations that took place as part of it.

“We’re in the spotlight so we might as well make use of it while we’re there,” he says. “I know from travelling around the country while we were able to that there’s been quite a lot of people rooting for me.”

Every profession across the country, from the police to the banking industry are suddenly focusing on diversity programmes.

One of Mel’s objectives was to help membership grow “so that the guys you see at the merchants are also members”.

But he says hoping to recruit in schools or colleges isn’t enough; the HVAC industry has to engage with parents who want their children to do better than they did.

“I’ve been speaking to people in education and they say the prompt has to come from parents to get their kids to go into industry in the first place. We’re competing with the legal industry, IT and more,” he says.

And he has an ‘elevator pitch’ ready for those parents.

“Plumbing isn’t for everybody and it isn’t easy. You’ve got to also learn about all the other aspects of running a business that a lot of young people don’t get taught. Being an apprentice isn’t like being on The Apprentice. It’s like being a parent; you learn on the job. You can get advice but you have to be able to turn it into something that’s going to work,” he says.

His own life story is also similar to the people he wants to win over. Born on a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea called St Kitts, the family moved to Slough to start a new life.

He says: “My mother came here in 1960 and worked in the NHS until she retired 40 years’ later. She wasn’t part of the Windrush group but she was of that generation. She went to two tea parties at Buckingham Palace to mark her contribution to the health service.

“When I was growing up, we walked round Windsor Castle to go to school, along Eton High Street. We knew we were part of something bigger,” he says.

Mel’s first job in the industry was with a company in nearby Burnham and he never looked back. He joined the Institute in 1977 and is now registered with Engineering Council at EngTech level.

He started in an era when community tensions were high and today he has a thriving business. He’s achieved it without experiencing discrimination.

“Most of the people I work for are through recommendation. They know I’m Black, it’s not an issue. And it’s never been a problem for me,” he says.

“The only time it’s come up was when I arrived at a customer in Marlow who had spoken to me on the phone while he was abroad. When I knocked on the door, he said he hadn’t been expecting somebody Black. When I asked if it was a problem, he said no. He was a Jewish guy who had survived the concentration camps; he rolled up his shirtsleeve and showed me the tattooed number on his arm.”

He goes further: “There’s never been any unpleasantness with the people I work for. Maybe I’ve been lucky but I don’t think so. I’m prepared to walk away if someone’s got a problem – there’s no point confronting someone in their own home – but it’s never happened.”

One of the reasons is that Mel uses his training and knowledge to deliver workmanship that cannot be questioned. Being registered and qualified matters, he believes.

“Because of my membership of the CIPHE, my qualifications are also recognised by the Engineering Council. I am accepted as a qualified plumber within the European Union and other parts of the world and as a member of the World Plumbing Council,” he says.

“My membership of the CIPHE requires me to ensure that I keep myself up to date on regulations and standards, including new technologies to prove my competency remains.”

His own children haven’t followed him into the trade but have become professionals in their own fields to build on his achievements. One has a senior role in a tailor’s firm at the heart of the Establishment’s stronghold in Saville Row.

While his children have branched out, Mel’s parents have returned to where they began on St Kitt’s.

He says: “When I go down to the island to see Mum and Dad, I also see some of the poverty nearby. So I say thank you because if it wasn’t for their sacrifices, that could have been me. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. Everything they had went into me and my sister. We had our own house and lived well.”

But he is still on call, even there: “I go back two or three times a year and it is a bit of a busman’s holiday; my Dad doesn’t trust their plumbing… I tend to send parts ahead and take my tools on the plane. There’s always things to do.”

But at the moment, his priority is doing what he can to promote a job that he loves to the wider community despite the lockdown.

“The CIPHE sees me as a figurehead: if people can see what I am and the position I am in – and that I am someone to follow – then we can improve the inclusive nature of the Institute and create opportunities,” he says.

“It’s a great life. If you work hard, the rewards are infinite so you can play hard too. The good news is that people are beginning again to be prepared to pay for a decent job. You pay for what you get.”

What’s his advice to BAME people thinking about a career change or starting an apprenticeship?

“In the HVAC industry, you can look into many different roles,” he says.

“Look and learn – and if there’s an opportunity, grab it with both hands. And constantly learning about the job is important. It’s as much about knowing what to do when things go wrong to put it right. Read the books, go to the manufacturers’ events, go to the seminars, use the CIPHE’s personal development support. You’re only as good as the job you do.”

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