From mechanical engineer to welder

Tuesday February 12 2019

Emmanuel Nsubuga says he has returned to school

Emmanuel Nsubuga says he has returned to school to polish his skills. PHOTOs BY Gillian Nantume 

By Gillian Nantume

Emmanuel Nsubuga is a metal fabricator and welder. The 39-year-old is a graduate of Mechanical Engineering from Makerere University. However, after a short stint in a white collar job, he discovered that his fortune lay in ‘getting his hands dirty.’ When he was a child, in the 1970s, his parents fled into exile and only returned to Uganda in 1986. It is probably this gene of not settling for less and getting comfortable in one position, that has propelled this father of three girls.

What inspired you into a job that most educated people believe is beneath them?
A year after I graduated, in 2004, I got a job at Century Bottling Company Limited. I had very high expectations from that white collar job. Like many fresh graduates today, I thought an office job was the answer to my financial problems. My initial take home pay was Shs380,000, after taxes. I was patient because I expected my salary to be increased soon. The pay was later revised to Shs600,000, after taxes. I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that an illiterate welder or mechanic earns about Shs30,000 daily, which, at the end of the month, was far higher than what I was earning. So, after two years of employment, I resigned and resolved to become a smart, educated and honest metal welder.

Why welding? You could have chosen something else.
I was working as an inventory controller and the job tasks were quite basic, repetitive and monotonous. I wanted something more interesting and better paying. I love crafting and I have enjoyed fixing things since childhood. It always gives me a sense of satisfaction when I design and fabricate anything. I chose welding because it involves lots of creativity and it is a very rewarding business.

How did you start?
I started very small. Using my savings, I bought some basic welding tools and machinery. Then, I drafted questionnaires and asked a friend, who was a student at the time, to carry out a market survey on welding workshops around town so I could get a feel of how such workshops operated. I had never run any business before, but I was determined to do so. From the information we gathered, I came up with a simple business plan which I immediately began implementing. Twelve and a half years down the road, I am reaping the fruits from my workshop.

Did you feel the need to attend a technical school before opening the business?
I never attended any and neither did I get any special training. I feel God designed and directed my path. Studying mechanical engineering sharpened my mind and taught me to be a perpetual problem solver. This is what welding is all about. Currently, I am studying a course by Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply and it has been instrumental in polishing my business skills, improving quality standards.

Do you do some of the welding yourself?
I am practically involved in everything, from personally meeting and engaging clients, taking site measurements, understanding their specifications, advising them on trendy designs, purchase of materials, fabrication, quality inspection and deliveries, and sometimes, installation. My involvement is 70 per cent but I also have casual employees I work with.

What is the greatest strength that a fabricator needs?
Honesty. Welders are generally known for not keeping their word. One can stand out by being different. Regarding delivery times and quality, I usually underpromise and overdeliver. That way I have made all my clients pleasantly surprised. One time I worked on an OB’s project living in the US. He was surprised that I had delivered in one week, even though I had earlier promised to deliver in two weeks. He exclaimed “Man, you work like a muzungu.” Such comments make me happy.

What are the most important skills a metal fabricator should have?
He needs to be honest and be a good listener. He ought to listen keenly to the clients to understand their needs and desires and then translate these into a perfect product. It is best to give the client exactly what he/she desires and not what the welder thinks is good. Of course, all the above must be coupled with the right quality of materials, fine workmanship and timely deliveries. As far as workmanship is concerned, a skilled fabricator pays close attention to the accuracy of the dimensions, proper grinding to remove excessive impurities, and proper filling with a good metal body filler.

How do you handle stressful situations, for example where different clients are demanding for their work at the same time?
I am very proactive by nature and I never let such moments arise. If I already have several ongoing projects and a new client shows up with urgent work, I tell them honestly that their work will take an extra week. Also, I try not to pile up work.

What is the most difficult part of being a metal fabricator?
Some seasons are very low, especially when school is about to start because parents shift focus from construction to paying school fees. I have learned to deal with such seasons. For instance, I usually take short courses during this time.

Where do you get the metals you use?
Roofings Limited is my top most supplier because their materials are worth the price. A good steel product is mainly attributed to good raw materials and I believe that company has the best gauges in town. I source other components and materials such as paint, hinges, locks and welding rods from the hardware stores near my workshop in Kyaliwajjala.

What challenges do metal fabricators go through?
It is a high risk job with lots of dangerous machines. The filings produced while cutting metal using an angle grinder are a health hazard when inhaled. Also, the blinding light from the welding torch is dangerous to the eyes. When working on construction sites, sometimes we have to work at raised levels to install windows, doors, or guard rails on balconies, and this is a risk. However, all this can be mitigated by taking the necessary safety precautions and wearing the safety gear. Secondly, we encounter a few dishonest clients who take finished products and promise to pay. Instead, they end up not paying at all.

How much money can someone expect to earn monthly from his business?
They should expect enough money to settle all their bills and save for future investments.

What advice would you give someone who wants to join welding profession?
This occupation calls for people who are honest, serious and committed. Even if you do not have money, the fact that you are trustworthy means a client can deposit money for a project easily.