Workloads are falling, plant is standing idle – so now’s a good time to invest in training your operators. David Taylor explains
Mothballed projects, cancelled orders and business closures are, sadly, now commonplace features on the construction industry landscape. But one problem that has plagued the industry for over a decade is easing: nobody moans about the skills shortage these days.
For operator training specialists, this means the backlog of aspiring trainees has evaporated and workloads are dwindling. But for Jeremy Curtis, managing director of the CTA Centre, one of the largest plant training centres in South West England, now is not the time to start cutting back.
“A lot has happened recently to improve standards in the plant skills sector, and that has worked to our advantage”, says Mr Curtis, “and although the overall volume of training is down at the moment, we’re looking beyond the current recession and preparing for the upturn”.
The changes to which Mr Curtis refers have been brought about by last August’s re-launch of the CPCS scheme. In its new form, the scheme places a greater emphasis on testing while deregulating the training element. One consequence of this is that most CPCS tests must now be conducted at registered test centres, of which there are currently around 100 across the whole of the UK.
This requirement was introduced to raise standards to make it easier for the CPCS to regulate those conducting the tests. Each centre is inspected and approved by the scheme and must have facilities that meet certain minimum standards. These include sufficient land suitable for carrying out lifting and excavating operations, classroom facilities for the new theory test and suitable welfare facilities.
Although the onset of recession has reduced the demand for skilled plant operators, Mr Curtis believes that canny employers will take advantage of the prevailing circumstances to enhance plant skills: “This is the perfect time for employers to train their staff – especially if their workload is low. If you’re a ConstructionSkills levy-payer, you’re entitled to a CPCS grant for every employee you train” he says. It’s a very generous grant too: “It’ll usually cover the cost of the CPCS test – and some” says Mr Curtis.
The CPCS scheme entitles an employer to claim a grant of £825 per successful candidate passing the 3A category test – for example, on a 360 degree excavator. The grant available for a candidate passing the 3B category test (for example a mini-excavator or skidsteer) is £525 and the grant for category 3C (such as a ride-on roller) is £425.
Hence an operator qualified to use plant in the 3B category will probably need minimal training to qualify at Category 3A, says Mr Curtis. “If you’re paying your guys to come into work and just stand around, you might as well get them to enhance their qualifications and claim the grant,” he says. An additional grant of £500 is available when the candidate gains the NVQ in Plant Operations for the Blue competency card.
Incentives to train
“There are huge incentives to train your people. So if there’s not enough work for your operators, don’t lay them off, train them up instead,” advises Mr Curtis.
In a normal year, CTA Centre expects to test or train around 1,500 operators. And although the number of candidates has dipped since the onset of the current recession, Mr Curtis believes that last year’s re-launch of the CPCS scheme, which spelled the end of on-site testing, will result in a greater demand for professionally run, CPCS-registered test centres for all categories of plant.
Accordingly, CTA Centre is embarking on an expansion programme that has already seen the establishment of a new test centre designed specifically for lifting operations. In partnership with Somerset-based mini-crane supplier AKS International, CTA Centre has established a new training site at the AKS depot near Frome.
The new centre, which will be staffed by AKS training specialists, is believed to be one of only five centres currently able to offer the new A66 category test for mini-cranes up to 10 tonnes capacity. The new centre also offers training and testing for the slinger-signaller and lorry loader qualifications.
With testing already taking place at AKS International’s offices and yard, CTA Centre is now looking further afield with a view to establishing similar partnerships with other firms. “We are currently in talks with people in three strategic locations: Southampton, Surrey and Birmingham” says Mr Curtis.
Launched in 1991 as the training arm of Barnstaple based plant-hirer and groundworks contractor K&J Plant, CTA Centre was the first fully CITB-accredited training and testing site in the South West. The company has grown steadily and in 2003 moved into purpose-built premises which it now shares with its sister company.
“The South West is probably the region that is least affected by the downturn”, says Mr Curtis, “but we still get people coming from all over the country, so the demand is there. Our mindset if focused on the upturn, so we’re in a good position when things pick up again. This recession isn’t going to last forever and when the upturn comes, those who are prepared will be the ones who get ahead.”