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A specialist course for plant skills

The National Construction College’s new centre on the London Olympic site expects to train 200 plant operators this year.

The future looks rosy for the construction industry in the South-east of England.

Despite some pessimism from house builders on the back of the credit crunch, enormous projects such as the Olympic site, Thames Gateway, Crossrail and various regeneration schemes will provide plenty of work over the coming years.

If the region does face a problem, however, it is how to recruit the workers needed to build these major projects.

The Olympic Delivery Authority reckons the workforce to construct the Olympic Park, Olympic Village and Stratford City developments will peak at 20,000 in 2010. The Olympic project alone will create 35,000 construction jobs, with an estimated 24,000 coming from the trades. At its height, the Olympic Park will employ 9,000 people in the construction industry.

With such a potential drain on resources, it is no surprise that the region was an area ConstructionSkills flagged up when it looked at possible skills deficits across the UK.

“One of the geographic areas we found was most short of specialist skills was east London,” says Andy Walder, commercial manager for ConstructionSkills training arm the National Construction College.

“We asked if we were going to deliver training for east London, would it be through our Norfolk base or would we look for a centre in the area. Seeing as it has the Olympics, Thames Gateway and Crossrail right on its doorstep, we decided it would make sense to set up a centre there.”

Finding a suitable site in London was no mean feat. Getting the room to train operators required a large site, which proved quite a problem, considering the price of real estate in London.

“Trying to find a couple of acres in London is not the easiest thing in the world, and then there are considerations once you’ve bought it like whether the land is contaminated.”

Getting others on board

Consequently, Mr Walder says, ConstructionSkills appreciated it couldn’t go it alone.

“We realised we would have to work in partnership with other organisations. We talked to a number of councils in the area as well as the London Development Agency. The ODA in particular was quick to recognise that to deliver the Games we need plant operators to do the groundworks.”

The organisation worked alongside the ODA to develop the Construction College East London at Eton Manor in the north of the Olympic Park. JCB provided a lot of the machinery on the site and the project was funded by the ODA, Learning and Skills Council, London Development Agency and the private sector.

The centre opened last November to offer training for plant operators. By the end of March it had already seen 83 trainees pass through its gates. Mr Walder says he expects the centre to have trained 200 people in its first year.

Although the centre is built on the Olympic Park, Mr Walder says its focus is spread further than one project and it will train operators for east London projects like the Thames Gateway, Stratford regeneration and Newham regeneration.

ConstructionSkills based the idea for the centre on a previous joint venture with JCB to develop a site specialising in plant training. The centre in Ashbourne, Derbyshire focuses on training plant operators.

Plant handling skills

The centre provided courses on operating telescopic handlers, rough terrain forklifts, backhoe loaders, excavators and dump trucks.

The 1.5 ha centre at Eton Manor has a 15,000 sq m outdoor training area which allows trainees enough space to operate equipment on a range of -courses designed to get them used to working on a site.

The training area will allow excavation and backfilling to a depth of 1.5 m. Trainees will supplement practical learning with classroom-based education in modular lecture theatres.

The centre runs courses for up to 24 people at a time. Courses run between two and 12 weeks, although most of the trainees so far have taken courses lasting between eight and 10 days.

Trainees will operate excavators, backhoe loaders, telehandlers, big dump trucks, smaller forward dumpers and road rollers. The centre also runs slinger signallers (banksman) courses.

The trainees get their Construction Plant Competence Scheme red card, which will enable them to operate machinery with on-site supervision. They can then create a logbook over a minimum of 300 hours as a route to getting their blue or green operator’s cards.

Trainees can expect first hand experience from their tutors, says Mr Walder, as the National Construction College has recruited instructors straight from the industry.

“Most of our instructors have worked in the industry for between 10 and 15 years,” he explains. “We take the competence they have gained working for a main contractor and train them on the instructor side.”

While there is a recognised need for competent plant operators in the area, where does the National Construction College predict these construction workers of the future are going to come from? And what does it take to become a trainee?

Employment figures for those workers employed so far on the Olympic Park reveal that one-third of the workforce lives locally and that one in 10 was previously unemployed.

Recruiting unemployed people for training at the Eton Manor centre has been a priority for the National Construction College in partnership with the ODA.

Long-term career path

Part of the agenda for creating a sustainable Games involves developing skills with the local community and a long-term career path for its residents.

The National Construction College is working with Jobcentre Plus and other job agencies to find the right people for the centre. Mr Walder says the centre is also promoting equal opportunities for the industry.

“We’re getting a third of people from ethnic minority backgrounds, so we’re getting a real mix of people through,” he says. “We’ve also got a good mix of women through as well.”

Although the centre is in its early days, Mr Walder says the results have been encouraging with a pass rate of 73 per cent.

“All the people who come through so far have been unemployed and many of those have come from long-term unemployment,” he says.

“Although 73 per cent may not be a strong pass rate when we’re looking to upskill people already working in the construction industry, it’s not bad when you’re dealing with people who haven’t that experience.”

When trainees have finished their courses, they can secure work in the vicinity through a job agency.
And what has the quality been like so far? “The only thing I can say is we’ve employed two people ourselves within the National Construction College to work as support workers on the site,” Mr Walder says. “I think that’s the best endorsement of the people coming through the centre as you can give.”
What will be the future of centre at Eton Manor? As the groundworks are taking shape, the National Construction C-ollege will provide training in other trades.

“We want to move into ‘above ground’ construction work, such as formwork, steel fixing and kerb laying,” Mr Walder says.

The college will develop courses at Eton Manor based along these lines in the second half of the year.
Richard Stirling is CN’s new technical and plant editor and will be joining the paper in 2 June