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From famine to feast for hirers

The economic downturn and job cuts have put an end to industry hand-wringing about a skills shortage

Two years ago, the UK plant hire industry was facing a crisis. Growth was being hampered by a shortage of skilled workers and employers were struggling to attract school-leavers.

Now we have a different crisis. Workloads have fallen, construction projects are being postponed or cancelled and the plant hire fraternity has an inventory of equipment and a staff of operators, fitters and service engineers with nothing to do.

In April 2006 I spoke to three plant hire companies – Kent-based earthmoving specialist HE Services, crane hirer Marsh Plant, and leading hirer of nonoperated equipment, A-Plant.

All three lamented the shortage of people willing to work in the industry. The workplace has not changed, and neither has the
training requirement. But the industry’s circumstances have, says Hugh Edeleanu, chairman of HE Services.

“There’s been a tremendous change in the past two years,” he says. “People are being laid off and we’re getting calls about
vacancies all the time.”

Hit early

Even before the construction industry recession became official, plant hire firms were feeling the pinch. Most have had to make changes, often by reducing staffing levels. Several have ceased trading and their employees are looking for work. So is there a glut in the labour market now?

“In office staff there is,” says Mr Edeleanu. “House builders, contractors, estate agent and banks have all been hit hard.

“But the supply of those most scarce skills – fitters and operators – is only now beginning to exceed demand. What some plant hirers have found is that it is now easier to find and retain staff of a high calibre.

Geoffrey Marsh, chairman with Hampshire hirer Marsh Plant, complained two years ago that many trainees lacked ability and commitment. Four out of 10 apprentices he took on lost interest and left.

“Two of them simply said they couldn’t be doing with all the paperwork and they just disappeared,” says Mr Marsh.

Under contract to Marsh Plant, which had invested heavily in their aborted training, they simply vanished, owing their employer £1,000 apiece.

“We’ve had a much better success rate recently,” says Mr Marsh. “There are more people to choose from and they are more committed.

“We’ve found there are quite a few ex-truck drivers and ex-servicemen willing to re-train as crane operators, and that’s good for us because they have experience and their HGV licence reduces the amount of training we have to do.”

This year, Marsh Plant has put 10 job-seekers through crane foundation, slinging and signalling training, retaining eight of them as full-time apprentice operators. But now the company has put a freeze on operator recruitment, says technical director Shaun Leinster.

“We don’t need to recruit at the moment but we still get one or two CVs a week, mainly from fitters looking for work.”

So quickly has the skills shortage abated that it is hard to believe that only two years ago A-Plant was going all the way to Poland to recruit.

The job vacancies were mainly for fitters, drivers and sales staff, but the candidates were well-trained and of a high calibre.

“Some of the people we’ve interviewed are graduates,” says human resources manager Catherine Rose.

Homeward bound

Today we read about Polish migrant workers returning to their homeland where the economic downturn is less acute – although it is accelerating even there.

But the Polish workers A-Plant had been recruiting were not temporary staff. “Our recruits were all permanent,” says Ken Palframan, A-Plant human resources director.

“Our need was urgent at the time and we needed the skills straight away – that’s why we went to Poland. Now, the focus is on new apprentices, people who we can train up ourselves.”