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Sat May 30 2020

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Ready, steady – train!

12 Feb A growing demand from major contractors for plant operators who are ‘site-ready’ and technology-savvy has prompted the creation of a new suite of training courses. David Taylor reports

One day last year, an unemployed construction labourer visited his local Job Centre and was advised to retrain as an excavator operator. His previous job had been as a security guard.

He enrolled on a one-day course at the CITB’s national training centre to qualify for his Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) card – he already had a valid CSCS ticket – and duly attended the course to train as an excavator operator.

After a day’s intensive training, the erstwhile labourer was assessed and told he’d passed the test. He was now a qualified machine operator.

Back home, he logged onto a popular Facebook page for construction job-seekers and registered his availability. He didn’t have to wait long: that same evening he was offered work on a major construction site nearby.

The following morning he reported to site as directed, his details were checked, and he was shown to the machine he’d be using that day: a 30-tonne excavator fitted with a specialist attachment. He was in at the deep end.

Not surprisingly, the story doesn’t end well. Completely out of his depth and lacking any relevant experience, the newly-qualified operator soon lost control of the huge machine. It was sheer luck that the fellow-worker injured in the resulting melee survived to tell the tale.

The story – possibly apocryphal – is familiar enough to elicit a knowing shake of the head from many people in the plant industry. Dale Hawkins, marketing manager with west-country hirer Plantforce cites it as an indictment of the industry’s current training culture: “That’s why we need to vet operators before they go on site. So much money is spent on expensive equipment and infrastructure and nothing is spent on the person in the cab”.

According to Hawkins, today’s construction plant is not only more varied and more productive than ever, it’s also far more sophisticated technically. Just as cars now come with a variety of electronic gizmos fitted as standard, so too are excavators shipped with GPS machine control, geo-fencing systems and any number of other electronic productivity enhancements built-in.

A newly-qualified excavator operator will be able to dig a straight trench to a uniform depth, grade a slope accurately, look after the machine and operate it safely. But he or she might not be familiar with the array of digital technology installed in the cab. And, crucially, they will lack the experience necessary to do the job with confidence.

The chronic skills shortage, combined with an increasingly urgent demand from Tier 1 contractors for ‘site-ready’ machine operators, has prompted Plantforce to team up with its local training provider, Weston College’s Construction Training Centre in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, to launch new technology-focused operator training courses for excavators, dumpers and dozers.

The new site-ready operator training packages have a dual purpose. First, they will help to upskill existing plant operators enabling them to operate machines on a fast-moving ‘digitally enabled’ construction site and, second, they will train the next generation of machine operators on modern machine control in order to attract much-needed talent into the sector.

The new courses are delivered at the new Weston College Construction Training Centre, a brand-new £3.8m facility located just off junction 21 of the M5 – and right next door to Plantforce’s depot. “We saw an opportunity to partner with the college, so we sat down with them and started to design a new site-ready training package,” says Hawkins.

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Plantforce had something to offer Weston College that would greatly enhance the training it could offer: a plant simulator that creates a realistic, real-site environment where trainees can learn machine skills quickly, safely and cost-efficiently. 

“My experience with simulators helped me set up a training module that allows us to produce Tier 1-ready operators who understand GPS machine control, weighing systems and so on. We recognise that Tier 1 contractors need operators with up-to-date technical knowledge,” comments Hawkins.

Hawkins’ knowledge of plant simulators is widely acknowledged in the industry, largely as a result of Plantforce sponsoring and taking a leading role in the Simulator Zone at last June’s Plantworx show in Peterborough. “We’ve been using simulators for training for ages,” he says. Using its own training facility, Plantforce has delivered 40 GPS training days in the past year, says Hawkins. “We’ve run 10 site-ready courses and trained up 15 complete novices in addition to upskilling qualified operators,” he adds.

Supporting Plantforce in its collaboration with Weston College is Sitech, a leading distributor of Trimble construction technology. “We have about 70 Sitech systems in our hire fleet,” says Hawkins. “They’ve also provided some of the kit that’s down at the college.”

Sitech general manager Steve Breen says: “We want to take this further and believe the key to developing talent is to ensure that employees are equipped with the latest digital skillsets that are so sought after across the industry. These skillsets are now a key requirement for many Tier 1 contractors delivering services to some of the country’s major infrastructure projects, where machine control and ‘dig to design’ technologies are now an expectation – helping to drive health and safety standards and improve productivity and profitability.”

Breen points out that many plant hire firms make a point of declaring the skill of their operators, without realising that a growing number of skilful operators with years of experience have failed to acquaint themselves with technological developments in the cab and the concept of the “connected site”.

“This is a different sort of skill,” he says. 

Hawkins agrees: “Ensuring operators are ‘site-ready’ and have the necessary skills and competencies for Tier 1 projects requires different skillsets than much of the standard training available on the market can deliver. 

“Rather than taking a basic excavator course and earning a beginner’s licence, our five-day training package provides the operator with experience of the latest technology, a practical test and simulator profiling alongside a medical examination. This provides customers with peace of mind that their operators are fully conversant with the latest practices,” he adds.

Simon Werkshagen, head of construction training at Weston College, comments: “At present, you can take a basic excavator course and earn your beginners ‘ticket’ – or licence – the following week. However, this will not guarantee you to work on a Tier 1 contract, directly for a client, which requires significantly more expertise in operating the equipment.

“By providing simulated training after the basic course, we can bridge the gap that currently exists, by teaching people how to use the various pieces of technology that are required for higher-level contracts.”

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