It had been thought that there were 40,000 plant operators working in the UK today. But in fact it seems that that estimate is out by nearly 250,000 – a whopping quarter-mil who apparently were previously not known about.
The Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA) has long held doubts about the figure of 40,000 used by the Construction Industry Training Board’s Construction Skills Network Forecast. So it conducted some research into the supply and demand of plant operatives across the construction industry.
Through talks with CPA members across the UK, as well as training providers and contractors, it has determined that a more accurate figure for the total UK plant operator workforce is around 289,000.
CPA director Kevin Minton said: “Construction plant is on the critical path of all infrastructure and building projects and skilled and competent operators are required if projects are to be delivered safely, on budget and on target. Plant owners, operators and contractors therefore need to forecast and manage labour supply, including recruitment and retention of the existing workforce over the next five to 10 years.
“The findings from the CPA study mean that the numerical importance of plant operators as an occupational group matches their importance on site. Instead of being low in the rankings of occupation by volume, we now have the evidence to show that plant operation as an occupation is one of the top five in construction.
“The research suggests that one reason for this discrepancy is the reliance on standard classification codes for company activity and occupations. These do not necessarily match the real world of work in construction, and many employers don’t fully understand them. The underreporting remained unquestioned until we raised the query. It would be a big task – outside our control – to correct this, but we will suggest to CITB that the Construction Skills Network report should explain the nature and significance of the published figures. Given the potential scale of the underreporting, this is essential for policy and planning purposes,” he continued.
The CPA study also indicated that recruitment remains a key challenge for plant hire companies. Around 40% of respondents said recruitment is very difficult or fairly difficult. 28% of respondents had hard-to-fill vacancies in the last year. The most common areas for recruitment over the next 12 months were found to be earthmoving (26%), cranes and lifting (19%) and materials handling (5%). Skills and knowledge of potential candidates was said to be the biggest barrier in relation to recruitment of plant operatives. Three key barriers in relation to training were found to be the cost, the time off the job required to undertake training and the quality of training available.
Analysis of construction plant qualifications indicated that there are currently 65 relevant NVQ qualifications applicable to plant operatives, ranging from NVQ Level 2 through to NVQ Level 5, covering all aspects of plant equipment. However, the survey found that the level of apprenticeship training in the sector is low, potentially reducing its attractiveness as a career option compared to other construction occupations with more well established apprenticeship programmes.
More than 80% of respondents said that they had no apprentices currently. The report findings suggested that there are fewer young people in the construction plant sector than the economy as a whole, with 43% of construction plant workers aged 45 or older and only 8% aged 24 or under.
The CITB said that the figure of 42,260 plant operatives in its Construction Skills Network report for 2016/17 does not represent the entirety of plant operatives in the UK, only those who work in the construction sector. It reached thius figure using the occupational codes as set out by the government’s labour force survey. It said that it welcomed the CPA's research on the topic.
Steve Radley, CITB director of policy, said: “We always want to ensure that we have the best possible evidence on skill needs in construction and that our industry buys into them. This is why CITB has supported the Construction Plant-hire Association through funding this new report, which directly addresses the issues around discrepancies in reporting the size of the sector. We now want to review the research and agree with the plant sector what is the most accurate figure.
“We also are determined to support the plant sector’s skills and recruitment challenges through our funding model – most recently allocating £162,000 to increase the supply of assessors in that sector. We will continue to work closely with the CPA in the future to support their skills and training needs.”