Construction is just one sector preparing its case to recruit and train the next generation of plant mechanics through a new generation of apprenticeship programmes devised by employers, so-called trailblazers.
New blood is urgently needed to maintain, repair and service plant, machinery and equipment across many sectors of construction, from quarrying, demolition and the waste sector, as well as infrastructure sectors like the utilities, rail, housing and highways. But existing framework apprenticeships are closing for new entrants from 1 August 2020, so the rush is on to set up new schemes.
A trailblazer apprenticeship must receive official approval from the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Education (DfE) and set up in 2017. No submission may overlap an existing trailblazer apprenticeship. IfA approval is required at three stages; establishing the need for the trailblazer, setting up the standard for training, and verifying ongoing/final assessment plans.
Up to now, the role of plant mechanic has been viewed by the IfA as having too much in common with an existing Land-Based Service Engineering (LBSE) trailblazer apprenticeship suite that was approved in 2015. That consists of two apprenticeships set at Level 2 and 3, ultimately aimed at ‘providing advanced technical support and guidance across a diverse range of plant and equipment in sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, forestry and outdoor power’.
IfA’s reference to ‘construction and plant’ as part of the LBSE occupational title, and updates that have broadened the standard to other sectors like construction, have been enough to muddy the waters for the plant mechanic (officially known as Construction Equipment Maintenance Engineering) submissions. They aim to supersede the existing plant mechanic apprenticeship, officially known as the Construction Plant or Machinery Maintenance Framework Apprenticeship set up by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).
Responsible for the plant mechanic trailblazer submission is a construction and plant-industry employer-led group. Co-chairs Ed Hudson from Liebherr GB and Rob Allen from Clee Hill Plant Hire head it up, with the Construction Plant-Hire Association (CPA) providing administration and technical writing support.
According to CPA technical and development manager Peter Brown, the construction industry needs around 700 apprentices a year to fill the skills gap, so the plant mechanic trailblazer apprenticeship is desperately wanted.
“We met with the IfA so we could correctly word our submission, and be clear about how the occupation differs from that of similar roles such as a LBSE or HGV mechanic (pictured: contestants in the 2018 IRTE Skills Challenge). What is currently in place as a plant mechanic apprenticeship works, so the group would look to replicate that as much as we can within the new trailblazer format,” he adds. “The co-chairs remain optimistic that the group has a valid case that the plant mechanic is a separate and unique occupation critical to construction, and that anyone who has gone through a LBSE apprenticeship wouldn’t be able to work in the construction industry, because there is no crossover without re-training.”
The introduction of trailblazer apprenticeships stemmed from the Richards Review in 2012, which recommended that future curriculums meet industry standards, and that assessments be independent and respected by industry to ensure graduates are fully competent and employable. The following year the ‘trailblazer apprenticeship’ was designed to create a more rigorous training approach, responsive to employers’ needs.
Out went rigid timetables and continuous assessment of the apprentice, as devised by the CITB to follow the Industrial Training Act, which gave government statutory powers to create industrial training boards responsible for training. It was specifically aimed at school leavers, with pre-set day-or-block release at CITB-registered colleges.
In its place has come an employer-led ‘standard’ with no age restrictions, flexible practical-led learning-based tuition with the aim of having the apprentice ‘job-ready’ at the end. Peter Brown says that its key benefit for an employer is flexibility. “It’s about the programme of learning; the employer choosing which registered training providers to go to for training, and how. It’s the employer working with the training provider; it is much more flexible in terms of delivery. The standards are fairly broad, but if an apprentice needs more classroom training and another needs more hands-on, then the employer can adapt to that.”
The changes couldn’t come soon enough. In 2014, there was a 33% drop in the number of apprenticeships, according to government figures. Efforts to get trailblazer apprenticeships off the ground were stymied by the same government, which seemed unable to find a permanent home for the initiative. First it was looked after by the Department for Business, but was passed to the DfE in July 2016, who then set up the IfA to assess and approve trailblazer apprenticeships and support the government’s commitment to deliver three million apprenticeships by 2020.
For the CPA’s part, in its role as administrator and organiser of employer-led panels, it has set up four new plant-specific trailblazer apprenticeship programmes, including Construction Equipment Maintenance Engineering.
The first to reach ‘approval for delivery’ was Lifting Technician, initiated in 2014 and sanctioned in December 2017. It is now available to anyone intending a career involving operating a mobile crane, crawler crane or tower crane, and undertake slinger and signaller duties. It will gradually replace the Construction Civil Engineering Plant Operator (Cranes Lifting) framework apprenticeship. Training providers in place include Ainscough Training Services, based in Leyland, Lancashire, and King Lifting in Bristol. Setting up the curriculum and assessment procedure was a working group led by construction company Laing O’Rourke. It devised an apprenticeship set at level 2 with training and work experience to last between 18 and 24 months; 20% of that time will be delivered ‘off-the-job’.
The qualification issue
A government requirement for trailblazer apprenticeships is that there are no specific qualifications within the syllabus; the apprenticeship itself acts as the qualification, and must be sufficient for apprentices to gain access to site.
This creates a few headaches. For example, driving a road-going mobile crane between sites requires a Category C heavy goods license, which is not part of the apprenticeship. On the other hand, the Controlling Lifting Operations (Slinger/Signaller) National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) is on the syllabus; that allows an apprentice to get on site with a card such as in the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS). Regardless, King Lifting training and development manager Marc Smith welcomes the trailblazers. He states: “The trouble with plant is that it is still qualification-led. My proposal would be to send the apprentices to our training centre to do the slinger/signaller part in the first week of the apprenticeship, as that would give them their CPCS Red Card. An apprentice in the plant industry who cannot get on site is no good to anyone.”
At Ainscough Training Services, MD Richard Crayston reveals that the company has put together an external training package that includes the end-point assessment. He observes that apprentices had previously learned via college study, and work-based experience.
The third trailblazer, Construction Plant Operative, which started in 2016, is led by P. Flannery Plant Hire and The Hawk Group. It’s at the ‘standards’ stage, so won’t be complete until it completes the assessment stage. Finally, the Hire Controller trailblazer has been approved. Led by Southern Hoists, the group has developed the assessment plan and end-point assessment.
As for the working group behind the plant mechanic trailblazer apprenticeship, there are signs that once it reaches the standards stage of its submission, the group knows what it wants. It is proposing to create two standards; an apprentice mechanic would learn how to undertake core functional activities around the checking, servicing and basic fault-finding on a wide range of equipment, or within a specialised field, while an apprentice technician would learn in-depth inspections of equipment, provide comprehensive reports for inspection and maintenance activities and carry out technical diagnostics on all equipment.
Within construction equipment, there are many different types of maintenance tasks across a wide variety of equipment. “We are covering a range within the sector,” concludes Brown. The differences “can easily proliferate to a crane mechanic or earthmover mechanic, which we cannot do. So, we are putting together the common themes as a basis for this trailblazer apprenticeship.”