The value of training in troubled times9 December 2008
When better times return, as they inevitably will, it will be the companies who have maintained their skills base which will be best placed to take advantage of the upturn, says Derrick Bailes.
In the intervening years, there has certainly been a greatly increased awareness of the value of good quality training. From the employee’s point of view, it shows a commitment by their employer and encourages the employee to have pride in their job with consequent improvements in quality and customer satisfaction. Of course, where safety is a factor, it will also minimise the risk of an accident which can be very expensive in both human terms and damage to assets.
Many customers, particularly larger organisations, routinely want to see evidence of training within the documentation which needs to be submitted as part of the tendering process. A risk assessment and method statement are generally essential to be in with a chance. Price is still a major factor, but being the lowest price alone is not sufficient to get the job.
In the last few months, the financial world has experienced unprecedented turmoil which is now spilling over into the general economy and most companies are experiencing a shrinking market for their products and services. Competition is strong. Business plans are having to be revised and the temptation is to concentrate on cutting costs. However, to get a share of the business available, you still need an edge over your competitors. As the market shrinks, the work will go to the best.
There are also some new opportunities to be exploited. For example the hire industry should be targeting users who traditionally still buy equipment rather than hire it. There has to be a reason for that and offering an innovative package which helps the user control their costs is a positive way forward.
Another theme I have aired on several occasions is the growing availability of special purpose lifting equipment. The use of such equipment not only improves safety by eliminating much of the trial and error associated with general purpose lifting accessories but also improves productivity and hence again helps control costs.
No doubt there will be other ideas and opportunities to manage a company’s way through the current difficulties. However, most of them will involve change and with that the need to ensure that their personnel are conversant with and skilled in the new ways of working. That means training.
In contrast to these opportunities, there is the temptation to cut all investment and 'make do' even to the extent of using equipment which should be regarded as unserviceable. Training ceases, morale drops and quality goes with it. An already weak company may have no choice but, if they have, such a course is a false economy. That way lies the path to unreliability, delays, accidents and ultimately increased costs and further loss of business.
Having started my career in the early 1970s, I have experienced several cycles of boom and bust, interspersed with statutory prices and incomes policies, rampant inflation, price escalation clauses in all contracts, a three day week and numerous industrial disputes. When better times return, as they inevitably will, it will be the companies who have maintained their skills base which will be best placed to take advantage of the upturn.
As a technical trade association, a major part of our service to our member organisations is training and qualification in one form or another. The common core of their business and therefore the skill required of their employees is that of testing, examining and certifying lifting equipment. Going back a generation, most companies had a traditional apprenticeship scheme. Anyone going through a full apprenticeship with a reputable company came out if it with the skill and experience to tackle a wide range of equipment. Our role then was simply to set examinations to assess their knowledge and, if successful, award them a qualification.
These days training is much more job specific. The advantage is that it is much quicker and costs less. The disadvantage is that, whilst the trainee may have learnt the theory, they still need experience to be regarded as fully competent. However competence can be built up in stages.
For many years we have delivered our theory training by means of correspondence courses or ‘open learning’ as it is termed these days. The full spectrum of knowledge is broken down into five subjects. Because the industry recruits personnel with widely varying backgrounds, the first subject is broad but relatively shallow and covers the basic knowledge. The other four each deal with a specific group of equipment and go much deeper into the subject. Each course comprises 20 units usually completed weekly. Each has an assignment, marked by the course tutor so the students get a feedback on their progress. At the end of the course, there is an examination under traditional examination conditions to test their knowledge and understanding of the subject.
The Association has grown to the extent that we now have as many member organisations outside the UK as within it and the postal services to certain parts of the world are poor at best. Hence three years ago we went fully electronic using the email facility to deliver and receive documents. This year we have launched a new web based educational portal. Now our students, tutors and administrators can be anywhere in the world, at a fixed location or mobile, all they need is internet access.
Three years ago we also set up our new headquarters and training centre at Huntingdon in England. Here we have an IT equipped training room alongside a well equipped workshop where trainees can get hands-on experience with a wide range of equipment in varying states of serviceability. The assessments they undergo are on real equipment in typical used condition, not obviously serviceable or unserviceable but requiring someone competent to determine which.
Our experience of delivering training to the industry sector we support is that good quality training can be delivered at an economic cost and that there is a high demand for it because its value and the benefits arising from it are recognised. As evidence of that, the enrolment for our courses which started in October is on a par with recent years even though some members are opting for the alternatives of practical training and on-site training. Overall the numbers are up.
The same is true of good quality end user training. Many of our member organisations have the facility to train end users either on their own premises or on their clients’ premises. They are in competition with various other training organisations, some good, some bad. We know that many courses for end users lack the content to be of real value and certificates are issued for attendance rather than by passing any examination or assessment.
Our members wanted to distance themselves from such courses and asked that the Association set up an accreditation scheme for end user training courses. This we have done and it was launched at our AGM at the end of November 2008. The scheme sets the course content, ensures that the trainers are themselves competent, samples the delivery of the courses and periodically re-audits the training organisation.
Our members are geographically widely spread. Currently we have 290 organisations in 41 countries so the feedback we get is representative of the global picture. In summary, our experience is that good quality training is essential to the successful business. Cutting down on it is, without doubt, a false economy.
About the author
Derrick Bailes is the chief executive of the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association, 3 Osprey Court, Kingfisher Way, Hinchingbrooke Business Park, Huntingdon, PE29 6FN, tel: +44 (0)1480 432 801, fax: +44 (0)1480 436 314, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.