As countries have emerged from recession, so their construction sectors have picked up and reestablished themselves as the engines for wider economic growth.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that this recovery is exposing what was actually a pre-existing condition – a significant skills shortage across the board of construction disciplines. UK engineering companies alone are already reporting a shortfall of 55,000 skilled workers.

Of course, much of the skilled labour was lost during the recession itself. In the UK the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimated that construction employment had declined by close to 385,000 by the end of 2013. This downward trend was reversed in 2014, with employment estimated to have risen by around 64,000 to 2.5 million.

The CITB now forecasts an annual average growth rate of 2.5 per cent from 2016-2020 and estimates that the construction industry is set to create 224,000 new jobs over the next five years. However, this will be offset somewhat by the 400,000 skilled workers who are expected to retire in the next 5-10 years.

In its 2014 survey the CITB revealed that one in eight (13 per cent) of employers reported that, for some of year they had not had enough skilled workers and a further five per cent said that for all or most of the previous 12 months they had not had enough. Those figures can only have worsened as the labour market has expanded.

Research by the Open University suggests that solving the skills shortage could generate £27bn per year by 2020 but the 64 million dollar question is, who are the people who are going to fill those vacancies?

The government has set a target of creating three million new apprenticeships across all business sectors over the lifetime of this parliament, although an announcement by Chancellor George Osborne in last November’s Spending Review outlining how this will be paid for has ruffled some feathers within the construction sector.

In April the government is introducing a new Apprenticeship Levy to raise £3bn per year. Large employers in the UK will have to pay 0.5 per cent of their total wage bill to encourage large companies to offer training to young people. Smaller companies will not have to pay. "Every employer will receive a £15,000 allowance to offset against the levy, which means over 98 per cent of all employers, and all businesses with paybills of less than £3m will pay no levy at all," said Osborne. He added that "those paying it will be able to get out more than they put in. It’s a huge reform to raise the skills of the nation and address one of the enduring weaknesses of the British economy".

Critics of the new levy include the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), which points out that the CITB already collects a levy and that two-thirds of UK apprenticeships are run through SMEs, who won’t qualify for the £15,000 allowance. Without this financial support the FMB warns that construction apprenticeships could "nosedive".

"This could be devastating for training within the construction sector," it said. "Although the existing [CITB levy] system is not perfect, it helps ensure small firms receive much needed support over and above financial payment for the training itself."

Karen Winfield, human resources director Europe West Konecranes UK Ltd said that the new guidelines for the levy will be "interesting to assess", adding that it would be premature to pass judgment at this stage.

"Red tape does have a tendency to make life more difficult for employers and in certain instances, if it becomes too onerous, then it might deter some companies from getting involved," said Winfield. "This could be true of the Apprenticeship Levy. As of yet there has been very little presented to companies in terms of the processes and procedures that will be involved, so the machinery and infrastructure for the levy does not appear to be in place."

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Konecranes is fully committed to the provision of training and of apprenticeships as an important part of the company’s succession planning. It established its own training centre at its UK headquarters at Castle Donington in 2013 and currently has 33 apprentices enrolled onto what is an initial three to four year scheme. Of these, 19 are in crane service, five in administration and nine in production.

The targeted number of apprentice recruits per year is in line with the anticipated growth of the company, said Winfield, with 2015’s six new electrical engineering apprentices likely to be joined by 12 new colleagues this year.

Each crane service apprentice attends college for ‘off-the-job’ training with the aim of achieving NVQ Level 2 Performance Engineering Operations (Konecranes also has a number of apprentices undertaking NVQs in business administration, with training here going up to Level 5).

At the end of year one, apprentices go through six weeks intensive training as a group at the in-house training centre, where the focus is crane specific and on health and safety.

Subsequent training is in accordance with the company’s ongoing programme and, on completion, apprentices qualify as service technicians with a BTEC Higher National Certificate (HNC) in electrical and electronic engineering.

The training centre features a combination of practical and theoretical training areas. Both of the purposedesigned rooms can accommodate up to 16 delegates and one is equipped with the latest audio-visual and presentation equipment, while the other is dedicated to delivering more hands-on electrical training and features mobile workbenches and a variety of hoists.

The centre also hosts a workshop training area that features the latest Konecranes hoist and crane technology, including two fully automated and synchronized 2.5 tonne SG CXTS cranes (single gantry electric wire rope hoist cranes).

Street Cranexpress Ltd (SCX) also backs the training of a young workforce and currently has eight apprentices with a further four targeted for 2016. Director Ray Fletcher said the intention is to take on "at least" two apprentices each year beyond this.

SCX’s tailored apprenticeship scheme includes a professional mentoring programme and the enrolment of new recruits at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). This new training facility provides both practical and academic training and has seen apprentices from blue-chip companies such as Rolls Royce, Boeing and National Grid pass through its doors. Under SCX’s scheme, apprentices attend the AMRC full-time for the first six months, focusing on general mechanical and electrical engineering.

"NVQ and BTEC qualifications are sought with options to pursue HNC qualifications as they progress," said Fletcher. "A structured four-year programme is offered to the candidates under our ‘Training Passport’ scheme. Internal and on-thejob training is carefully structured for the duration of the apprenticeship to ensure that full competency is achieved at the end of the programme. The candidates also have a full view of all tasks they have completed and what progress they are making during the scheme, with periodic assessments to galvanise this process."

Fletcher added that SCX has just bought a new facility in Sheffield, which will house the company’s new training academy. "Our plans include a designated area within the facility where apprentices can receive technical training on lifting equipment and more experienced engineers can also undertake new product training," said Fletcher.

Training courses that qualify its clients’ staff in the safe and efficient operation and maintenance of industrial cranes and their components are also provided by Terex MHPS.

"As a global acting service organisation we provide training for our customers around the world," said Carolin Paulus, vicepresident Demag Service of Terex Material Handling. "Our philosophy is that when selling a product we are starting a longterm relationship with our customers."

The company has a team of more than 30 highly qualified trainers and offers extensive programmes in its nine training centres, as well as on-site. Training focuses on safety for both personnel and machinery as well as on the "reliability of process and machines", said Paulus.

"We set global standards with adaptions to regional rules," she added. "A certificate issued by Demag Service shows a recognised qualification in the material handling sector."

Hands-on, practical training includes instruction in how to carry out maintenance and repair work for the safe operation of cranes and hoists. This includes adjustment work as well as professional assessment of the condition of wearing parts.

The courses also include calculation of the elapsed share of the theoretical service life of hoists in written form and by using corresponding software.

"We’ve introduced a lot of new products in the last two years and all of these are accompanied by new training programmes that we offer globally," said Paulus. "Furthermore, we are going to start focusing more and more on safety aspects and, as a first step, we have already introduced a special training programme for mechanics who also work on electrical components."

Konecranes, SCX and Terex are united in the opinion that training is essential, not just for obvious safety reasons but also to fulfill the potential of the machinery and equipment.

"Our training programme contributes towards preventing accidents and incident in the workplace, said Paulus. "And customers can only utilise the full benefits of the long-term investment they have made in high-quality Demag products if they have well qualified staff." Paulus added that providing training helps customers realise the full potential of their equipment and boost productivity. "We offer training for operation,

maintenance and safety to customers in many different industries but there are still many companies that underestimate the operators’ responsibility and don’t provide extensive training. A quick demonstration by an existing operator is not adequate."

Well-trained operators are more proactive and have a greater sense of responsibility, said Paulus, and this helps ensure they take care of the equipment – and the loads – they are in charge of. Lifted goods in the automotive and aircraft sectors are extremely high value and must be carefully handled by well-trained staff, she said, by way of example.

Providing robust training schemes also allows companies to maintain competitive advantage.

"We recognise the need to progressively elevate the skills base of our own employees at all levels and value the investment we make as being essential to the future development of the business," said Winfield. "It is imperative for companies to ensure that they offer customers the highest levels of service across their business and ongoing training and development is pivotal to this. Failure to invest in this field will definitely result in companies losing their competitive edge. The emphasis here is on being progressive and not regressive."

Fletcher goes so far as to say the consequences of not providing the correct levels of training for both apprentices and existing employees could be "catastrophic". "The role of a crane technician warrants a high degree of technical knowledge – both mechanically and electrically – and a desire to work in all sorts of environments, some of which can be hazardous," he said.

"In addition, engineers must work to strict guidelines and standards associated with lifting equipment, as well as adhering to stringent health and safety requirements. "Our commitment to training across the board also demonstrates our intentions with regards to investing in our workforce, which certainly promotes the retention of employees," continued Fletcher. "It’s worth pointing out that our customers are also informed of our intentions and progress with regards to apprenticeships and this has been well received generally and regarded as a means of future-proofing our services to them."

Meeting the demands of customers in the future will not be possible if suitable and sufficient investment in people in not sustained, according to Andrew Wright, Lifting Equipment Engineers’ Association (LEEA) learning and development manager. Training, he said, also encouraged "employee engagement" in meeting the objectives of the business.

He added that LEEA members use a variety of different training methods and it aims to support initiatives for both bringing new talent into the industry and the continual professional development of those already working within the sector. LEEA qualifications are recognised and respected worldwide.

"Given the number of people trained by LEEA over the years and the courses that are held worldwide, there is a clear commitment from our members to training their staff and developing competencies," said Wright.

"What must be taken into account, however, is the paramount importance of continual professional development and on-the-job training and assessment. Approximately 70 per cent of learning takes place in the work environment and this is where a structured competency framework, together with learning and development support will ensure that the knowledge and skill of our members’ employees is continually updated to ensure currency, assessed in the workplace and verified by regular refresher training, some of which is provided by the LEEA TEAM Card scheme."

The LEEA Part 1 Entrance Certificate, followed by the Lifting Equipment General Diploma course attract the most trainees for two main reasons: the Part 1 Entrance Certificate is a prerequisite for entry to any LEEA diploma level training course; and the Lifting Equipment General Diploma training covers lifting accessories – the most common type of lifting equipment found in industry. This diploma qualification meets the needs of most lifting equipment inspectors but others have a need, or simply choose to extend their qualifications in other specialist lifting appliance and associated equipment.

The way training is being delivered has changed with the launch last year of the LEEA Academy after almost six years of development. Traditional, postal correspondence courses have now been replaced with a state-of-the-art learning management system providing interactive and engaging e-learning courses, CGI 3D graphics, progressive assessments and a comprehensive resource library. LEEA Academy e-learning can be accessed around the clock via PC, Mac, laptop or tablet.

"The LEEA Academy also offers instructor-led training courses and blended learning options globally, said Wright. "LEEA has recently established offices in Dubai, in which we have incorporated classroom facilities to enable regional members to access our training courses without the need to travel to our UK training centre."

And developments continue. A Mobile Crane Examination Diploma was added to the portfolio last September and, in April, LEEA is introducing a nationalised Part 1 Entrance Certificate and Lifting Equipment General Diploma e-learning course, which, Wright said, will benefit members in Australia and the US. LEEA is also in the process of adding powered lifting machines to its CGI 3D graphics resource library. Wright noted that the issue of competence within the lifting equipment sector is "prevalent and emotive, worldwide" but the definition of competence is elusive.

"What makes a competent person?" he said. "Legislation and regulations define competence, as does the LEEA, but how do we use this overarching requirement to produce a framework that is both tangible and practical for our members to work with?"

He added that LEEA is currently working with its members to produce a competency framework, which will enable employers to develop, assess and evaluate the competence of their workforce. The prototype framework has been produced and a consultation period with LEEA members is under way.

The wider construction sector has sometimes struggled to find suitable candidates for apprenticeships and this problem has also been experienced by the lifting sector, which suggests that career advice for engineering apprenticeships is not sufficient in the first place and that the cranes sector in particular isn’t getting enough exposure.

"More needs to happen in schools to raise awareness with regards to opportunities within the engineering sector," said Fletcher. "There is also a huge shortage of other roles, such as technical sales, internal technical sales, project engineers and so on. These roles aren’t publicised enough to a younger age group."

He added that SCX has been active in recruiting apprentices and employing engineers from a maintenance background, but not necessarily from the lifting sector. "This does involve a huge commitment and investment to train them but this has assisted us in plugging the gaps where more experienced engineers have not been available," said Fletcher. "Proof of competency is the highest priority for us and training is imperative to establish this." Strong links with colleges and schools have paid off for Konecranes which said that demand for its apprenticeships is very high – "typically 100-200 applicants per year".

Of these, of course, Konecranes looks to recruit the highest calibre candidates, not just in relation to their educational credentials but also their inter-personal and communication skills. It also looks for a strong work ethic and for those applicants who are looking for "a progressive career path".

"Konecranes has both senior managers and directors in the business who have gone through the apprenticeship programme, so the scope for development is both realistic and proven," said Winfield. She added that the company appointed its first female technician in January 2015 and that the company is actively promoting the opportunities for women within the sector.

Konecranes has a 100 per cent record of ensuring that, upon completion of their training, apprentices are given a full-time position with the company.

"To cement this, the apprenticeship programme is viewed as being the start of a process that puts an individual on a career path that can quite literally take them to the top of their profession," said Winfield.

"What’s more, apprentices not only benefit from access to outstanding learning opportunities, they are remunerated in the process for their efforts, while being eligible for a range of fringe benefits that an employer such as Konecranes is capable of offering. Should they then decide to progress to degree level, this delivers another significant advantage in that it is Konecranes who fund the process, so any form of student debt traditionally associated with a university degree is eliminated."

Konecranes said its approach is to focus on new recruits and training provision for existing employees in equal measure. While the former is central to getting new blood into the business, ongoing training is important to ensure that "career development remains a core focus".

"In terms of an aging workforce then the emphasis should be on encouraging individuals to live by the old adage of ‘you’re never too old to learn’," said Winfield. "It’s all about creating an environment whereby employees of all ages are encouraged to embrace training and the benefits that are associated with it."

And what of the worry experienced by many companies that they’ll spend thousands on training staff only to see them move on to a competitor? Exponents of training say it should be seen as the answer to staff retention issues, not the cause of them.

"This has always been an issue in the industry, but one that can be substantially improved by introducing an effective learning and development policy with a commitment to workforce competency," said Wright. "Investment in staff development will provide the opportunity for individuals to work to their full potential within a structured and rewarding career path and help to sustain employee engagement."