New study queries plant operator figures

NEW research has indicated there are far more plant operators in the UK construction industry than previously reported, despite the continued recruitment challenges faced by hire firms.

The study was conducted by the Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA) to assess the “supply and demand” of operators across the sector. CPA members around the UK were involved, along with training providers and contractors.

The CPA said a “key purpose” was to clarify the number of plant operators in the UK and challenge the published figure of around 40,000, as detailed in the CITB’s Construction Skills Network Forecast.

The CPA study indicates an operator workforce of around 289,000.

Kevin Minton, director of the CPA 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 5-10 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.”

The project also highlighted on-going recruitment issues for plant hire companies. Some 40% of respondents said recruitment is very or fairly difficult, while 28% reported 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%).

The biggest recruitment barriers were skills and knowledge of potential candidates, while key issues in relation to training were found to be the cost involved, time off the job required to undertake training and the quality of training available.

Over 80% of respondents stated they did not currently employ apprentices. The study also suggested that 43% of construction plant workers are aged 45 and over, with just 8% aged 24 or under.

Kevin Minton added, “This research is a valuable guide for us to work with our members to identify the areas of importance and priority in the plant hire community. One of the key findings of this survey is the difficulty of recruiting skilled and qualified plant operators and the CPA is undertaking a number of initiatives to address this, such as a plant skills strategy forum and a careers event.”