Ton Klijn, director of ESTA – the European association of abnormal road transport and mobile cranes – and a member of the European Crane Operators Licence supervisory board, discusses how the heavy lift and abnormal transport sector needs to change its approach to training.

It is a well-worn cliché in business that if you want change, the first thing you need is a big problem. Well, to state the obvious, we have a big problem thanks to Covid-19. The question now is, are we going to change for the better?

As we all slowly – and hopefully – pull clear of the pandemic, it is blindingly obvious that we in the heavy lift and abnormal transport industry need to rethink our attitude and approach to training if we are to avoid a very real recruitment crisis in the years ahead.

What is more, as we all know, you cannot be serious about safety if you are not serious about training. It is not an optional luxury.

The good and bad

Of course, many individual companies and organisations are doing tremendous work enthusing, recruiting and training the youngsters that we badly need. But what is desperately lacking is coherent and committed leadership from our clients – many of whom are among the biggest corporations in the world.

As a result, responsibility for training is pushed further and further down the supply chain – or ignored completely. The attitude was summed up by the discussion I had with a major international corporation. They said they only wanted to employ riggers on their sites with two years of experience. Where, we asked, should they get that experience? “Somewhere else, not here,” came the reply.

Many of the big industrial clients say that it is up to the contractors – the heavy lifting and transport companies – to ensure that their workforce is trained. Of course, that is true. But we need the practical support and commitment of our clients to ensure that training is delivered to agreed and recognised standards. If it is not, there will come a point where projects will be delayed, or worse, simply cancelled because the skills to do the work are not available at the right time.

It is blindingly obvious that we … need to rethink our attitude and approach to training if we are to avoid a very real recruitment crisis in the years ahead. –Ton Klijn, ESTA

If we get to that stage, we know from experience what the next step will be. There will be an upsurge of individual and exclusive client company qualifications, all of them with different approaches, and none of them will recognise any of the others.

For our industry, such a response will be expensive, inefficient, will lower safety standards and will cause the operators huge frustration as they effectively have to re-train every time they change employer.

My experiences with ESTA’s work to establish the European Crane Operators Licence (ECOL) underline the problem.

ECOL is committed to developing a system for the training of safe and qualified crane operators throughout Europe. Currently, each European country has its own rules which range from compulsory to optional – and even to no rules at all.

The differences can lead to confusion, have a negative impact on safety and also prevent the mobility of crane operators in Europe. As one client’s site manager told us: “To be honest, I often have no idea of the qualification standards of the operator in the cranes on my sites. It worries me greatly.”

ECOL’s ambitions are simple – to enable every crane operator in Europe to demonstrate to their employer and site manager that he or she meets the minimum requirements of the industry, and to allow them to work in any European member state without having to attend multiple unnecessary re- training and examination sessions.

But while the crane manufacturers and our national member associations (and their member companies) are supportive, getting national regulators and our clients – such as the major energy companies – to back us has been like trying to nail jelly to the wall, as the saying goes.

Everyone says “great idea”. And then not much happens.

Vicious circle

Clients say they cannot specify ECOL because not enough operators have qualified to date. And operators and their employers say they do not need to obtain an ECOL licence because their clients are not requesting it. It is a vicious circle.

But the solution is simple. The clients could say that in 2025, for example, they will be specifying ECOL – so any operator or company that wants to work with them in future had better take action.

If you and your organisation are serious about safety and training, come and talk to us and get involved. –Ton Klijn, ESTA

We should remember that if our industry’s training and skills problems have been bad to date, they are only going to worsen.

The changes brought about by the pandemic have brought the issues into sharp focus. It has been difficult for workers to cross borders, which has reduced flexibility. Workload slumped and now looks to be booming, causing instability, delays and additional costs.

Further still, technology is developing fast; we increasingly need sophisticated skills and find we are competing with a wider range of industries for the best young people.

Yet we have a great story to tell – the chance to earn good money working on some of the greatest projects around the world as part of a team of skilled and committed colleagues.

So what should we do? Firstly, the speed of technological change means we must expand and deepen our commitment to lifelong learning.

Next, we must develop our industry’s appeal to young women and communities that have not traditionally regarded our industry as a source of secure and well-paid employment.

And we need to support and expand initiatives such as ECOL, which are committed to harmonising and raising standards.

Training riggers

ECOL is already talking about increasing its scope to cover the training of riggers and SPMT operators in response to requests from some of the industry’s biggest names. But we cannot do it all on our own. ESTA is committed and professional, but we are a small organisation. We need support and resources.

The danger is that we do not act together as a united industry – clients, contractors, rental companies, suppliers – until there is a major incident. We have been there before.

So my message is simple. If you and your organisation are serious about safety and training, come and talk to us and get involved.

Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Here is hoping that we are wise enough to follow his advice.

Photo credit: Liebherr.