Don't let our skills go to waste

The waste industry has come a long way in meeting its training needs, but funding concerns now threaten to undo all this good work. Barbara Beasley argues that employers can't afford to let this happen

When we glance back at the bad old days in the waste industry, at a time when the word 'competence' may have meant to your average totter how they threw the waste on the back of the flatbed truck without it spilling back into the roadway or how high they stacked the rags in the rag shed without the pile collapsing, we are looking at a mere 15 years ago.

Flash forward to the present day and how used to the word 'training' the industry has become. When the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was first implemented, it was met by many in our sector with consternation and general denial. The fact that this legislation demanded that the qualification be statutory and policed by the Environment Agency did not help attitudes towards it.

Quite suddenly, a budget for waste training had to appear on the agenda of the large private companies. Local authorities, who in many cases took responsibility for household and commercial waste collection and disposal, were also faced with new budgeting. Unfortunately, during the first years of the certificate of technical competence (COTC), some candidates experienced quite high expenditure and the portfolios of evidence, in some cases, were robust enough to form the foundation for a wall!

System failure
If we look back in time, the apprenticeship system fell apart in the 70s, largely due to employer reluctance to pay for day-release to college. Many failed to see how a trained apprentice could benefit the business from updating methods and attitudes. When the Government introduced NVQs, however, these eliminated the need for academic abilities and examinations/tests.

The emphasis was on practical ability and a 'no fail' system. This played into the hands of employers, because, technically if they were able to satisfy the 'on the job' part by ticking the boxes in the assessment folder and releasing the trainee for short periods of time, the NVQ was being completed in much less time than the old apprenticeship.

Meanwhile the waste industry training board was developing non-statutory awards to encompass refuse collection, street cleansing and activities on treatment, transfer and landfill at levels 1 and 2 NVQ. At long last skill needs were being addressed, but initially the attitudes of employers were again apathetic. Many argued that they were already having to dip into their budgets for the statutory awards and were loath to spend money on the rest of the workforce.

A real waste hero
That said, I did meet one true hero. While attending a meeting in London in 2002, I met a local authority waste management operations manager who threw me a challenge. If we could produce successful, measurable results from training one of his street cleansing teams, he would consider further training for them. I, of course, had to take it one step further. If he wasn't satisfied with the results he would not have to pay!

We were successful with the challenge and the rest is history. I refer to him as a hero simply because he was breaking the mould of apathy and was prepared to give it a go, even if it cost him money. The result can be gauged by the rise in self esteem of the individual - people who may not have completed schooling and never attained any qualifications. When you see the look on their faces, and they suddenly grow an inch or two taller, that says so much.

Frontline workers are the ambassadors for your companies and local authorities. They meet with the public and put up with a lot of grief from them. They project the corporate image, they handle the recyclables. They reinforce their knowledge of health and safety, environmental awareness and all the buzz words used today. So give them the tools with which to work and enhance your business.

Fresh concerns
I would like to conclude by saying that I have reason to become concerned again. After a long haul, the waste industry benefitted in an immeasurable way from government funding via 'profit from learning' and the follow up schemes, year on year. The funding which we are able to offer this year has been reduced year on year, so just as everyone has become reliant on assisted training for the workforce, the goal posts have changed.

We now have a funding agency that appears to be working in line with government directives by making further cutbacks and directing funds towards apprenticeships. And low and behold, we don't have an apprenticeship scheme in the waste industry. The nominated Skills Agency has been working on one for the duration and no amount of prodding or poking seems to be hurrying them along. Money is in short supply and is set to become even shorter.

The industry has settled into training from most perspectives and in most cases has embraced it. Waste has become huge business. Don't let us slip back. Training and education has become the lifeblood of the industry, please can we dispense with 'budget versus training attitudes' and look further than the ends of our proverbial noses.

Barbara Beasley is director of TRACKSS

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