Skilling up staff for better service delivery

Training in fields traditionally seen as unskilled may seem unnecessary, but Philip Wilson and Barbara Beasley believe a qualified workforce brings much added value

NVQs for bin men and road sweepers? You must be joking." Fortunately, such sentiments are encountered less and less. But the fact they ever existed in the waste industry may go some way to explain its appalling safety record, which, according to Health & Safety Executive figures - and to our shame - is the worst of any industrial sector.

Unless the problems of both employers' and employees' attitudes to training are tackled, there will almost inevitably continue to be more serious injuries and deaths. With the increasing use of machinery and equipment to deal with the collection and processing of wastes and recyclates, the industry can no longer be regarded as a sink for unskilled workers.

Fortunately, enlightenment is dawning, and an increasing number of councils are using Learning Skills Council funding to help create a trained workforce. In many cases, councils are also demanding that their contractors either already have a qualified workforce, or that training will be made available to their workers over an agreed timetable - these requirements being written into service contracts.

Steering towards service delivery
The driving force behind this change is the need to increase the quality of service delivery, to increase productivity and to reduce accidents. In addition, those councils that have embraced the Investors In People scheme, and realised its value, are trying to ensure that all their workforce has access to relevant qualifications.

Waste management and street cleansing services are provided either directly by the local authority itself or contracted to a third party provider. In all cases, LA budgets are stretched by the provision, which must provide best value. The constant struggle to comply with UK and EU legislation, such as environmental protection, waste reduction, WEEE and working time regulations, mean that services, to remain financially viable, must be run with ever greater efficiency.

Service delivery is generally organised through a management, supervisory and operative pyramid structure. In perhaps the majority of cases, those appointed into the service at all levels have no previous experience of waste collection, recycling, landfill or street cleansing. Many have transport or civil engineering backgrounds, and operatives often have a transport background or are totally unskilled and unqualified.

A new dawn for qualifications
Training is typically in the working environment, and carried out by those with appropriate experience. It is only in the past ten years that formal qualifications in waste management and street cleansing have been available. Statistics from Wamitab, the leading awarding body in waste sector, show that most qualifications are obtained when driven by legislation, written into service provision contracts and by the availability of government funding.

As these contracts become embedded, the need for good quality trainers and assessors is likely to exceed supply. This in turn leads to the problem of finding good quality training and assessment centres. Most qualifications in the waste industry are NVQs. These are awarded by Wamitab and City & Guilds amongst others. Wamitab has 30 assessment centres around the UK and Northern Ireland. Some are in-company, others in colleges and HM prisons, but more than half are private organisations.

The NVQs are delivered by approved centres throughout the country; these being private organisations, in-company centres or further education colleges. Quality assurance is provided through internal verifiers who are appointed by the assessment centre, by a network of verifiers from the awarding bodies and also through a system of government inspection.

What's out there
The most commonly used qualifications available to waste management providers, recyclers and street cleansing providers are a range of NVQs from level one (operatives), level two (technical operatives), level three (supervisors) and level four (managers).

Highly specific qualifications are available in all branches of waste management (collection, recycling, treatment, landfill). At present, only level two and some level three candidates are eligible for LSC funding.

For a long time, waste management training has been the Cinderella of training budgets - funding was seldom available to cover waste collection operatives and street cleaners. Those councils that have now trained their workforces are seeing the benefits of improved motivation and attitude. These in turn lead to:
  • improved health and safety (with the possibility of reduced insurance premiums)
  • reduced absenteeism
  • assistance when obtaining awards such as ISO, Beacon Status and Investors in People
Feedback from those councils and service providers indicates that a qualified workforce improves efficiency and service delivery.

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