No longer merely paid workers, Weeks Laboratories' engineering technicians now have a structured career path, thanks to an innovative new training programme. Paul Wheeler reports.
There is little that would give greater professional pleasure to Chris Slack, managing director of Weeks Laboratories, than an end to the elitism that some engineers exercise over their technician colleagues. In fact he has made it something of a crusade since joining the construction materials testing laboratory two years ago.
Around 80% of the company's 200 staff consists of technicians, working at six laboratories around the UK. On joining, Slack was keen to establish how they viewed their role in the industry. 'We wanted to see if the technicians felt they were just doing a job to get paid or were doing something worthwhile within the industry, ' he says.
'I soon realised they are terrific people, with great practical knowledge and a real feeling for materials and the construction process, ' he continues. The only problem was that this was not widely recognised, either by the company or by the industry at large - and in many cases 'not even by the guys themselves'.
The solution that Slack has spearheaded is a company-wide technician training programme.
'We recognised there were no NVQs to tap into and so we set about drawing up our own training and development programme. We wanted to make our technicians feel that what they are doing can be a career.'
The programme is based on the attainment of skills and experience, measured through skill blocks. To date there are 17 of these skill blocks, largely in technical disciplines, but also covering IT, quality assurance, customer care and management. 'Partly the scheme is about providing technicians with the skills necessary to do the job, but equally it's about developing them and equipping them with life skills.'
As they progress, individuals are expected to become a member of a relevant professional body such as the IAT (Institute of Asphalt Technology) or the ICT (Institute of Concrete Technology), 'so that they feel part of the industry'.
It is not a pay structure, but is linked to a role. That said, minimum levels of relevant experience - demonstrated by the completion of the appropriate skills blocks - are required before a staff member can advance to the next career stage.
What the scheme is doing is giving staff a framework for development. If they are ambitious they have a structure and process to help them broaden their experience and skills and progress their career.
'We believe it should be a bottom-up process and hope that the technicians will see it as a system which they can take advantage of, ' explains Slack.
Equally, there will always be people who are happy working at a modest level and doing a perfectly satisfactory job and it is important that these people do not feel pressurised.
For this reason the scheme, which has been operational since the beginning of the year, is optional. It has already had some success, Slack says: 'The momentum is growing and people who go through the process become its ambassadors.'
The motivation behind the scheme is not entirely altruistic.
It is, says Slack, easy to justify the business case. 'Technicians who feel valued and are well trained, knowledgeable and confident, will project this onto clients, who will in turn have greater confidence that they are getting a valuable service.'
The only real drawback of the scheme is that it is not recognised outside the company. This is a point Slack fully acknowledges, referring to his training programme as 'a very big culture change for both the business and industry'. But he points out that other areas of the construction industry acknowledge the skills learnt through the experience offered by NVQs, clearly pointing the way forward to where he believes the materials testing sector should be going.