Industry focused qualifications have equipped Port Training Services to introduce vocational learning to port operators nationwide. Its success in revitalising its own workforce secured a 2010 National Business Award, with work surging ahead to increase take-up through Apprenticeship funding.
As the commercial training division of the Port of Blyth, Port Training Services (PTS) operates from a site that was once Europe’s largest coal exporting port. Today the port handles over 1.5 million tonnes of freight, managing the storage and worldwide distribution of cargo including wind turbines, forest products, metals and other commodities.
Safety and efficiency are essential to UK ports, yet in spite of their heavy industrial culture, they stopped short of embracing National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in the late 1990s. Colin Bassam, training manager at PTS, says: “Many ports specialise in handling certain types of cargo, which previous qualifications failed to recognise. The qualifications were very inflexible and required learners to carry out tasks that bore no relation to their jobs.”.
The low uptake of NVQs led to a lack of consistent performance across the industry. While the larger ports took on training schemes developed in conjunction with their international partners, the majority were left to set their own criteria. “There was nothing to benchmark against except Health and Safety requirements and a vague sense of what commercial partners wanted,” Colin explains. “The lack of a formal structure meant that risky assumptions were made about whether a person was competent. Workers often understood what needed doing, but rarely why. Having a poorly developed skills base was detrimental to the progress and image of the industry”.
The need for a tailored vocational route led to a collaboration between EAL and Port Skills and Safety, the Standards Setting Body, to develop Level 2 and Level 3 NVQs in Port Operations. An open consultation process was crucial to shape the content. “It was vastly important that employers like the Port of Blyth were able to input at an early stage, so that the needs of small operators were considered alongside the major players.” EAL’s NVQs in Port Operations include underpinning knowledge requirements – absent from previous qualifications – and recognise key attributes of a well-performing workforce such as the ability to work effectively with others. “The NVQ programme is the ideal tool to give companies confidence in the quality of the workmanship among their labour. It provides a guarantee of at least three months’ practical application of skills to reinforce the training they have received. Businesses like ours – where work varies across a number of areas that are all covered by the Port Operations NVQs – now have something to measure ourselves against.”.
PTS became one of the first EAL Centres approved to offer the qualifications, delivering them directly to the workforce at the Port of Blyth. “As a new Centre, the policies and procedures were new to us and presented a learning curve that we approached with some trepidation,” Colin recalls. “Our External Verifier was excellent and very encouraging when we went to him for feedback on our proposals. Working with EAL is a partnership, and if we don’t approach things the right way immediately, they come in and explain how improvements can be made and show us how to go about it.”
Business has prospered as a result, and PTS now generates further income by delivering the Port Operations NVQs for commercial operators across the UK. An initial cohort of 50 learners has completed the Level 2 qualification, and the current group has almost tripled in size. The programme now serves employers including the Port of Tyne, DP World Southampton, Jersey Harbours, South Coast Port Services and marine manufacturer Alnmaritec.
The qualifications have also given PTS a platform to address a further business issue: the health and personal wellbeing of the Blyth workforce. Using the health and safety unit as a starting point, PTS has enlisted the local NHS to carry out health checks for every learner alongside their training needs analysis. As they progress through the programme, workers are offered extra sessions to raise awareness of health and wellbeing both in and out of the workplace.
“If you’re an employer, it seems fruitless investing millions of pounds on systems, processes and equipment without also looking after the welfare of the workforce,” Colin explains. “The culture of society – and this industry in particular – means that healthy eating habits and good financial awareness can’t always be taken for granted. We’ve found that working proactively to educate the workforce in these areas and encourage a positive lifestyle has a knock-on effect on our business.”.
Since 2008 PTS has achieved an 80% reduction in the number of days lost due to accidents, and an impressive 92% reduction in the number of incidents on site. The scheme has also gained wider recognition in the form of a coveted 2010 National Business Award in the Health, Work and Well-being for Small Business Category. “The award will only enhance our reputation as a high quality training provider.”
Buoyed by their success, PTS is now involved in a new phase of development led by EAL to support the growth of vocational qualifications in UK ports. The result will be a knowledge-based Technical Certificate to complement the Level 2 NVQ, creating an Apprenticeship for port operatives and enabling providers like PTS to access framework funding that will extend the programme to a wider audience.
“EAL continues to invest the time to explore the needs of the sector. Because there is currently an aging workforce, these qualifications are an ideal tool to encourage younger people to enter the industry as they offer a progress route to become supervisors and managers.”
Its commitment to EAL qualifications promises further long term benefits for PTS, as the Port of Blyth seeks to position itself as an attractive project partner for businesses in the North East. It has developed a particular expertise in handling cargo relating to wind farms, and vocational qualifications are a valued tool to show its workforce credentials. “We need to start preparing ourselves to work with new technologies, and the range of qualifications that EAL provides are ideal. Industries that want to locate in the port are keen to know the existing level of skills among our staff. EAL qualifications have supported the success of our training division and allow us to demonstrate that our workers are qualified to a nationally recognised standard