Demolition training – scores out of 10?

RVA Group’s managing director Richard Vann recently penned his thoughts, on whether the current training provided for industry operatives is what’s needed to head off the impending skills shortage.

If you missed the article in the latest edition of Demolition and Recycling International, you can read it here…

There was a time when training in the demolition industry meant at most, donning the appropriate PPE of the time, turning up, and ‘learning the ropes’ on site.

I’m pleased to say that our approach to professional development has evolved significantly since the days of ‘sitting next to Nelly’. Demolition is now far more widely acknowledged as the scientific discipline that it truly is.

There are certificates aplenty for the modern operative, a vast number of training facilities throughout the country, and robust management training available for engineers who want to progress up the ranks. From safety courses to the successful supervision of teams, it seems that no professional demolition topic has been left unturned.

But despite the progress we’ve seen in industry, I couldn’t score us 10 out of 10.

I recently spoke to a long-standing demolition professional and peer – John Woodward – about the very topic, to cross-reference my views. He has always, quite rightly, been an advocate of professional development and formal, structured training. But he shared my worry that demolition training has slowly started to lose its practical side.

Take a simple example of learning to drive an excavator, for instance. An operator now typically gains the relevant card by getting to grips with the controls of a simulator, in a warm and controlled environment – nothing like the cold realities of a noisy, high-hazard site, with frequent vehicular traffic and personnel close by, and other distractions constantly in peripheral vision. It would therefore be wrong to assume they’re fully equipped to do the job at hand, before they’ve got into position on their first real excavating job.

The foundations of skills have to be gathered somewhere of course, and in truth no competent demolition professional should ever believe they know everything – however long they’ve been ‘in the game’. But I suppose my point is that a careful balance is required. Yes, the depth of professional certification-based training has seen our industry advance, but this cannot be to the detriment of operational knowledge. How many project managers for example, would currently know how to actually take a building down? And are we on the verge of a skills drought as a result?

The danger of skills extinction is no more acute than in the specialist area of explosives engineering – something I have recently been quite vocal about, in my dialogue with the IExpE. But I would hope I’m not alone in my fears. I am sure the UK’s limited number of experienced explosives practitioners will share my concern. The majority have retired, are approaching retirement, or merely dip their toe in the demolition industry when it’s too wet to play golf!

Light-heartedness aside, our domestic ability to use explosives to safely fell large and complex structures is very much under threat. Admittedly, alternative methodologies can be adopted for some high-rise buildings, but there are many circumstances – such as the clearance of power stations or cooling towers – when the controlled use of explosives is the safest and most efficient option.

I’ve implored the IExpE to utilise funds to incentivise the training of next-generation explosives engineers. If action isn’t taken soon, I think there are a maximum of three years left, before homegrown expertise is non-existent. After that, the import of skills will be the only option.

I would hope this sense of urgency instigates action – and quickly! However, we can’t all be sitting ducks in the meantime. We all need to realise the role we can play in shaping demolition talent of the future too.

At RVA, for example, two colleagues are currently undergoing an extensive explosives engineering training programme, to hopefully address the skills gap I have mentioned above and to aid our own succession planning strategy too. We’ve acknowledged the major challenge facing our industry and are doing what we can to address it, so as not to jeopardise service delivery when our own experts retire.

It’s important to note that I am not pointing a critical finger at the industry’s efforts to support professional development to date. But I think there’s more to be done. There’s a PR exercise required amongst youngsters, for instance, so they understand and are attracted to the roles that exist in our world. There are undoubtedly mentoring opportunities for University students so they can augment their classroom learning with practical insight. And there’s arguably a job for the Institutes to ensure CPD schemes are fit for the future.

Clearly none of this is an easy or overnight solution. But acknowledging the need to do more is surely the first step.