By Mike Williams
AN advanced training programme to be introduced later this year for sprayer operators could be the first in a series of courses for contractors and others seeking a higher level of proficiency.
The course, developed by Lantra Awards, is aimed specifically at spraying contractors and professional spray equipment operators on big arable farms and it goes beyond the existing basic certificates of competence for pesticides required under the current legislation.
"The new course provides a progression route for experienced operators who want to improve their performance," says Terry Howard, director of external affairs for Lantra, the national training organisation.
"We believe it will be of particular interest to crop spraying contractors because they can use the additional qualification to help sell their services."
The decision to develop the course was prompted by talk of a pesticide tax and public concern about the safety of the food production chain.
Mr Howard believes operators who qualify for the advanced certificate will be able to achieve a higher level of efficiency. Training for instructors and assessors in charge of the advanced certificate was delayed by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, but is due to start next month.
There is already a more advanced certificate for chainsaw operators and further skills may follow, says Mr Howard. They will meet a demand from those who wish to show they have reached a higher standard of competence and are likely to have a particular appeal for contractors.
"More and more farmers can no longer justify the cost of replacing expensive specialist machinery and are employing a contractor instead," he says.
"Having operators with advanced qualifications is an effective way for contractors to demonstrate their efficiency, and we will be looking at other areas where an advanced certificate would be appropriate."
Sprayer operators certificates, have little relevance for Suffolk-based Miles Drainage because it does not include crop spraying in its list of contract services, but training is considered an essential ingredient in the way in which the company attracts customers.
The business, run by Peter Robotham and his wife Liz at Great Ashfield, Bury St Edmunds, offers agricultural drainage work, including mole draining and ditching. The couple have also diversified into trenching for cable laying and for gas and water mains.
When the Robothams bought the business in 1988 it had one three-man drainage team, but now has 28 full-time employees plus three on a part-time basis. Angela Brooks is one of the part-timers, and staff training arrangements and maintaining training records are part of her responsibilities.
Although the company takes advantage of operator training provided by machinery suppliers, this is regarded as no more than a basic introduction and most of the staff training is arranged on an in-house basis, with staff from the local Otley College of Agriculture called in to carry out the assessments.
Training for new recruits at Miles Drainage always begins with an induction course run by the company. The course starts with information to familiarise the recruit with the company, including basic information to ensure the newcomer knows who to report to and where the different departments are located.
The next stage is to be taken out on site under supervision, providing an opportunity for the recruit to become familiar with the type of work and equipment he will be using.
The supervision continues until the new recruit is considered to have attained company standards and, at that stage, Mrs Brooks arranges for the employee to be assessed by staff from Otley College for his certificate or "ticket".
Because of the importance of the trenching side of the business, which generates more than half of total turnover, Miles Drainage uses the Construction Industry Training Board instead of Lantra.
"Some of the machinery we use is more specifically covered by the CITB, but they also cover agricultural tractors and forklifts," says Mrs Brooks. "The biggest companies we work for on the trenching side will expect to see a copy of the full training record for each employee we put on the contract and they are more likely to be familiar with the CITB qualifications."
Additional training provided for company employees includes first aid courses – each drainage gang must include at least one member with a first aid qualification – and they can field up to four gangs.
One of their big trenching customers provides their own in-house training courses for employees of companies doing their sub-contract work, and these courses are also used by Miles Drainage.
"The direct cost of employee training amounts to more than £3000/year," says Mrs Brooks, "But that does not include the cost of the time required for training and assessment.
"We put a lot of emphasis on training, and this developed originally because of our links with companies in the trenching business where trained staff are an essential requirement for winning contracts.
"The land drainage side of our business is also benefiting from the importance we attach to training and both sides of the business have the same training requirements and opportunities." *