Skills & Training

Materials handling training for the future warehouse workforce

By Ruari McCallion

October 2010

There is a skills gap affecting materials handling industries across Europe – but it may not conform to general expectations. The question is: how do businesses deal with it?

During the 1980s, apprenticeships seemed to fall out of fashion in some countries, the UK in particular. There were exceptions, most notably Germany, but those countries and companies that failed to invest in their future found the consequences really started to bite in the 1990s. Expertise and skills were becoming focused into the older age groups, who were beginning to approach retirement.


Traditional skills and experience – still part of today’s workforce

In the UK, at least, what followed was a scramble to try and bridge the gap. New apprenticeship schemes were introduced and have been extended. In 2008/9, around 4.8 million people were in post-16 education and training. Britain’s government has also introduced training aimed at older (aged 25+) people who need to raise their skills levels. Schemes like these are far from unique across Europe.

Currently, older workers are pretty well-skilled and have been for a long time. Younger people have skillsets that may be different but could be more suited to the modern world; and there is a group in the middle who may have lost and maybe are now targeted with workplace-based training. The differences are quite visible, as Dr Ugo Turchetti, Managing Director of Italian Cat Lift Trucks dealer Compagnia Generale Macchine SpA (CGM) observed.

“This is one of the main issues that companies and society in general will face in coming years,” he said.

“Younger mechanics are much better able to fit the needs of the latest generations of trucks”

It is not unknown for older generations to be critical of the manners, behaviour and level of knowledge of younger people. Today, commentators use the phrase ‘dumbing down’ in claiming everything is getting easier – and, by extension, that the newer generations have neither the knowledge nor the skills of their elders. Ugo Turchetti does not agree.

New for old?

“New generations grew up among electronic tools,” he said. “They are much more familiar with any electronic equipment. Younger mechanics are much better able to fi t the needs of the latest generations of trucks; they are much more familiar with the computers needed to work on the trucks.” He maintains that the need for training is actually greater in older generations. That, however, brings its own problems, resistance to change being among them. The solution has to be continuous training, helping even experienced workers to raise their skills levels. But it is not easy.


The paint shop still governs the pace of production

"Younger people will take advantage because of their ability to learn quicker"

“It is a drastic and painful modifi cation of the older generations’ mentality,” he explained. “It requires much more commitment and often brings stress and frustration.” The established or expected hierarchy will often be modified. “Older technicians may find themselves being overtaken in job quality, careers, income and social status by younger people. And this is hard to accept.” Any well-organised company will have ongoing training schemes in place but this is not the full answer, Turchetti believes.

“Continuous training is not able to fill the gap,” he continued. Younger people will take advantage because of their ability to learn quicker. Older people fi nd themselves diverted to lower level jobs and sliding down in the social scale.” In the extreme, continuous training may just be a way of ensuring that older workers continue to be economically active, rather than losing out completely. Shifts in employment profiles in Europe’s cities underline the point, with jobs that required physical strength and manual ability being replaced by service industries. Change is not limited to the shopfloor, either.


Electronic skills are in increasing demand

Change or die

“Older generations of salesmen, who were used to working mainly through personal relationships, have problems in becoming real material handling consultants, experts in the field, familiar with computer usage, with wide knowledge of contracts, regulations, laws, operating costs, and so on,” Turchetti said. “In the material handling industry, even the truck drivers face problems. Younger people are much more comfortable with the new trucks, that often adopt driving system such as joysticks.”

However, if new skills are the requirement, it may be the case that they are not necessarily in as wide supply as some may wish. Manufacturing and engineering have an image problem, across Europe. The image of ‘dark sweatshop mills’, discharging masses of wheyfaced workers at the end of each day is largely out of date but office-based, service jobs in finance and so on seem to be more attractive, even after the near-collapse of the banking system. The result is a shortage of key skills in the workforce.


Today’s lift trucks: complex assemblies of electronics and hydraulics

Short, not sweet

“People with skills in particular areas, like robotic operations, are very hard to find on the labour market,” said Hans Wijnsma, Coordinator of the Company School at Cat Lift Trucks Europe. It provides ongoing training for Cat Lift Trucks employees and, in certain specific areas, for Cat dealers and customers. “Robotics operations are different from crafts. There is a need to understand the entire process, not just your own trade area.

The CLTE School was established in 1998. Its primary offer is training ‘on the job’ for the company’s own production workers and covers disciplines such as welding, industrial painting and assembly technologies, all government-certified to recognised standards. The focus is on quality and training is ongoing throughout the year.

“As well as basic skills we address other specific areas, such as robotic operations,” said Wijnsma. “We train people to have a broader perspective and to have an overview of the whole product. Operator training is a small piece of the programme; it mostly about operating the system, which is a craft in itself. It’s a tough job to do all day long and we’re always searching for improvement in productivity and quality.” Operators need to ensure that what they are doing with their system is 100% right when it is delivered to the next stage. “We are delivering a different way of training than in the past, when the focus was much more on the discipline itself. There is diffi culty in fi nding the right people in some disciplines, so the School trains and educates our recruits.

“In the longer term the problem is going to disappear, as the older generations retire.”


New-generation skills acquired at Cat Lift Trucks’ training school

We have been offering training for our customers, suppliers and for other companies with similar needs,” he continued. “We offer training in areas like Lean simulation and 5S, which is a two-day, 16-hour module.”

Next to this, the online e-learning system,, enables users to log on from anywhere with Internet connection. Modules cover a range of subjects, from basic electronics and hydraulics to lift truck and warehouse fundamentals, common rail diesel components and specific training on reach trucks, to name some examples.

“Our e-learning system has been developed for service, sales and parts employees of our dealers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East,” said Ben Brink, responsible of this program at Cat Lift Trucks. “The e-learning coordinator of each dealership decides who is entitled to get access and at what level.”

Several dealers are on board as well, which provide technical product support to assist mechanics in the field. Experience remains a valued asset although the older generations have to adapt. The last couple of decades have demonstrated that change is continuous and ongoing training programmes are essential, whether in-house or in collaboration.



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