Staffing strain

The PMV sector is expected to grow by at least 15% over the next five years.


Despite intending to wait until more suitable facilities were available, the organisers of the Big 5 have come to the inevitable conclusion that it can no longer ignore one major facet of the burgeoning construction industry, the plant, machinery and vehicle (PMV) sector.

Such is the extent of work being undertaken and earmarked in the coming years, investment in PMV is expected to grow considerably to tie-in to the significant construction and mega-project work being undertaken. It is estimated that PMV will increase between 15% - 20% over the next five years, driven by developers investing in extra machinery and equipment that is essential to build airports, ports, mega-resorts, and commercial cities.

We have a lot of people ... who claim they can operate machinery ... then we find out they can barely move the machine.

As a result of this growth, Bernard Walsh, managing director, DMG World Media, admits that, despite plans to introduce PMV to the Big 5 when it moved to its new premises in Jebel Ali in 2010, demand was too high. "It has been fairly obvious for some time and we have been conscious that we weren't satisfying that sector at all. The long-term plan was to use the new centre that would be part of the new airport, so there would be plenty of open-air space there. So we were always going to do it in 2010, but so many people were complaining - there have been quite a few companies desperate for presence."

Illustrative of the new breed of projects, on a scale not before seen in the Middle East, are Dubai World Central near Jebel Ali and King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) - the largest financial centre in the Middle East - in Saudi Arabia. The Dubai World Central International Airport (JXB), which, once completed will be the world's largest airport with six parallel 4 572 m runways, will also feature the world's highest air traffic control tower at nearly 90 m high. KAFD will comprise six zones over an area of 1.6 million m2.

These developments epitomise the extent of the earth-moving equipment required. But with contractors already feeling the strain across the emirate, what are they doing to manage the incessant demands being placed on them? Philippe Kohl, plant manager, Besix outlines a range of solutions the company is pursuing to remain competitive and the challenges inherent in maintaining large numbers of PMV labour.

In the first instance, he says an assessment is carried out for new operators when they arrive in the company and their licence (if possible) is checked out so it can be established which type of equipment they are able to operate. With cranes, however, he says that the company goes further and all operators go through two to three days of training; firstly on theory, familiarising themselves with load charts, before they are independently tested by an established company such as Emirates Safety Services.

One initial problem, according to Kohl, is that many of the labourers, who are recruited by Besix, encouraged by the promise of better pay, claim to have operational experience for machinery when in reality they are not fit for the purpose. "We have a lot of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the UAE who claim they can operate machinery - sometimes they even have licences. Then we find out they can barely move the machine," he says.

In direct response to this, Besix has developed its own training centre in Dibba, where there is enough space for labourers who wish to evolve within the company and can be trained on various pieces of equipment. This can range from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the machine.

Innovations in technology also require Kohl to ensure those operators' who have already undergone the required training to be refreshed on new equipment. "For example, on the new type of wheel loaders, they no longer have a steering wheel, they have joysticks. So people who were trained are a bit lost at the beginning, so we need to train them again to operate the new kinds of machines. It is a big change for the operators but it is more efficient and you get more productivity from the machine."

The key, says Kohl, is with such a large workforce it is imperative to ensure all operators are evaluated on a regular basis and are operating the machinery they should be and have not been placed in positions where they do not have the skills to cope.

We must make sure the operators have the proper licenses for the equipment they are operating.

"We have to apply for licences for different categories, be it light or heavy equipment operators and other categories. Therefore we obviously need to have the right licence for the equipment the individual is operating. We have found out in the last year that some operators who had learnt on light equipment were operating heavy equipment."

To address this and the logistics of managing a large number of operators with a range of skills across various elements of PMV, Besix has implemented a comprehensive database, designed to ensure that all operators are clearly accounted for, and ensuring their specific skill sets are being used in the right capacity onsite. "We are putting in place a system to make sure that doesn't happen. With all the regulations now in Dubai, we must make sure the operators have the proper licenses for the equipment they are operating.

"But we have improved, we have more than 1 000 drivers and operators in our company and we have put in place a database where we follow the qualifications of these operators and the equipment they are able to operate and the license and certifications they have very closely."

This also enables the company to monitor when licences will expire or when certificates have to be renewed, smoothing the entire process. Previously, it wasn't always easy to ascertain which operators had renewed their license or obtained a new license category, says Kohl, especially if operators are transferred across sites. And, while it demands a lot more care for the registration process and technical inspection, it is beneficial for Dubai in general to strengthen its regulations.

Besix's challenge, according to Kohl is finding skilled operators and drivers. Despite increasing its numbers by 50%, the company is struggling to find more - another reason for setting up the training centre. To counter this shortfall, the company has changed the designation of approximately 250 people this year, who were previously skilled fixers, masons and carpenters. Instead they have been trained on equipment, organised licences and now they are working as drivers and operators.

"That is what we are trying to do. Find people who in the past may have operated equipment in their own country, who were recruited as labourers here and make sure they are properly trained, with skills that are sufficient to operate the machine," he adds.

It is clear that while PMV is a relatively untapped sector of the industry, it is seemingly privy to the same concerns and challenges that affect other aspects of the sector and contractors will once more, as Besix has demonstrated, be forced to adapt to stay ahead.

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