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Q&A - David Rockliff, Programme Leader of Mineral Materials Technology at the University of Derby

Clay Technology magazine
,
18 Aug 2014

David Rockliff, Programme Leader of Mineral Materials Technology at the University of Derby, talks to Melanie Rutherford about education in the heavy clay industry. 

Tell me about your background in the industry.
I’m a chartered civil engineer with a specialisation in highway maintenance. I started my working life at Durham County Council on its graduate scheme, where I developed a taste for road-building materials. I then moved to Anglo American, where I was Technical Quality Manager, before being made redundant due to a merger. Now I work at the University of Derby, where I run the courses in aggregates, materials mixtures, concrete, cement and now clay. I’m already a specialist in aggregates and materials mixtures, and have also developed an interest in concrete and all sorts of other things. I’ve also gained a teaching qualification in higher education over the past 10 years. Away from the university I’m involved in construction materials testing, assessing accredited laboratories.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Clay Technology course that you teach?
For many years, the Institute of Quarrying and the Institute of Asphalt Technology supported a course at Doncaster College in quarrying and road surfacing. In 2006, that course moved to the University of Derby so they could make the courses part of a more academic structure via the NVQ framework. We’re still very focused on studying part-time while working in the industry, and we have a lot of industry specialists who teach. But we also get great support from the industry itself and we work very closely with the Institutes of Quarrying and Asphalt Technology, the Concrete Society and now the International Clay Technology association (ICTa) to make sure that what we’re doing is relevant.

Where does your specialist area fit in within ICTa?
In the foundation degree, we have 12 modules spread over three years and of those, seven are common techniques and five are specialist for each of the five sectors of industry. That’s where we bring in industry experts, particularly for cement and clay. We have asphalt and quarry specialists in-house, because that’s our starting point. The industry has changed. Hanson, for example – I remember when it was ARC, the stone quarrying company, and now it is working with materials mixtures and concrete. I work directly with the higher apprentices from Hanson Cement, where it mostly runs brickworks but also has pre-cast concrete works. The industry is much broader now, and we’re trying to build connections between the various sectors. When you get into it, the technology of energy management and mechanical handling are common to all of the aspects of the industry.

What do you think are the main challenges for the heavy clay sector?
The clay industry is very much like the quarrying industry and our other maturing sectors – they have workforces where the average age is in the 50s. We have to find ways of bringing in young people who are willing to learn the business. With the higher apprentices that the Hanson Group has brought in – there are six of them, now in their second year, from a mix of quarrying materials mixtures backgrounds, two of them specifically cement-based. These are people who could have gone to university but chose not to, and entered into a structured programme with Hanson that will give them a Higher National Certificate (HNC) at the end of this year and a Higher National Diploma (HND) at the end of next year. They’re actually getting a university-standard education and their HND will be a starting point if they want to continue that. Perhaps that’s a challenge for the clay industry – getting good people. An 18-year-old potential manager doesn’t want to be in a brickworks. He or she wants to learn the skills that go with that experience, but also have the underpinning knowledge that allows them to go into other things if they want to. They don’t like being put into too small a box – that’s the challenge, to give them an education that allows them to be happy with what they’re studying now but makes them feel they have a wide range of options when they reach 25.

Are there any issues in the industry that you that feel strongly about?
I think if somebody shows an interest in developing themselves, let them. The joy of teaching adults with enquiring minds is that the most unlikely people grasp what you’re doing and gain advantages from it. There’s a noticeable difference between the new entrants and the third year. They have to dedicate themselves to private study and have to get support from their line managers to allow them to do that, but the benefits to both themselves and the industry they work in are huge. Another thing is that the higher apprenticeship programme that we run is not actually a craft apprenticeship but a course for potential supervisors and managers. The word apprenticeship sometimes confuses people. Calling it that enables people to get funding, but an HND is not the same thing as a trade apprenticeship – it’s an entrance into undergraduate-level work.

What do you think are the main skills required to go into management today?
The biggest problem that we have is that a lot of our recruits need quite a bit of work on their basic mathematics, engineering and science skills to start with, so we’ve had to think very hard about how we teach that. I think the only way to really improve it is to change the way we teach these subjects in schools. Engineering and mathematics do seem to be quite intimidating to students, although it’s not an issue with the higher apprenticeships, who are recruited with a good background in those areas.

What do you think about the gender balance in the industry?
In my experience, women tend to be better students because they are more dedicated to their studies. They do have to work very hard to earn their place in the industry and over the past two years the number of female students has gone down, which is worrying. I’ve always been a great supporter of women in STEM subjects.

Do you think the sector needs to change its image to address that?
Don’t forget that with adult students, you’re working with people who joined the industry 10–12 years ago. All the apprentices on our programme are male, as are those on the HNC qualification – which seems strange, because the two firms involved have very impressive women in their training and development programmes. But I do think the image is changing with the higher apprenticeship programme, and civil engineering is changing too. I also look after an MA module at the University of Leeds, where the balance between male and female students is 60/40. When I went to university there were only five female students in a class of 55, so there are definitely improvements. There are also quite a few female managers in the quarrying industry and civil engineering now. It’s a big challenge, though, and there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Do you see the course changing over the next five years as the industry develops and diversifies?
The Centre for Mineral Products is actually part of the University of Derby Corporate, the business focused side of things, which means we very much work with industry. In 2005, we only covered quarrying and asphalt and from there, we developed to where we are now. If industry tells us that it needs support in a particular area or that there are gaps, we want to work on that. We don’t want to stand still.

For more information, email David Rockliff: david.rockliff@hanson.biz