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Q&A – ICTa Technical Certificate students

Clay Technology magazine
11 May 2016

Khai Trung Le speaks with brick industry professionals about their experiences on the ICTa and IOM3 Technical Certificate in Clay Building Products Level 2 and 3.

With the demand for new housing, the return to grace for brick architecture and bricklayers seeing considerable growth in average salaries – standing at the time of publication at £33,253, according to employment website Adzuna – it has seemingly never been a better time to enter the brick industry. The ICTa Technical Certificate in Clay Building Products Level 2, a distance learning course that covers extraction of raw materials through to quality systems in clay products, is intended for people new to the brick industry, or with no technical qualifications.

But it isn’t just new hands taking training – established members of the trade are also looking to bolster their knowledge base. Ibstock Brick’s Graham Churchill, Production Manager at Swanage, and Adam Snowden, Maintenance Supervisor at Dorket Head, as well as  Wienerberger’s Ashley Devonport, Quality Manager, and Sally Parkes, Quality Control, spoke about their experiences both on the Level 2 and 3 courses and after.

What do you have to gain from the Technical Certificates? 

Parkes, whose position in Quality Control at the Wienerberger Hartlebury Works is a recent appointment, was enthusiastic about how the course informed her and others of the other responsibilities at the factory. ‘I took it on to give me a greater understanding of my new job role, and the products in and around the factory. But there are people on the course in different departments, not all based in quality, so it gives them a better awareness of how the product is made,’ she said.

Similarly, Churchill was encouraged by the diversity of topics covered within the Level 2 certificate. ‘I recently did an introductory course covering testing, going through a variety of materials. The Level 2 felt like a follow-on, but there is also a lot of stuff I didn’t know about. We’re not an extrusion plant at Swanage, we’re a handmade brick factory. So we don’t deal with things like, for example, high-speed rollers. The Level 2 gives me a very good insight into what they’re used for, and why.’

Snowden, who has completed the Level 3 certificate, commented, ‘I’ve been working in the industry. I did my apprenticeship in it. So maybe the Technical Certificate will help me get to the next level – a bit of extra knowledge might help.’

How do you feel about the structure of the course?

Devonport remarked, ‘I’ve been to university, and am comfortable with learning through lectures, note taking and writing assignments. The learning on the Technical Certificate is different from what I’m used to, but it is well structured, and the lengthy deadlines mean you have the necessary time to complete the work.’

He continued, ‘It puts a lot of theory into your practical work, and gives you further knowledge that you can share with people. I was already quite clued up on the modules, having completed a Construction Management degree. But I’ve been with Wienerberger for two years and while I’ve learnt a lot through practical activity, the theory work on the Level 2 gives me more information on the brickmaking process, as well as the ability to research and gain more knowledge.’

Although the Level 2 certificate is recommended for people who are new to the industry, or with no previous technical qualifications, Churchill recommended students should have background knowledge of ‘the quarry, and the drying-and-firing side of things. To be thrown in with no experience in any of them would make things more difficult. There is a lot to take in, so I would say this is an intermediate level course. There is just the one exam, but there have been people who have failed and needed to retake, so you need to put the effort in to reap the rewards.’

However, Snowden was confident that college leavers would benefit from the familiarity of self-driven learning, stating, ‘I expect college leavers to stroll through it! They’re already in that learning mindset, and it becomes second nature. If you work in the clay industry, the courses are great grounding for more information, which is always good for the factory. One day, someone might get hit by a bus, and if you need someone to take their responsibilities… better than nothing, right?’

Supplementing the distance learning are a variety of factory visits. Parkes said, ‘We also had a joining-up day around two factory site visits, which gave us insight in how the other factories work. There is also a two-day trip to different factories so we can see how they do pipes – we do bricks, but the course also covers roof tiles so it’s interesting to see how other factories do that.’

The Level 2 also accommodates students with varied requirements, including Devonport’s surgery schedule. ‘I’ve had a lot of issues with my eyes over the past year, and have an eye operation in May. I can say that the staff at IOM3 have been very helpful. A mock exam is scheduled on the day after my operation, and I’ll be away for a couple of months afterwards. However, I’ll be taking my exam a week early in light of my needs. I’ve also been granted an extra 30 minutes during the main exam in June, as I’ll need to frequently go outside to apply eye drops. They’re being very accommodating.’

What benefits can the course provide over on-site training?

The Level 2 has already made a sizeable difference to work at Ibstock Swanage, with Churchill stating that information in the paperwork helped to resolve an on-going drying issue. ‘Some of the information sent to me made me look into it in more detail, asking a few more questions than I would normally have asked. Now we’ve reduced our drying times from 12 days to seven. It’s been a good experience. Although, saying that, by reducing the times, we’ve created another monster that leads us to currently look into airflows. It goes from one thing to another!’

Although on-site learning is preferable to many, Snowden was keen to stress the possible impracticalities. ‘On-site learning always sounds like a good idea. But you need someone to be ready to teach you, and there isn’t always that availability. You might have them for a day, and then the next there is a breakdown, or an audit, or something else. The odds of having time at the factory are very limited. I think you get more out of the courses.’

The Level 2 Technical Certificate in Clay Building Materials also offers a number of dedicated workshops, where students have the opportunity to speak with lecturers on course-related enquiries.

Are the Technical Certificates useful for young people entering the brick industry?

With training and talk of schooling abound, it seemed the issue of young people entering the brick industry was not far from their minds. 

Parkes stated, ‘I have a son who is just about to leave school, and after visiting bricklaying departments at the different local colleges, it wasn’t appealing, especially for people at school-leaver age. I think it’s because people get the idea that it’s an unstable trade to be in, which is a shame. The schools and colleges could do more to promote the brick industry.

‘So you hear on the news that there is a lot of building work going on but they don’t have the bricklayers available. Years ago, it was a very popular trade. It would be nice to see that come back. It’s a really good trade to be in, especially for the younger generation.’

Taking a more cautious perspective on the increasing demand for brick, Churchill advised a heedful approach for young people entering the market. ‘At the moment, the Government wants to build houses. With the influx of people coming in from Europe and beyond, that looks like it will only continue. Through sales alone, there’s been a definite demand this year. I wouldn’t discourage young people entering the industry, and I have confidence in the near future. But no one’s going to guarantee a long-term future, are they?’

However, Snowden’s optimism would not be quelled. ‘We’re in a boom period! Look at the immigration figures – we all need houses. Then, you need schools and everything that goes with it. The prime building material in England is brick, because it lasts for years. Sure, you can’t predict the future, but while the sun shines, you make hay!’