Motherwell Bridge, Malta: Training and development
In 1992, Motherwell Bridge Malta Limited was set up in Hal Far, in south Malta, to cater principally for the North African (mainly Libyan) market. The company has grown from a small unit producing minor fabrications and painting services to a leading enterprise offering a complete service in steel fabrication, from design to procurement, fabrication, storage tanks and small to medium-sized pressure vessels, among other services. In 2003, the company restructured and Motherwell Bridge Mediterranean Limited was set up as the holding company, with Motherwell Bridge Malta and Motherwell Bridge Projects as its two trading arms in Malta and North Africa, respectively.
The Hal Far facility has a workforce of 35 employees: six workers in management roles, three administrative and clerical staff, and 26 skilled and semi-skilled workers. According to the requirements of the various company projects, 10–15 additional workers may be hired on fixed-term employment contracts. At present, most workers (89%) are men. In fact, Motherwell Bridge Malta employs only four women, all of whom work in administrative sections.
Older workers are regarded as experienced tradespeople and are highly valued by the company, as their expertise ensures high standards of work. Currently, the group of workers aged over 45 years makes up about 43% of the workforce. Due to labour market shortages in the field, it is difficult to find new young workers to replace those who retire. The transfer of know-how is therefore a fundamental problem for the company.
The company maintains good social dialogue with the trade unions, and agreements on different aspects are signed between the relevant parties on the basis of national collective agreements. Company policy decisions are usually taken by the management, after which the trade unions are informed of any changes.
Good practice today
Motherwell Bridge provides training courses for all employees regardless of age. To retain and safeguard their knowledge and experience, older workers are appointed as mentors for younger employees.
The company pursues a holistic approach in terms of education by providing all employees with high-quality training. Workers’ participation in training is not based on age criteria, and older workers, in addition to participating in courses, often play a key role as trainers by transferring their know-how to younger, less experienced workers. Training is divided into three basic categories: health and safety, skills, and technical training. Health and safety training is highly important for Motherwell Bridge. Indeed, in an industry in which workers have to handle heavy steel objects and operate potentially dangerous machinery, this training is regarded as fundamental for all workers. Health and safety training is an inherent part of the on-the-job training provided on the shop floor. Examples of training include: safe handling of equipment, use of safety wear, proper use of tools, care of machinery, setting up the immediate working area and general safety awareness. For example, part of a welder’s skill is to ensure that the tools and equipment required for the job are set up safely and do not pose a safety hazard to the welder or his colleagues. This applies also to the immediate working environment, as screens, staging or hot offcuts should be dealt with in a safe manner. The company also employs the services of external instructors in the implementation of health and safety training courses.
The on-the-job skills training, such as the use of machinery, also involves testing workers’ performance. If testing reveals a gap between the skills required and the workers’ abilities, further instruction is provided for these workers.
As regards technical training, a standard process is followed: after an order is received from a client, an internal kick-off meeting is held to discuss all aspects of the work required, following which designs, drawings and material lists are prepared and material is ordered. On receiving the materials, the fitters or machine operators handle, cut, shape and fit them. Assembly or part assembly is carried out by fitters and welders. Parts are welded together, after which parts or assembled pieces are grit blasted and painted, finally being prepared for shipment or transport to site. Skills are transferred through direct involvement and interaction between more skilled tradespeople and supervisors and the less experienced workers directly on the job. This applies also to the use of several machines used in the workshop.
The main reason for this continuous training is to improve worker efficiency and to transfer the skills of older workers to younger ones, ensuring that certain kinds of expertise and skills are not lost when older workers leave the company. In this case, it is particularly important that welding skills are passed on, as skilled welders are generally in short supply in the external labour market.
All training courses are held during working hours and employees are permitted to attend during the specified time. Skills tests are carried out internally and are coordinated by the supervisors of the various units. On-the-job training is different, in that it often involves one-to-one training aimed at transferring skills and know-how from an experienced worker to a trainee. In most cases, the former is an older employee and the latter is a younger worker. Training, which includes the work-integrated knowledge transfer from older to younger workers, is managed by an operations manager, who implements a programme drawn up by the Motherwell management group, sometimes in collaboration with employee representatives.
Continuous training is scheduled throughout an employee’s entire working life, with younger workers being trainees and older workers becoming trainers. Older workers are involved as trainers only on the basis of their higher level of experience in the job. However, there have been few instances where some older workers have attended external ‘train the trainer’ courses.
The initiative has proved highly effective so far, with a major benefit being that the work has become less monotonous for employees. Indeed, Motherwell runs various production projects and the products that it designs and constructs, albeit similar in type, are never identical.
As a result, employees regard the initiative as a positive part of work organisation. Older workers within the company are aware that they are in a privileged position; as few companies in Malta operate in this sector, competition is minimal. Moreover, teaching younger staff the skills of the job is regarded by the more experienced workers as a kind of mission. Several Motherwell employees have come from other companies working in the same sector, and they acknowledge Motherwell’s leading role in the area of training.
Skills are successfully being passed on to younger workers at Motherwell Malta, and the company is satisfied with the quality of the training provided. One problem, however, concerns the difficulty involved in recruiting workers on open-ended employment contracts to do certain jobs, as few candidates apply for the positions. One of the aims of training is therefore to safeguard job skills by coaching younger workers who wish to learn the trade. At the same time, the company nevertheless willingly hires experienced personnel from other companies operating in the same sector; the last mature worker was hired in 2005.
Older workers are sometimes reluctant to take part in courses as trainees, as they are not psychologically well disposed to the role of learner and would prefer to be involved in such courses as trainers. Critical issues like these are, however, transitory and overcome fairly easily by means of open discussion.
In terms of the local setting, Motherwell may face difficulties with its initiatives. As mentioned above, recruiting new workers willing to learn the skills of the job is not easy. Moreover, in order to keep production costs to a minimum, the company may well be tempted to outsource some of its production activities to more economical labour markets in the Far East, as many European companies in various sectors have already done. Thus, once the skilled older workers have retired, some vital skills might be lost forever.
Motherwell Bridge Malta has learnt that ongoing training is the only way to guarantee the future of some types of skills and know-how. This is a lesson which could be of value to other organisations, especially those in which highly specialised skills are necessary.
The company will continue to organise training programmes in the future. Nevertheless, given the difficulty of recruiting new young workers, the company has recently initiated a policy of hiring workers from other countries, who seem to adapt to performing certain tasks more readily than their Maltese counterparts.
- John M. Borg, General Manager, email: email@example.com
- Antony Ellul, Chief Draughtsman, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Charlie Zammit, Supervisor