Got what it takes? 03 April 2014

With reports of eightfold improvements in first-time MOT pass rates, 66% reductions in PRS (pass after rectification at station) and returns on investment of 200%, irtec appears to be flying. Brian Tinham reports

Since its re-launch in 2011, uptake of the IRTE's (Institute of Road Transport Engineers) nationally-recognised voluntary irtec technician licensing scheme has been quietly taking off. Not only are most of the truck OEMs' dealership technicians either already accredited or on track for licensing in the next few months, but operators large and small, workshop groups and now DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency – formerly VOSA and DSA) are also onboard.

So, why the interest? For Chris Higginbottom, senior transport engineer with Calor Gas, it's about independently validating skill levels at the firm's nine regional workshops. But it's also identifying and rectifying vehicle maintenance skills gaps in an otherwise unregulated industry.

"Over the last 18 months, we've put most of our established workforce through irtec SMT (Service Maintenance Technician), 12 though the more advanced heavy vehicle Inspection Technician and one has achieved the top level irtec Master Technician. That shows how seriously we take our maintenance and, with Manchester College as our training partner, it's also helped me to see where to make the most of my training budget."

Jason Downes, Hargreaves Logistics fleet and workshop manager, has similar views. He, too, wanted to demonstrate the workshop's competence, but also to prove its commitment to the professional development of workshop staff. So when the RHA (Road Haulage Association) recommended irtec and the training centre at Manchester College, he didn't hesitate.

"So far, the results have been very good. Seven of our 10 technicians have successfully passed the heavy vehicle trailer Inspection Technician course – and the others are due to complete their training very soon... We are already seeing the benefits: documented, quality vehicle inspections are now being carried out and we have a quality accreditation mark that demonstrates our vehicles are maintained to the highest possible standards."

But it's not just operators: national commercial vehicle workshop franchise Top Truck, part of Group Auto, is also mandating irtec for any garage wanting to join its network. "We've got 23 truck garages across the country now and we're looking to move up to 40 by the end of the year," states commercial manager Martin Sangster. "We were looking for something that we could use to prove the competence of technicians throughout our network. It's all right appointing garages but no matter how good they look, you've got no idea how proficient they are. With irtec, everyone recognises they're at a standard."

Sangster explains that joining workshops get free technical training, through Manchester College, leading to irtec accreditation, which they have to achieve within six months. "We want at least three irtec licensed technicians per workshop at a minimum of Inspection Technician for truck and trailer – although we already have some at Master Technician." And he adds that Top Truck is also now working with IRTE on its Workshop Accreditation scheme for proof of competence at the business level.

And then there's DVSA. Alex Fiddes, chief operating officer for vehicle testing and enforcement, confirms that some 500 vehicle inspectors and 400 roadside examiners are being put through irtec Inspection Technician over the next couple of years, starting with new recruits. Why? "We wanted something we could benchmark our vehicle inspectors against – that would give them credibility, in terms of skills and competence. For us, irtec fitted the bill perfectly, delivering the best training and accreditation for our staff. It also demonstrates that we are serious about standards."

Much the same applies to DVSA's roadside enforcement officers, although Fiddes explains that, for operational reasons, their training won't initially run concurrently with the in-house and ATF [Authorised Test Facility] inspectors. "I'm really committed to irtec, as is Alastair Peoples [DVSA chief executive]. A lot of people look to us, and this is a significant development delivering a quality-assured programme."

But the last word goes to Higginbottom: "Everyone should do this. My experience is that even older technicians who were initially against it are now proud of having attained the irtec qualification. Also, getting your technicians to go for irtec is a great way of achieving a training needs analysis. That saves you money and you prove your maintenance is compliant.

"Equally, if you're selling workshop services as a third-party maintenance and repair shop, then irtec is the standard you're increasingly going to be asked for. Certainly, if you want to trade with Calor Gas as an R&M supplier – which could affect our reputation and 'O' licence – we want you to have irtec."

Irtec update
Although estimates for the UK's commercial vehicle technician population range up to 30,000, just 4,000 have achieved irtec since its re-launch. However, according to IMI accreditation development manager John Hay, that's rising at more than 1,000 per year – and with big names behind it. He cites all of the truck OEMs, led by DAF, as well as supermarket groups including Morrisons and Sainsbury's – with the likes of Royal Mail, UPS and Veolia waiting in the wings.

Add in DVSA's vehicle inspectors and examiners and it's easy to see the numbers. For Hay, this is proof not only of irtec's valued route to compliance, but also of its continually evolving relevance – the result of IRTE putting an irtec steering group and expert working group in charge of development.

Hence, he says, the fitness for purpose of today's content across the four irtec levels (Service Maintenance, Inspection, Advanced and, most recently, Master Technician), covering from maintenance and inspection essentials to advanced diagnostics, mentoring and management, for truck, bus and coach, and trailer technicians. "For example, Master Technician, developed last year, includes assessments of their understanding of modern technologies, such as SCR [selective catalytic reduction] and Euro 5 engines, including diagnostics," says Hay. "Getting accreditation means they're in an excellent place to step up to Euro 6."

This development is continuing. According to irtec steering group chairman John Parry, next up will be irtec licences for roadside assistance, offsite working, ADR, tyre technicians, truck and bus inspection technicians and an irtec assessors' award.
Just as important, irtec is now very accessible for busy workshop technicians, with online self-assessment tools and on-site accreditation delivery increasingly available, certainly at sites with separate ATF lanes. And the same goes for training, with IMI approved courses available from big names such as the FTA (Freight Transport Association), Manchester College, S&B Automotive, as well as IMI centres and the OEMs.
According to Parry, there should be no more excuses: operators, workshops and technicians all need irtec. "Licensed technicians find that doors open for them, because they have the industry stamp of approval. Operators submitting 'O' licence undertakings can point to in-house workshops and/or subcontractors having irtec registered technicians as indicative of maintenance compliance. And repairers can meet increasing demands from customers for accredited technicians and workshops as part of their service level agreements."

Ian Chisholm, head of operations and communications at IRTE's umbrella organisation SOE (Society of Operations Engineers), points to the inevitable momentum that stems from DVSA. "When VOSA introduced new brake testing equipment, the whole industry went out and sourced the same kit. The fact that this important government agency is now putting its vehicle inspectors and examiners through the irtec scheme sends out a similar message."

Brian Tinham

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Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA)
IMI Precision Engineering
Society of Operations Engineers

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