Most seasoned professionals in the catering equipment servicing trade would probably agree that the best form of education comes from being out in the field, getting their hands dirty.
You can sit in a classroom for six hours a day or spend a week playing with equipment in a test lab, but often the most worthwhile knowledge is gleaned from working alongside colleagues in real kitchens and repairing genuine kit that has failed.
While that scenario holds true for most occupations, the reality is that a catering engineer’s daily exposure to potentially dangerous, expensive and intricate equipment makes regular, formal training an absolute necessity.
Most companies appreciate that what they get out of training largely depends on how much they put into it. Aside from providing staff with the field skills they need, evidence of qualifications reassures customers, enhances company reputations and gives employees a sense of career progression and personal achievement.
But it also, increasingly, remains a divisive area. The sheer cost of putting an employee through a training scheme can be prohibitive, particularly once expenses and time away from the job is taken into account.
Catering equipment engineers have to be qualified to work on gas appliances, which is done every five years via the Accredited Certification Scheme (ACS). This course costs around £2,000 and varies between training centres, with engineers off the road for between three to five days to complete the assessments.
Of course, gas safety — much like WRAS Approval and the basics of Health & Safety — is an unavoidable statutory requirement that serves a clear and valuable purpose, but beyond that catering service companies are left to pick and choose training programmes as they see fit.
Kirstin Hatherley, director at CEDA member Hatherley Commercial Services, pulls no punches in her assessment of the training opportunities available to catering equipment engineers today.
“The catering equipment sector struggles to find relevant training courses,” she says. “Information sources and technical resources are becoming more readily available now as engineers are carrying smart phones and many technical manuals and drawings are available on-line, but manufacturers really do need to play a bigger part in training engineers — after all they are out there repairing their equipment!”
Peter Kay, CEDA’s director of technical support, says work is going on to create a more unified industry approach to putting catering engineers through their paces.
He comments: “Training by manufacturers is mixed, with some offering it and some not at all. CEDA is trying to collate information and encourage more suppliers to offer training on their equipment to service engineers. It is hoped that we may be able to coordinate courses for suppliers and even arrange the venue if the manufacturer does not have the facilities. We have done this on the WRAS Approved Catering Installer Scheme courses where we have seen over 160 engineers achieve this accreditation so far.”
Most professional service companies acknowledge that it is strategically vital to keep engineers up-to-date with the appliances they work on, especially with the more complex and changing technology like combination ovens. Refresher courses therefore remain popular for maintaining competency, assuming employers deem them practical and affordable.
Ian Berrow, managing director of C&C Catering Engineers, believes there are more demands on training requirements than there used to be, in addition to the obvious instances such as gas, electrical and plumbing certifications that need to be updated.
“Despite the costs and downtime, these are, I believe, generally a good thing as they mean the people who are not correctly registered will — or should — get pushed out of the industry. Ultimately, this has to be good for the industry as a whole and therefore good for clients as well.”
Marren Group, a specialist in repairing microwaves and rapid cooking equipment, has 45 technical staff on its books. Malcom Skinner, Marren’s operations director, describes the training its engineers go through as “varied”, noting that as well as delivering its own tried and trusted internal programmes, engineers attend courses all over the country and even as far away as Europe and the US.
“We have an ongoing training programme that includes manufacturer training and have also recently committed all of our engineers to complete a basic electrical training course, which is organised by CESA and CEDA,” he explains. “If they are successful, they will be awarded a City & Guilds qualification.”
Skinner agrees that there are far more obligations on service companies these days to ensure that engineers are fully clued up on all aspects of the job and attain particular accreditations.
“The type of customers we deal with are very aware of health and safety issues and that in turn puts pressure on us to ensure all of our people are kept up to date with training and safety matters,” he comments.
This, though, does have its drawbacks. “Our one concern is that while customers require us to commit our staff to these various courses, this in turn does create a shortage of engineers when they take place and generally will affect our KPIs, which needs to be taken in to account,” he points out. “There is also, of course, the cost to the company, especially for overseas training trips.”
There is also ongoing debate in the market as to just how easy it really is to get on some courses created and provided by manufacturers.
“Manufacturers’ training is always helpful to any engineer but many manufacturers are reluctant to train engineers outside those employed by their service partners,” comments HCE’s Hatherley.
C&C’s Berrow agrees that some simply don’t want to train external engineers even though he thinks that overall the situation is improving.
“They say it is to ensure the standards are maintained, but I suspect it’s as much about a fear of losing their ‘hold’ on the market,” he says, adding that training also has to be truly worthwhile and not done just to provide a tick in a box purely for the sake of health and safety.
“The fact is that while engineers are off the road they are not earning their employers money. While the need to appreciate and understand updates in equipment technology is there, it is also a balancing act to make sure it’s cost-effective,” he says.
Peter Baulch, service manager for Gratte Brothers, on the other hand, says that during his 20-plus years in the industry, he has never found a problem arranging training with a manufacturer when it was needed.
“The majority of manufacturers also have a technical helpline to provide assistance if it is required,” he remarks. “There are a few who have a helpdesk facility, but they will not take an enquiry for assistance if the engineer has not attended their training course.”
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There can be no doubt that the standards required of catering equipment companies that employ service personnel are rising, however. But just because a company is made to jump through more hoops these days, it doesn’t always mean that the intended outcome is reached. HCS’ Hatherley says that she has completed tenders recently that have called for qualifications and accreditations that just aren’t applicable.
“The problem is that those that create a tender document just do not understand commercial catering. A recent tender called for our company to be NICEIC accredited. Membership is not relevant to catering equipment engineers and indeed we have evidence from CEDA members that NICEIC will not consider catering equipment engineers for membership as they do not do full electrical installations.”
Similarly, she says, when it comes to health and safety, there are myriad assessment schemes available.
“Hopefully work to make cross-recognition of schemes will cut out having to be accredited to a number of schemes. Health and safety qualifications are also a challenge as far as the engineers are concerned, with certification schemes geared more towards the construction or electrical industries. The introduction of the CEDA and CESA Register of Qualified Catering Equipment Engineers has certainly helped to prove our engineers are competent,” says Hatherley.
While there has always been a certain base level of technical product expertise required in the catering equipment service game, the skills and knowledge that engineers need are increasingly shaped by alterations in the market landscape.
Nick Orynino, chair of CESA, says: “The skills requirements change as products change and technologies develop. And as equipment becomes more specialised and hi-tech, it puts a greater burden on the engineer in terms of training.”
He stresses the importance of keeping up to speed with changes in kitchen regulations to ensure compliance with the latest guidelines. “For example, engineers need to know the latest version of DW172, guidance for the installation of ventilation, which underlines the importance of having an awareness of all the elements in the kitchen in order to ensure safety and efficient operation.”
Nobody can deny that technology plays a greater part in catering appliances today than ever before and, consequently, engineers need to have the skills to ensure they know how to deal with this. While the principles of catering equipment in terms of heating and cooling will always be the same, it is important to recognise that the methods by which appliances go about achieving these are constantly changing.
“Some dishwashers, for example, feature the use of refrigerant gas as part of the heat exchanger system, requiring engineers working on these products to be gas certified, as well as qualified and trained on dishwashers,” notes Steve Elliott, managing director of Serviceline. “And combi ovens now feature elements of construction which require qualification in all four competencies: plumbing, gas, electrical and electrical safety.”
Baulch at Gratte Brothers, which employs 40 catering engineers, sums up the situation by saying that 20 years ago the majority of appliances were most likely to be more mechanical, but today many are electronically driven.
“This means the engineer now has to have a good analytical mind and approach to fault finding. A number of appliances do have self-diagnostics, but these do not always provide the correct diagnosis,” he remarks.
The profile of the average catering engineer would appear to be changing, but the good news for everyone involved in the service game is that demand for qualified technical personnel couldn’t be higher.
What makes a good catering equipment training course?
We asked a number of service companies what they felt constituted a good training course. Here is a selection of their thoughts:
– “A good training course is when engineers return feeling their time has not been wasted, as generally they will have lost some of their own time attending it.”
– “The course needs to be relevant and concise — simple as that. Too many fail to appreciate that the guys who attend are, in the most part, very well qualified and experienced and know the basics of what the equipment is designed to do. It’s the items that are peculiar to that particular appliance that need to be explained and focused upon.”
– “A good training course is clearly one that provides the best detail on how the catering appliance works. It should cover how you install and commission right through to fault diagnosis and how to change that ‘tricky-to-get-to’ component.”
– “A good training course essentially has to be applicable to our industry, which so many are not. The trainer ideally needs to be knowledgeable about the commercial catering industry. We have to put our engineers on gas ACS training and required qualifications for the refrigeration engineers. We are yet to find a non-required training course that we would put all our engineers through."