On a quest to see better training standards across the industry, Lou Sapio helped establish the Max Academy back in 2021. He and the Max Services team were delighted to see the first trainee recently graduate from the Max Academy with a Cert IV in Mobile Cranes Operations.
Lou first engaged with Max Services five years ago as the company was entering a significant growth phase and operating with around 100 staff. The business was tendering for major contracts and, being both regionally based and expanding, there were obvious issues in terms of attracting both the right labour, and local labour with the right skill sets.
The business was also decentralising and instead of equipment, staff and decisions coming out of the Port Augusta head office, each depot was going to operate on its own.
“There were a lot of changes happening to the business, changes to systems and changes to leadership styles which required a huge amount of development,” Lou said.
“Max Services was operating its own internal trainee program which was good, and it met the needs at the time, but they didn’t realise there was a qualification for the industry. I found the relevant qualification to the industry and began asking why it was so problematic and why there wasn’t a huge uptake for Cert III and Cert IV Mobile Crane Operations nationally.”
As a result, Lou began investigating training options and discovered there are approximately 5,000 training providers across the country.
At that time, there were only eight training providers promoting the qualification, but they weren’t actually providing the qualification. They were providing high-risk tickets out of the qualification and only had the qualification on their scope of registration.
That made things problematic, and that’s one of the biggest issues locally, said Lou.
“Everyone goes off and completes a one- or two-week ticket course in dogging, non-slew crane and other relevant courses, thinking they are competent and believing they can get a job, of course that’s not the case,” he said.
“We basically decided to bring the Cert III and Cert IV training program inhouse and then form a relationship with a national training provider gaining approvals at a State and a Commonwealth level.
“That was the time-consuming part. Over a 15-month period, we engaged a training provider, that was State and Commonwealth approved, and then we were in a position to sign up our first trainee,” said Lou.
“By December 2021, we had a Safe Work Assessor onboard and we also had an immigration strategy in place which involved bringing in multiple migrants over a five-year period,” he said.
“With the Max Academy, we are able to send learning resources overseas and by the time they got to Australia, we are able to provide them with an Australian driver’s license, a bank account and the high-risk tickets required to operate in Australia, all within 12 days. Basically, they land and by the time they’re questioning why they’ve come to remote South Australia, straight away they’re out working and making money, it makes a huge difference,” he said.
According to Lou, a large part of bringing in migrants is because the skillset doesn’t exist in Australia, it’s been exhausted. That’s because construction, infrastructure and other industry sectors have grown exponentially, and they’ve sucked in all the available labour resources.
“The only way you can introduce younger people into the industry is to make sure you increase your supervision rate. Since we started the Max Academy our supervision rates have probably doubled in size.
“We have the technical advisory group that oversees all subject matter, verification of competencies, and the level of training and development that we’re providing is first class. We have that governing body, so there’s no tick and flick, we’ve got the training provider, we’ve got good trainers and assessors that know how to mark somebody as competent,” he said.
Lou added the Max Academy also has documentation that supports the approach.
“We’re checking the VOC process because ours is at a really high standard. We’ve seen incident rates drop, we’ve seen all the metrics you’d want to measure operationally head in the right directions,” he said.
“Michael Kuhn, who is a Technical Advisory Manager, is the first guy to get his Cert IV Mobile Cranes Operations. The rest of our trainees are probably around 80 per cent to 90 per cent there and by the end of this year, we’ll have our full first group of 20 young people go through with Cert III and or Cert IV,” said Lou.
The other significant part to this story is that the Max Academy is open to all staff now.
“It’s not only for young people. Age doesn’t matter, it’s available for anyone in the business. We currently have a supervisor who is enrolled, it’s open to anyone who wants to have their skills recognised.
“As the business has grown, the skill sets required throughout the business have too. We’ve got our first Cert III in driving operations training, our first Cert III in mobile heavy trailer mechanic technician and our first Cert III in supply chain operations and we’ve had our first Cert III business trainees complete for the first time in 21 years of operations at Max Services,” Lou said.
“It has become part of the culture as a business. The managers and supervisors are on board, and any development is very much structured to a national training framework which helps build career paths.
“We are 80 per cent completed on our Crane Technician program. How do you take a diesel mechanic as such, through to becoming a crane technician? Normally with a huge amount of OEM training and a lot of on-the-job experience, but we’ve been able to build a training package for that as well,” said Lou.
He goes on to discuss the importance of engaging youth.
“In our experience, you’ve got to get to the schools, and if you’re waiting for year 11 or 12, it’s too late, you’ve got to engage at the year seven level.
“We arrange field days and barbecue days where we bring the kids in, show them around and get them all over the crane.
“We have a lot of trainees available on the day and the kids can talk to them about their experience in our industry. That’s what enterprise needs to do now, if you’re waiting for someone to do it for you, you’ve missed the boat. I know it’s resource intensive, but as an industry group there should be a real focus on this approach.
“In August we held three field days, one at our Adelaide yard, one in Port Augusta and one in Whyalla. We invited groups from schools and up to 100 young people attended each event. They came from various backgrounds to experience our industry and we didn’t just present opportunities in specialist lifting, we showed them how they can get into transport, into business generally and procurement. It’s about providing pathways into the various aspects of the business and demonstrating there are more opportunities rather than pulling levers and throwing chains,” said Lou.
Lou confirms that neurodivergent individuals are proving to be very successful in the Max Academy. Neurodivergent individuals may have a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person. There may be differences in social preferences, ways of learning, ways of communicating and/or ways of perceiving the environment.
“Because we have a scholarship program with the high school, we’ve taken four trainees over five years. All of them highly successful, probably some of the best in the business but most of our trainees are great! At MAX, if you have the right attitude, we will develop you to become successful. We don’t set diversity targets; all people are accepted equally.
“We have one trainee with very distinct behaviours that people in the wrong business might struggle with and he might not be given the same opportunities as a ‘nuerotypical’ person.”
“Through work experience opportunities and partnering him with the right mentors in the business, he’s just gone ahead in leaps and bounds,” Lou says.
“He’s a good hard worker, if he’s standing around, he’ll grab a broom or wash a vehicle. He’s got to be doing something all of the time.
“That’s the benefit of having neurodivergent individuals in the business, when they see something that’s not right out on site, they’ll be the first to report it and those behaviours are actually extremely beneficial in a high-risk environment.
“They’ll follow everything to the letter of the law, whatever’s written into our policies, procedures and client requirements. They won’t deviate and they won’t be pressured by poor behaviour out in the workplace,” said Lou.
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Max Academy recently brought in a new trainer, Todd Davidson, to work with the trainees. Todd started his career as a motor mechanic and moved into scaffolding in the mines. From there, he got involved in plant operation, and then with MAX in Moomba where he constantly worked on developing himself and his skill sets. He was working two weeks on, two weeks off, on a FIFO arrangement.
“Todd was signed up in our Cert IV qualification, and he went off and did his own Certificate IV in WHS, and Certificate IV in Training and Assessing. After having a newborn child, he came back and we crossed paths and whilst on paternity leave, he completed the assessor skillset, and now he’s part of the Max Academy,” said Lou.
“Todd is 37 with a huge amount of experience and personal drive and all the trainees love him. He can connect with them, because he hasn’t been ‘institutionalised’ by the training sector, he’s very much here for the right reason. Todd is really the future of the crane industry and specialist lifting training environment. It’s unique opportunity to bring a guy like Todd into the Max Academy, he’s like a unicorn, a very rare breed of person,” said Lou.