Kevin Berry practises packing with Pickfords' future furniture removers
THE MODERN removal man is trained to tread carefully and speak with Foreign Office tact. He might also have a woman colleague with him.
"Moving house is stressful," says John Horsefield of Pickfords. "It might be just another house to us but, for the householder, it can be very distressing. We tell our trainees to watch what they say. We don't look at the china and say, 'Let's get cracking'! And we don't talk about splitting wardrobes!"
He tells an instructive story of a fellow removal man stepping into the library of a country vicar. The removal man commented on the amazing number of old books that lined every wall from floor to ceiling. Had the vicar read them all? Indeed he had. "Well, then," said the removal man. "Will you want us to get rid of them for you?"
Mr Horsefield is regional trainer for Pickfords and I met him at the company's training centre in Manchester. There is a well-equipped classroom, corridors are lined with grandfather clocks and paintings.
Another room has a baby grand piano and shelves of antiques. All are reproductions, but they are treated with reverence. The trainees will practise packing them.
The trainees are a surprise. None of them is built like an extra from a mafia film; they are more like middleweight boxers. Technique is clearly more important than brute strength.
They are drawing up inventories for stored goods. Descriptions have to be exact and the condition of the item must be noted. We should be calling the grandfather clocks by their correct title: long-case clocks.
What's that in the corner? A Hoover, someone suggests, but it isn't; it's a vacuum-cleaner. Accuracy will speed up the removal and storage process and exact descriptions will ensure that the customer is not upset. An old table? Can't you see that it's antique, young man? It has been in my family for three generations.
Some of the new intake on the day I visit are students looking for steady employment, either during university holidays or for a couple of years afterwards. The big attraction is that no two days are alike.
Stuart Francis, a former bus driver, wants the status. "Sounds funny but I was going nowhere on the buses," he say. "With this job, I will eventually be leading a team."
I follow them into the packing room. There are no tea-chests to be seen - recycled cardboard boxes are now the norm. Packing paper is still newsprint but it is plain so that there is no risk of ink-stained hands. The care extends to personal hygiene. Trainees are advised to take a towel with them and use some deodorant, so armpits are definitely charmpits. A spare shirt is de rigueur, a uniform colour prevails and there are no jeans or dirty brown warehouse coats.
One of the company training booklets devotes a page to suggested topics of conversation. Trainees are asked to tick "safe" topics and there is a boldly printed warning: "Be Careful. You are not part of the family."
I am shown a training video. Another surprise: one of the removal team is a woman. Why is that?
"To put the lady of the house at ease," says Mr Horsefield. "She won't want some bloke packing her personal things, will she?"
Cheryl Ashton, who works from the company's Kendal depot, told me that men do the packing well enough but they have what may seem a rough and ready approach. "People are more relaxed when they see their things being packed by a woman," she says.
"I am employed as a packer, but sometimes I have to lend a hand with the loading. There was some resentment from the men at first but now they're fine; they can see how my packing speeds up the job.
"Sometimes you have to be a bit of a social worker, especially when old people are moving to a smaller house or into a home. You are handling their memories."
Mr Horsefield has his trainees for three induction days. They then join a removal team and are released for foundation skills and advanced skills. Some will go on to specialise in industrial moves, involving moving entire factories. Some opt for work in the warehouse or become sales staff. There are regular refresher courses.
Mr Horsefield would like to have a qualification for his workers and he would like to see an exam body doing something for the industry.
"There are national vocational qualifications in transport of goods by road and warehousing", he says. "But we have to add on the handling of specific goods. We need something specific for the industry."