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Training relieves the pressure;The Knowledge;Further Education

A family-run firm in Huddersfield has realised that investing in staff gives it the competitive edge, as Martin Whittaker finds out

AT A PETROL station at a busy junction of the A629 and A635 near Huddersfield, cashiers are bracing themselves for the Friday evening rush hour.

At times like these working on a petrol forecourt can be somewhat stressful. "There are so many different buttons to press and customers are coming in all the time," says the station's managing director Paul Sykes.

"You've got to be watching the forecourt to make sure people aren't smoking, or stretching the hoses in a dangerous way. There are all sorts of health and safety things you need to be aware of these days."

With the pressure of the job, the garage's owner, Shaws Petroleum Ltd, has now looked to training and qualifying its staff with a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level two in petrol forecourt operations.

According to the Petroleum Industries National Training Organisation few forecourt staff have any formal qualifications relating to their work, though many take their employers' own in-house training.

Shaws Petroleum is a family firm dating back to 1845 when Paul Sykes' great-great grandfather supplied coal to local mills. In the 1970s the company moved into the oil industry and today runs seven petrol stations in the Huddersfield area.

With the increasing demands placed on its cashiers and a raging price war between fuel suppliers, Shaws looked to its staff.

"We made a conscious decision to invest more in our people as a way of differentiating ourselves from our competitors," says Paul Sykes. "A lot of the people who work for us just don't realise how good they are at their job."

A year ago the company approached its employees and offered the new NVQ to be taken voluntarily. Thirty-five cashiers now have the qualification and all new staff will be required to take it.

They are assessed as they do the job and keep their own portfolio of work. The NVQ covers health and safety, security, payment processing, control and maintenance of equipment, fuel delivery and customer service.

All new recruits begin with the basics. "A lot of people who work for us don't drive cars and they don't know how to operate petrol pumps," says Paul Sykes. "And using the tills here can be a daunting experience.

"There are all the different methods of payment. And if you have a queue in the shop and someone's credit card doesn't swipe properly, people can get pretty irate.

"Our staff have to be calm, considerate and polite at all times, no matter how rude customers might be."

The job has other complications which it didn't have 20 years ago. Increasingly the petrol station has become the new corner shop, selling everything from newspapers to bottles of wine. If it's not the car wash breaking down, it might just be the fridge.

And then there's the issue of security. "We teach staff that if they are held up, they must do precisely what the armed thug tells them to do. They're also told to try and remember details of what the person was wearing.

"Drive-offs from petrol stations cost the industry just over pound;11 million a year. But it's not at all straightforward. You could get customers coming in and saying: 'I don't have any money.' Sometimes they give false names and addresses. That gives us a real headache."

Paul Sykes believes the new NVQ gives his staff recognition as well as a progression route to possible promotion or into other areas of retailing. The company is now putting its site managers through NVQ level three.

Cashier Richard Hickling, aged 25, has completed the level two: "Quite a bit of it was just being assessed while you do your job, which I felt very confident about doing. The qualification is good, especially if you want to go on and do other things. It's my aim to become a manager, whether it's here or progressing elsewhere."

The Institute of the Motor Industry has just taken the forecourt operations NVQ on board, using its network of training centres to promote it.

Spokesman Alan Mackrill said: "The role of forecourt personnel is often taken for granted, yet it should not be underestimated.

"The days of the traditional petrol pump attendant are long gone and there is a need for professionally qualified people with a universally recognised qualification."

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