The CPCS (Construction Plant Competence Scheme) was launched in 2003, and is the main plant machinery training and competence scheme in the UK. It tests operators’ professional competence, site experience and health and safety knowledge. Its purpose is to ensure that construction and logistics sites are staffed by competent people, and to reduce the risk of health and safety incidents or accidents (in 2016/17, the construction sector accounted for most of the UK’s fatal workplace injuries). The Scheme covers a range of plant machinery and job roles, each with its own specific CPCS training and exams.
CPCS trainees learn how to safely operate and work with various plant and construction machinery. There is a specific set of exams for each machine and/or role, for example Crawler Crane, Tower Crane, Ride on Roller, Soil-Landfill Compactor, Skip Handler and Lift Supervisor.
There are three types of CPCS cards.
Red card (Trained operator): To gain this card, you’ll first need to pass the CITB Health, Safety and Environment test.
Next, you’ll need to pass the CPCS theory exam. This exam needs to be taken within two years of the CITB test.
You’ll then need to also pass the practical exam, within two years of the CITB test, and within six months of the theory exam.
Usually, both the theory and practical exams are taken on the same day, and often on the same site depending on the exam centre’s facilities.
The red card is valid for two years.
Blue card (Competent operator): You can apply for your blue card once you have a decent amount of experience as an operative, and of course you must already be a red card holder. You can upgrade by obtaining an NVQ, usually around 12-18 months after gaining your red card, so that you can present the necessary evidence of experience.
The blue card is valid for five years.
CPCS Tester Card (black): To gain this card you need to have enough appropriate experience on the type of machinery you’ll be testing on.
You will need to renew your card once it expires, which may involve taking a refresher course.
There is also an affiliated scheme called the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS), which awards a number of different types of cards for different jobs roles, including a green ‘Labourer’ card, a red ‘Apprentice’ card and a blue ‘Skilled Worker’ card. The range of cards issued has recently changed, so make sure you check the most up-to-date information.
You may have also heard of the NPORS (National Plant Operators Registration Scheme), and be wondering what the difference is between the two schemes. In practical terms they are very similar. Although NPORS often costs less, there is no difference in quality. Both schemes adhere to stringent competence and safety measures.
The CPCS is still seen as the industry standard, and virtually all construction sites and employers accept it. However, NPORS is now gaining ground, and in 2014 it was recognised as a CPCS equivalent. It might be a good idea to research both and see which one would suit you best. If you already have an employer, you could also ask them which they would recommend and/or pay for you to do.
Once you have passed the CITB Health, Safety and Environment test, you’ll need to take both a theory and a practical exam. These will usually happen on the same day, at an approved CPCS test centre. The Tester must hold a CPCS Tester card.
You’ll need to pass the theory test before you can progress to the practical exam. The theory exam will be conducted verbally. You’ll usually have around one hour to complete the exam.
The Tester will begin by starting the recording of the exam, and then reading out all of the instructions and making sure that you understand them. They will then ask you around 70 questions relating to machine operation, competence, health and safety and what to do should certain situations arise. They will let you know how many points are available for each answer. You’ll need to get a minimum mark of 80% to pass. You will normally receive your exam result as soon as the exam is complete, so that you know whether or not you can progress to the practical test.
As is the case for a job interview, preparation is key! Make sure that you’ve either attended a training course or done your own research. You may be able to obtain a previous question paper online or from your employer. Ask a colleague or family member to practice with you so that you feel more confident on the day.
If you go on to pass your practical test, you’ll be awarded a red card (Trained operator), which will be valid for two years. If you wish, you can then work towards an NVQ to upgrade to a blue card.
How long is a piece of string? Prices range from £400 for the exam only, to £1500 or more for a full training course including the exam cost. There are a number of training providers across the UK, so you should be able to shop around. Alternatively, your employer or sponsor may agree to pay some or all of the cost.
There are grants available from the CITB, which is the Industry Training Board for the UK construction industry. The CITB schemes are not open to individuals, so your employer would need to claim on your behalf.
If you’re self-employed then you should be able to claim the cost of training or exams as expenses. If you’re VAT-registered then you’ll be able to reclaim the VAT.
Although the cost of CPCS training may be high, it is useful to see it as an investment. Pay for trained operators is relatively good, with trained construction plant operators expected to earn around £15-£30 per hour, or over £30,000 per annum for permanent roles. Due to the effects of Brexit and Covid-19, as well as a shortfall in housing, there is currently a high demand for operators and trained staff in the UK construction and logistics industries, and companies are always looking for new people to join their teams. This situation may push salaries up over the coming years.
Indeed, the construction sector is likely to need in the region of a quarter of a million new workers over the next five years. Job security in the sector is good, and you’ll have a good chance of finding a permanent role in the long term, particularly if you’re qualified.
CPCS training is essential if you want to operate (or work with) heavy machinery on construction or logistics sites. You’ll need specific knowledge of the machinery you’re working with, whether it’s a forklift truck, lifting platform or crawler crane. Above all you’ll need to prove that you are competent and aware of all health and safety aspects, which is where CPCS training comes in. Once you get your red card, it’s valid for two years. When you gain more experience you can upgrade to a blue card which could open up many new professional opportunities.
Although the initial cost and effort can be demanding, construction and logistics are extremely rewarding sectors to work in. Rather than sitting behind a desk all day you’ll be on the move, often outdoors, which helps to keep you fit and healthy. It can be extremely satisfying to work on a construction project from beginning to end and see the results of your efforts.
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