The UK Plant Operator of the year campaign for 2022, is well underway. With over 200 applications from all across the UK, the competition now in its second year, is set to further celebrate the role and work done by Plant Operators on projects from driveways to highways.

This year’s final is being held as it was in 2021 in the splendour of M O’Brien Group quarry in Milton Keynes. As we progress towards finals day we are interacting and learning more about the Plant Operators who have entered the 2022 campaign.

In this first feature we would like to introduce you to some of the characters and personalities that have entered this year’s competition all hoping to walk away with the £10,000 first prize.

Don’t forget finals day is a family affair and great day out. Get the date in the diary September 10th, 2022. The kids will lover it, the quarry provides an amazing backdrop, there will be a series of events designed to test the operator’s skill and ingenuity. We have a big screen TV, live commentary, some great catering and plenty of attractions for the whole family.

So let’s meet a selection of the Plant Operators who have entered and looking forward to progressing in this year’s competition.

Each of the operators who have entered this year’s competition have been sent a stylish UK Plant Operator of the Year thermal mug. We asked if the recipients would take a selfie of them selves at work and tell us a little about what they are working on, what they are operating and where they are in the country. We hope you enjoy the insight as we MEET THE OPERATORS.

Our feature profile is with Tom Balls from J.C. Balls & Sons over in Derbyshire. Today the company employs over 120 people and operates a fleet of over 80 machines and 35 waggons.

Let’s meet Tom to find out more:
It probably came as no surprise to the Balls family that Tom would become a Plant Operator. Since the age of 5 his dad would take young Tom out on site and when he could, and it was safe to do so, dad would have Tom quite literally on his knee in the cab of the firms JCB 3CX operating the levers.
Tom Said “In the early 1990’s the business was growing fast, back then we had about 20 x 180s, a couple of road lorries and around half a dozen 360’s. Major infrastructure and road contracts were a plenty and I was in the cab, with my dad, watching it all happen…From that point on I never wanted to do anything else…If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood and you just do it”.

It’s a Family Affair
Following his grandfather Jim, who founded the business in the early 1960’s, and his dad and uncle, Tom is the third generation to work in the business. With a young family himself, Tom, like father like son, now sits his own son on his knee in the cab, as he too will no doubt be inspired to become the fourth generation of operator in the family business.

Tom gave us a little more background to the history of the business, “Grandad started the business 1963. He left Bowmer and Kirkland where he was a plant operator himself. As hard as it was back then, he saved the money to buy his very first JCB3. Bowmer and Kirkland then became our first customer, as we contracted for them which enabled the business to buy its second machine, another JCB and there began a long and successful relationship. When things do go wrong, JCB have never let us down. They are on site (on most occasions) within the hour and with Uttoxeter being so close, that only helps the relationship”.

What are You Operating?
As Tom mentioned the company is a loyal customer of the iconic British manufacturer, with a fleet dominated by JCB 180’s, 360’s and Rollers. Tom gave us further insight. “The fleet is completed by Caterpillar Track Shovels and Dozers, in addition to Volvo and Bell Dump Trucks with Wheeled Loading Shovels from Cat and Hyundai and Bomag self-propelled rollers completing the businesses machine line up”.

What Factors have Changed Most in Your Time in the Cab?
At 33 years of age and a Millennial or Generation Y, Tom is well placed from a theoretical, technological and practical perspective to give his perspective.

“I and the business have really embraced the new technology and ways of working that have become available and continue to evolve. We have properly researched the options, working closely with manufacturers and suppliers to ensure we use the best in cab solutions on the market, where possible we do prefer to have systems factory fitted…All to make the job safer and more efficient whilst finishing in the quickest time”.

“To have the technology, where for example in a dozer, you can set the levels, push a button and the first trim is done straightaway is so impressive. Working on gradings for rail contracts, we order a 1,000 ton of stone and you can have it levelled in the same day, setting out in the good old days could take days”.

Tom continued “Tiltrotators on a 360 are a great example, they save time and money at the point of operation, in addition to allowing for more stone for example to be ordered and delivered”.
“We have a solid partnership with Engcon who have been very good for the business, they have great products, expertise and the aftersales experience is second to none”.

What Makes Your All Time Favourite Machine?
An intriguing question which Tom gave a really interesting and perhaps surprising answer…
“If you said to me, I had to stay on just one machine for the next year, I would choose either
A CAT 963 or 953 track shovel, it’s all to do with what it can do – it can load, dig and level. With the clamshell you can pick up pipes and you can even put forks on, it’s an incredibly versatile machine and again we have a great relationship with Cat through Finning”.

How do we recruit and attract new blood (in particularly younger people) to the industry
Tom had some really warm words for what the industry is doing and knows more needs to be done.
“The new and expanding training schools and colleges are fantastic, it’s so much easier for youngsters, or people from all backgrounds, looking to retrain to get a ticket. It will be the technology that will excite the new blood to the industry, the PlayStation generation can adapt very quickly to the safe and efficient operation of construction equipment”.

Tom concluded.
“The major hires such as Flannery, Lynch and O’Briens are doing a great job with their recruitment and training centres to attract, recruit and when out on site retain the next generation”.

What makes customers / clients happy.
Very often the answers to questions like this are too expansive and theoretical. The best companies have a simple philosophy and Tom was no different.

“It’s all about a good relationship, communication and ensuring the customer is happy with the operator. Quite simply do a good job and they will use you again.

Be safe, turn up on time, have the latest plant, be efficient and do the job as well as you can so the project can move on to the next stage. In my mind this is what customers want”.

So we thank Tom Balls for his time it was an interesting and enjoyable discussion with a Plant Operator clearly passionate and knowledgeable about what he does, appreciative of the opportunity he has had and enthusiastic about the future of construction and contracting.