CIWM chief calls for key skills push

New roles will be required as the waste industry moves forward, but where will the skills come from? Maxine Perella speaks to Steve Lee, chief executive of the CIWM, to gauge his view

According to Steve Lee, chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), the waste sector is going through “one hell of a revolution”. Ten years from now, he believes the industry will have transformed itself as new technologies are embraced and more sustainable techniques become established.

And – as with any industrial new dawn – comes the need for new skills. “Waste management is becoming a value-added service – separation of materials as close as you can to the source,” says Lee. “The list of separate recyclables will grow, as will the different numbers of containers or separation that has to be done. We will need more skilled people, even at the kerbside.”

While collection operatives will require customer care and communication skills, waste disposal authorities (WDAs) will need to get to grips with alternative technologies and be able to prepare and monitor more complex contracts.

“WDAs and waste planning authorities will need to be able to talk about pyrolysis and gasification in the way that they’ve been talking about landfill for the past 20 years,” says Lee, adding that elected members (councillors) will need to get up to speed too: “They have surprisingly complex decisions to make.”

The recognition for new skills and training across the board is growing fast, forced by legislative drivers such as the landfill directive and producer responsibility. But more people are needed too – in particular, to design, build, operate and monitor more technically advanced waste treatment facilities.

“Facilities will start to resemble process engineering plants so there will be an increasing dependence on chemical engineers, plant and process engineers – those with expertise in stainless steel vessels, pressures, pipes and valves. Now, is this an industry that can compete for people with those skills against other industries?” questions Lee.

Skills shortage poses ‘serious threat’

The current skills shortage facing the industry greatly concerns Lee as he believes it to be a serious threat to the UK reaching its obligatory targets. “If we haven’t got the right skills, the right facilities won’t be planned, won’t be designed, won’t be built, and won’t be operated. Unless we have sufficiently skilled people, we won’t be able to move forward to a more resource-efficient world that we all would like to see.”

A key aspect of the CIWM’s role as a professional institution for its members is to make the institution relevant to what they do. With nearly 7,000 members, from chartered waste managers to associate members, the CIWM is heavily involved in developing training, skills sets and best guidance guidance.

These range from a scheduled training programme through helping to develop and support the provision of further education to staging two annual conferences and regular seminars. Being a charity, the institution is obliged to offer its courses to non-members as well, but members receive a discounted rate.

In April the CIWM will be launching two related vocational qualifications (RVQs) developed in association with DEFRA – one on waste management alternatives to landfill, the other an introduction to sustainable waste management.

RVQs are the “new educational standard that is starting to take root”, according to Lee. “The demand for transferable awards like RVQs in waste will grow because people want to be able to move from one employer to another with a recognisable qualification.”

Partnership working

The institution is also working with the Environment Agency to boost training in key areas such as enforcement skills for LA officers to help combat fly-tipping and abandoned vehicles. The CIWM also has an entry-level qualification aimed at those who produce waste – the Waste Awareness Certificate – which has just passed the 2,000 candidate mark.

“Everybody thinks of the waste business as the industry that manages it where increasingly, waste is about the billions of people that produce it in the first place,” points out Lee. “Waste is too cheap – we have been so efficient in keeping the cost of waste management down, it doesn’t hurt you to produce waste. If we want to be cleverer with it, it’s going to cost more.”

The institution is also recognising that its members want new skills and training delivered closer to where they work, and is investigating the possibility of blended learning – a mix of face-to-face learning and e-learning. The CIWM is also looking at internet-delivered seminars and lectures where delegates will be able to access the event remotely and interact with the speakers and other audience members.

The waste and resource management industry workforce is estimated to comprise between 120,000 to 130,000 individuals, excluding certain sectors such as scrap metal. Lee sees the industry growing chiefly in mid-skilled areas – middle management and semi-technical – but this brings with it its own challenges.

“Because of that growth and the need for skills, the industry is going through a period of poaching itself,” he says. “There are quite a lot of people transferring within the industry, they get trained up only to move on. That will continue until supply from outside of the industry beefs up.”

However waste has traditionally been perceived as low skilled, with low reward, with a large number of people falling in and out of the industry leading to high turnover levels. There are also recruitment and retention issues looming with an ageing workforce, especially at the sharp end. Lee again refers to the fact that waste has been far too cheap for far too long. And with public expectations rising, something will have to give.

“Twenty years ago, the concern might have been about seagulls and odour nuisances on landfill sites. The 2006 concern is about global climate change, world resources, international movements of recyclable materials. The public are more environmentally-aware and switched on – this is an added pressure.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie