How do we tackle the skills shortages in the environment sector?

by Lester Lockyer, Senior Consultant, Allen & York

It has been said that hindsight is a wonderful thing; given the choice I would take foresight every time. Now whilst I cannot profess to have extraordinary talents in the area of foretelling I can predict that the current skills shortage for environmental professionals will not improve in the short term.

How do we tackle the skills shortages in the environment sector?

Lester Lockyer
Senior Consultant
Allen & York

It has been said that hindsight is a wonderful thing; given the choice I would take foresight every time. Now whilst I cannot profess to have extraordinary talents in the area of foretelling I can predict that the current skills shortage for environmental professionals will not improve in the short term.

The ever increasing emphasis on all aspects of the environmental management has meant that the legislative burden on companies is growing, as are the expectations of customers, staff and the supply chain. There is no sign of this reducing and consequently the demand for well qualified and knowledgeable staff will continue to increase.

As one of the first, and still one of the few recruitment agencies specialising in the Environmental marketplace, Allen & York has tracked shifting trends within the environmental professions as well as increasing shortages in many of the technical areas.

Areas of increasing or chronic skills shortages include: Noise and Acoustics, Air Quality, Ecology, Geotechnical Engineering, Hydrogeology/Hydrology, IPPC, Environmental Impact Assessment, Contaminated Land, Remediation, Planning, Economics, and Waste Management. A long list but by no means exhaustive.

The simple truth is that most specialist areas are chronically under supplied with high quality staff.

To trace the root of the skills shortage one can start with graduate recruitment. The Catch 22 situation which will be familiar to many graduates is “no experience no job; no job, no experience”.

A glance through a trade journal or a search across the Internet for graduate level opportunities is unlikely to reap much reward. Paradoxically the environment is an area of great interest, there is a wide range of degree courses available producing a healthy number of graduates. There are a number of possible explanations for the lack of advertised opportunities for environmental graduates, but one thing that Allen & York have noticed is that employers are often looking for “traditional” type degrees whilst the University system favours new style degrees.

Engineering or Science degrees are often quoted as a preferred backgrounds but the number of graduates with these qualifications is significantly lower than those with broader based environmental degrees. Also notable is that, increasingly, post-graduate degrees are becoming the norm particularly for candidates with broader first degrees. Communication between employers, the universities to ensure the qualifications are relevant would appear to be a solution to this.

The issue at graduate level therefore is the number of opportunities and the precise degree requirements. Further up the ladder however, employers find it increasingly difficult to find suitable staff. The reasons for this are many and varied and there is no simple answer to solving this problem.

In our experience we have seen the following trends: high drop-out rate as candidates who have come into the environmental sector with high ideals of making a difference get disillusioned with the compromises they have to make as part of their jobs; the importance of non-technical skills such as report writing, presentation, communication and influencing skills increases and finding this in combination with strong technical ability is rare; not all companies are prepared to invest in the training required to develop and increase the skills of their workforce.

What can individuals do to take advantage of this skills shortage?

The first thing is to take responsibility to increase your skill levels at every opportunity. This includes obvious things like attending technical training courses but also improving your non technical skills. Look for the chance to develop your skills and knowledge both in work and outside, whether this by giving a presentation, developing sales skills, being active in a relevant technical institute etc. It is vital not to rely on just what an employer is offering but to be proactive in looking for the chance to extend your skills.

What can employers do?

Understandably most employers prefer to recruit someone with directly relevant experience and therefore go into the recruitment process with very specific requirements regarding the background of their ideal candidate. Increasingly this may not be possible and alternative solutions need to be sought:

  • Can the responsibilities of the role be split to allow an available candidate with some of the necessary skills to be employed?
  • Would an arrangement be possible whereby another member of staff take on some responsibilities whilst the new candidate be sent on training courses and receive on the job training until they are ready to take over in the areas that they were once deficient?
  • Is there anyone internally who might be promoted so that the vacant role may be altered to take advantage of available candidates?

    Employers should therefore look outside their “comfort-zone” and recognise that they may not be able to recruit the perfect candidate but someone with potential.

    This is often seen most markedly in the consultancy sector which counts for a significant portion of environmental jobs. Growth in this sector has been especially high and the demand for staff with previous experience of the consultancy market is far higher than the numbers of staff available. Consultancies have, in the past, strongly preferred to recruit from within the sector seeking those with experience in another consultancy. This needs to be reconsidered.

    Just as some consultants will take up “in house” roles within organisations or within the regulatory regime, those with experience in a regulator or corporate company may seek a new challenge in consultancy. Whilst some period of adjustment may be required this could easily be shorter than the amount of time many roles remain unfilled today. Employing between the various sectors employing environmental professionals can only create greater career opportunities, fresh challenges and the loss of fewer candidates who seek career satisfaction outside of the profession.

    The increased demand for staff has resulted in many candidates having multiple interviews and a number of job offers. If not already aware of this, employers need to maximise their chances of attracting the candidates they want. This will include reacting quickly to CVs once presented to them, ensuring that there are no undue delays in decision making processes, a well thought out and conducted interview which presents the positive features of employment within the company, and a flexible approach to putting together an attractive package for the candidate.

    This package is not just about salary; decisions are increasingly being made based on a range of personal needs which could include their experience at the interview, perception of the company, and features of the role such as interesting workload and career satisfaction.

    In summary then we have seen that there is an endemic skills shortage in the environmental sector. This extends across a range of technical disciplines and has been there for at least the 12 years that Allen & York has been assisting candidates and employers, and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. There have never been any simple solutions to this issue but candidates and companies have to recognise the potential advantages it can give them.

    As a candidate, if you are willing to develop your skills then you will be in high demand, and as an employer if you embrace the need to make your company and job attractive to candidates with scare skills then you will steal a march on your competitors.

    Lester Lockyer is Senior Consultant at Allen and York recruitment specialists.
    0870 870 8986
    [email protected]

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