It’s time to get clever

The waste sector may be making itself more attractive as a career choice, but it needs to do more to recruit higher qualified entrants if it is to plug the current and future skills gap

Increasing use of new technologies and automated processes to treat waste will continue to drive demand for greater skills in the industry, according to the latest workforce study from EU Skills. Higher qualifications will be sought as professional and technical roles grow more advanced, while supporting operative and maintenance roles will require further skills to keep pace with changing requirements.

The report The UK waste management and recycling industry 2010 labour market investigation estimates that there are 142,500 individuals directly employed in the UK waste management and recycling industry. Of these, 41,400 work in large private sector firms, 49,900 in private SMEs, 46,650 in public waste collection and disposal authorities and LAWDCs, 700 in regulatory bodies, 3,600 in third sector organisations and 300 in other establishments like government and research institutes.

Other than those directly employed in waste and recycling activities, there are also supporting services such as consultants, contractors and plant/equipment suppliers. Based on data and industry expert knowledge, it is estimated that at least 195,950 people will be employed in the sector by 2020.

The report identified a number of skills shortages across the industry, both at a professional and senior management level down to operative and elementary roles. Among managers and senior officials, there is a shortage of skilled individuals with advanced engineering qualifications and specialist knowledge of treatment processes. There is also a lack of negotiating and strategic management skills in the public sector, and a lack of ‘softer’ skills in communication and management.

Outside experience

Within professional and more technical roles, there is a need for skilled professionals within a wide range of occupations outside those relating directly to the treatment of waste, and a shortage of skilled personnel for technical and engineering related roles – particularly for energy-from-waste technologies. The study also found some skills shortages of mechanical and electrical engineers for key maintenance positions. On an elementary level, basic skills such as numeracy and literacy and English language skills for migrant works were generally poor.

Formal training is often delivered by external suppliers or by equipment manufacturers as part of supply contracts. Despite increasingly positive perceptions of the value of skills development, financial pressures remain a barrier to employers providing training. Further raising awareness of the benefits of developing employee skills is seen as crucial to encourage training provision. There is also a view that current provision does not meet the immediate skills needs brought by the introduction of new technologies.

To meet future labour demands, the following priorities need to be met. First, the workforce needs to be up-skilled. This will be particularly appropriate for manual, operativem and lower level technical roles as the advanced skills requirements of more senior positions mean that these roles are less open to up-skilling from lower level positions. Recruitment is also a key requirement as there is a need to attract new entrants into the industry.

Recruitment difficulties are expected to be most evident for technically advanced roles. Previously, this has led to recruiting entrants from abroad. While it is possible that entrants from other sectors with transferable skills could fill some of the lesser technical, maintenance and operative roles, this will be dependant on regional supply and economic performance.

A need to attract young new entrants into the sector is recognised – attracting graduates, particularly those from science and engineering disciplines will be very important. One barrier is the traditionally poor image of the industry, but improved perceptions are encouraging greater interest although there remains a need for promotion to attract new entrants at all levels.

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