Wanna work in waste? You’re hired!

You know that once the waste industry features on the BBC's The Apprentice that it's made the big time. But where is the future talent going to come from? Katie Coyne reports

Think there are no jobs for life anymore? Wrong. According to those working in the waste industry this is not strictly true. And, despite the tough economic times, waste management and recycling continues to grow and needs new recruits. While opinion is divided as to exactly how many more jobs are likely to be created over the next decade, there is a consensus that the trend is “more” rather than less.

The UK Waste Management and Recycling Industry 2010 Labour Market Investigation found that last year there were 142,550 people employed directly in UK waste management and recycling roles alone. The report – carried out for the Government-licensed Energy & Utility Skills (EU Skills) Council – predicts that by 2020 this figure will reach 195,950.

Addressing a need to attract new people into the industry – and socially conscious as ever, as well as aware of the pressing need to provide opportunities for young people – the industry launched its first ever apprenticeship at the beginning of the year.

The Apprenticeship in Sustainable Resource Management is aimed at anyone looking to start, or already working within, the industry. So far it is mainly being taken up by those aged between 16 and those in their early twenties, according to Alan Lowden, business development assistant at ABA Training.

His company is helping to deliver the apprenticeship, which was developed by EU Skills in consultation with the waste industry. Lowden started working in the industry 12 years ago, aged just 17. “Once you are in,” he says, “it can offer a job for life if you want it to.”

For employers, the apprenticeship offers the usual benefits of home growing your own stars, such as increased loyalty and improving workplace communication, says Lowden. There are two tiers of apprenticeship – level two, which encompasses practical, on-the-job learning plus the back-up knowledge, and takes around 12 months to complete. Level three is similar but is aimed at getting candidates to a supervisory level and takes 18 months.

But the waste industry is also facing up to serious skills shortages that are affecting the whole of the UK workforce such as inadequate literacy and numeracy. The Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board (WAMITAB) – an awarding body for waste-related qualifications – has been taking a “learning by stealth” approach.

WAMITAB delivers competence training to make sure workers operate to minimum safety standards and good practice. But the industry organisation takes this training opportunity to up-skill numeracy and literacy at the same time. WAMITAB’s business development manager, Sue Wright, says: “We never talk about numeracy and literacy because these people have been turned off learning so talking like that is never going to inspire them.”

The benefits to employers are huge. One London borough has seen a 12% decrease in accidents in the four years it has been working with WAMITAB. It has also been able to promote its own operatives to team leader positions, which it couldn’t do before because of inadequate literacy and numeracy. But the benefits are wider, says Wright.

“We have worked hard to up-skill people not just from the point of view of work, but also outside,” she says. “It’s the first time that some of them have been able to sit down with their kids and read to them and help them with homework.”

But it is not just a shortage of basic skills needed. Traditionally, graduates coming into the industry have had environmental science-related degrees, but there is a growing need for candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and maths. This is expected to become more of an issue as the industry employs increasingly sophisticated technologies such as mechanical biological treatment, anaerobic digestion and energy from waste.

“There is a lack of scientific expertise available, which is increasingly important as the sector develops,” says Lesley Davison, head of human resources at waste management firm Viridor. “This need for new or further specialist skills may lead us to look for talent within other industries, and possibly outside of the UK.”

Another “softer” skills set that is becoming more important is communication. “The relationships you need to have as a waste manager are more complicated than they used to be,” says Claire Poole, education and training manager at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM). “There is a huge emphasis on communications with stakeholder engagement and these are skills we could become better at,” she adds.

The CIWM offers a variety of training for individuals and companies from top to bottom and accredits some university waste-related degrees. Those in the industry should aim for professional membership of the CIWM. It has varying tiers of membership with candidates ultimately working towards becoming a chartered waste manager. Membership indicates not just levels of knowledge but also experience and is peer reviewed.

Those that do well in waste are people who are willing to constantly be striving forward. “It’s not just about gaining a qualification or training, it’s about whatever level you’re at, continuing to keep up-to-date and developing your skills,” says Poole.

In return the industry is an often socially conscious as well as technologically advancing place to work that offers real career progression plus the potential for a job for life. Hopefully this should allow it to attract the most dedicated, motivated as well as highly skilled individuals in the current and future labour market – without the anguish of an Alan Sugar style knock-out competition.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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