The world of waste – will we suffer from a skills shortage?
UNTHA UK’s managing director Chris Oldfield considers the extent to which the growing waste sector could experience a future skills shortage, the more advanced it becomes…
“We’ve shared many impressive statistics in the past, regarding the growth of the waste sector and its contribution to the UK economy. They’re figures to be proud of after all. In February 2015 for example, Let’s Recycle.com reported that the sector represents £6.8bn gross value for the nation – a reflection of the industry’s commitment to innovation even during the prolonged recession.
One question I do have though, is can the education sector evolve as rapidly, to help us reach our growth potential? And will enough young people be attracted to the world of waste and environmental sciences as they embark upon their careers?
For every new opportunity we collectively develop within the resource management arena, we also create a platform for fresh jobs and diversified skills. Pioneering processes such as alternative fuel production, gasification and anaerobic digestion bring with them the need for advanced knowledge and technical expertise. Of course an in-depth insight can be gleaned from on the job training, so apprenticeships will have an increasingly crucial role to play in our field. But I feel more will need to be done to attract people into the sector in the first place, if we are to avoid a future skills shortage. Here at UNTHA UK are currently experiencing great difficulty in our attempts to recruit a senior Design & Project Manager, for instance, and I fear this situation is not an isolated case.
Why? Because many young students will never have even heard of some of the activities our sector is undertaking. Worse still, some will still perceive our industry as one that purely handles rubbish! I bet very few students come out of school saying: “I want to work in the waste industry”.
What we continually find is that there is very little acknowledgement for how forward thinking our sector is. There is vast potential for people with scientific, business management and design skills, for example, to thrive. But this often goes unnoticed.
As our sector continues to flourish, we’ll need an increasing number of product innovators, to help create closed-loop systems and new uses for ‘end of life’ materials. We’ll need engineers to devise ground-breaking technologies that will help us process and recycle an increasing number of materials domestically. Project managers, production experts and construction workers will all be required to build these state-of-the-art recycling facilities and waste to energy plants. We’ll see a rising demand for sales professionals to support the competitive trade of valuable recyclable materials, and communication experts who can raise awareness of important issues and ensure the industry’s voice is heard. This is not an exhaustive list – it goes on and on.
So how do we combat the risk of a skills shortage?
As professionals within the industry, we should do our utmost to raise awareness of the work that we do, so that we appear on the radar of young talent. In the modern business environment, we are not merely waste handlers – we are each pioneers of the circular economy with really exciting stories to tell. We need to position ourselves accordingly, as successful brands that young people should aspire to work for. The upcoming Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) Trailblazing Apprenticeship scheme, will undoubtedly help in this respect.
However, I’d like to see the education system delve a little more into our world too, so that the concept of sustainability is communicated in schools from the earliest stages of the curriculum. Technology and social media should be capitalised on too, so the message goes viral! Not only will this help inspire students to want a career in waste; it will also support a continuing mind-set step-change towards a greener world.
The future’s definitely bright for our sector. I just wish more people knew it.”