Safety in numbers

Written by: Chris James | Published:

A skills survey has identified demand for flexible, accessible and affordable training – while the government’s apprenticeship levy is fast approaching. Chris James, chief executive officer at WAMITAB, explains the implications for the sustainability sector

Statistics show that the waste and resource management sector employs about 150,000 people and continues to grow. The recycling industry alone generates around £10 billion in sales, £3 billion in gross value added (GVA) and employs 30,000 people, according to a report published in 2014.

The sector in 2016 is dramatically different from just a few decades ago. In the late 20th century the focus was more on waste management, and now recycling and sustainability are the watchwords. This has major implications for the skills required within the sector to deliver the infrastructure and services that will help to make the circular economy a reality.

What is the industry’s perspective?

Since 2013, WAMITAB (the Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board) has been conducting an annual skills survey. The 2015 survey provides an excellent insight into employers’ perspectives on skills, what they want in terms of skills delivery, and some of the challenges they are currently facing. The 2015 survey showed that the majority of employers were willing to invest in training for their staff. Nonetheless, the resounding message is that training must be delivered in flexible ways, making use of new technology, and offering a blended approach with online courses, distance learning and classroom-based learning all being part of the package.

However, as ever there is a need to manage budget and time constraints. It is clear that any training or qualifications must offer value for money and take into account that releasing staff to attend courses offsite with all the downtime and cost that entails is frequently not the preferred option.

Challenges and targets

EU targets require the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. Businesses also have a duty of care to manage their waste streams, and with landfill taxes increasing it makes sense to make sure that what can be recycled is recycled.

Concerns about changes in legislation and compliance were voiced by 52% of respondents. The Environment Agency’s current focus on identifying poor-performing sites and imposing sanctions is one of the driving factors in ensuring that staff development remains firmly on the agenda .

Facing up to the challenges

Behind the impressive business growth figures and hi-tech environment, there is a sober reality of the relatively poor health and safety record of the waste management industry, which means that the Health & Safety Executive regularly bring cases to court relating to poor practice.

In line with this, technical competence and compliance were a key challenge identified in last year’s survey – as for those conducted in the preceding two years. One aspect of this is the CIWM/WAMITAB operator competence scheme, which requires the designated technically competent manager to pass a continuing competence test every two years.

As one of the organisations responsible for the scheme, at WAMITAB we recognise that the requirement to pass a test every two years is a considerable commitment for those working in the sector, and during 2015 we introduced a range of revision guides to support candidates.

The syllabus and question bank are also reviewed every two years, and WAMITAB is currently working on producing updated guides in readiness for the new test when it goes live from 1 May 2016.

In common with most sectors, there is the challenge of the so-called demographic time bomb as the baby-boomer workforce (those born between 1946 and 1964) enter their 50s and 60s and companies are faced with the challenge of making sure suitably qualified staff can step into their shoes as they retire.

Challenges also arise from the increasingly stringent EU directives governing how we manage waste and recycling in the UK. This is an area of deregulation in the UK, with different policies operating in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and with each having its own waste strategy, targets and legislation.

The challenges strengthen the imperative for senior management to devise and implement staff development plans that provide the right support, training and qualifications to comply with legislation and regulations, address potential succession planning needs and fuel business growth.

Circular economy and skills

In December 2015 the European Commission adopted an ambitious new Circular Economy Package to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy in order to boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs.

This drive for sustainability is positive as it further cements the essential role of the waste and resource management industry for UK plc. Workforce skills have never been more important; but while this is an exciting opportunity, the survey shows that it is also a challenge for businesses seeking to hold onto their current pool of skilled staff and recruit new people to support business growth in a competitive environment.

The circular economy requires a major awareness-raising programme to get everyone on board, not just those directly involved in waste and resource management. The responsibility for educating the public sits with government, local authorities and the waste management companies that deliver the services.

Businesses in England already have a duty of care to deal responsibly with any waste they produce, and even when handled by a licensed waste business, they are still responsible for checking how that business deals with the waste. Householders too will need to be encouraged to embrace recycling more fully, as the EU plan is to raise recycling rates to 65% by 2030. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland each has household recycling rates between 41 and 45%; only Wales has exceeded the current target of 45%, reporting a rate of 56% in 2014/15.

Investing in skills

The survey showed that some 81% of respondents have invested in training in the preceding 12 months: the same as in 2014 and a slight upward trend on the 2013 survey, where 76% had invested in training, perhaps reflecting a growing confidence in the economy.

The key motivating factors for investment in training identified in the 2015 survey were to develop staff and address skills gaps, although in previous years the need to improve productivity and meet statutory requirements were also cited as reasons for investing in skills.

In 2013, the first survey identified that the majority of respondents were interested in purchasing short courses focused on improving specific skills that would benefit their business (79%), with others expressing interest in technical qualifications (62%). By 2015, there was more of a balance, with the percentages being 75% and 73% respectively.

The common ground was around how this training should be delivered, with almost 60% preferring a blended approach combining the best of online, distance learning and classroom-based training to ensure the workforce has the knowledge, skills and understanding to support their business.

Apprenticeship levy

While the WAMITAB skills survey did not cover apprenticeships specifically, the summer Budget and Autumn Statement in 2015 now mean it is a potential hot topic for employers.

From April 2017, an apprenticeship levy will be introduced to help fund three million new apprenticeships by 2020. The levy will apply to all sectors (public and private), with each employer also having an annual credit equivalent to £15,000 to set against the levy, which means only the largest employers with payrolls of £3 million or more will actually pay the 0.5% levy.

This is estimated to affect around 2-3% of UK employers, i.e. those employing 100-120 upwards, based on an average salary. Employers who take on apprentices will receive vouchers funded by the apprenticeship levy to set against the cost. The government expects to raise £3 billion a year; the fund is also exclusively for apprenticeships and will not cover other types of training.

Brand new idea?

In truth, this is not a totally new concept – similar schemes operate in Europe, and as recently as the early 1980s there was an apprenticeship levy covering most of British industry, which was administered by industrial training boards. The construction and engineering sectors continue to operate a levy system, though interestingly, skills shortages still prevail there.

Under the proposed system, all employers in England who pay the levy and are “committed to apprenticeship training” will benefit more than they pay in. The government has said that apprenticeship programmes in the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive their “fare share”.

What does this mean for the waste and resource management sector?

The finer details are still being worked out, but it is critical that employers are aware of what has been dubbed an “apprenticeship tax” and are ready for the new approach to funding and managing apprenticeships – after all, it is just 12 months away.

To sum up the situation: This is a fast-growing and rapidly changing sector.

Increasingly employers are recognising that it is as important to invest in people as in new equipment, upgrades to premises or better procurement. External factors such as European regulations and government strategy mean that employers need to take a proactive approach to skills.

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