Genetically engineering a new workforce to meet the challenges of the modern waste sector

Written by: Dr Adam Read | Published:
Dr Adam Read, global practice director for Ricardo Energy & Environment

Each month, Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment discusses the big issues from his point of view, and this month considers the changing demands of the waste and resources sectors and the need for new DNA in our workforce

This month my blog will be short ('good news' I hear you sigh) as it is a busy time of year with the day job, and I have taken a few short breaks with the family (which means limited time with the laptop), so I hope my ramblings on skills, experiences and a need to change the sector’s DNA prove informative and light-hearted.

Reflections on the last 20 years

The year 1995 seems an eternity ago – it was the year of Goldeneye, Apollo 13 and Braveheart at the movies, the music charts were filled with Robson & Jerome, the Outhere Brothers and Coolio, while the biggest news items included the formation of the World Trade Organisation and Hugh Grant’s arrest for lewd behaviour in LA.

Of course John Major was still prime minister, but for those of us in the waste sector it saw the launch of Ebay, the arrival of the UK’s 50% local authority recycling target and I took my first steps as a recycling officer in Kensington & Chelsea.

The mid-1990s can be considered something of ‘a golden era’ for UK waste management, with municipal recycling rates taking a significant upturn in response to government leadership and the identification of new best practice. Kerbside recycling was becoming the norm for most households, and proper money was being spent on local education and communication campaigns to help residents adjust to new waste and recycling schemes. It was a simple time, pre-PFI, and pre-WRAP, a time before landfill tax (arrived in 1996) and an age where the only treatment solutions were recycling or EfW.

As such, the people coming into the sector were environmentalists, honed with communications and engagement skills, and focused on contract management, service management and operations. There was little attention being applied to C&I or C&D waste streams, we had the fledgling resource efficiency programmes supporting businesses with on-site audits and behavioural change programmes to help drive cost savings, and an expectation that the EU was going to drive change for the better. And things have moved on a great deal in the two decades that passed, most of it for the better.

Fast forward to 2016

So here we are in June 2016, and the speed of change in our sector continues to amaze me. We are beginning the drive towards a more circular economy both in Europe and in the UK, with the way being led by Scotland. We have identified additional best practice in terms of kerbside recycling with increasing numbers of extended frequency collections and co-mingled systems delivering recycling rates in excess of 60%.

Landfill has continued to dwindle, and with recycling rates stagnating the shortfall has been soaked up by an ever-expanding collection of advanced technologies – from IVC and AD, to MBT, ATT and beyond. The UK waste and resources sector today is more complicated and faces many new challenges. Following years of austerity there is little public funding for new infrastructure, investors are nervous about technology failures and planning hold-ups, and with a changing suite of incentives concerning energy, heat and power production the economic viability of many projects are being questioned. So what does that mean for us working in the sector?

Right skills: right DNA?

Just how many of the people working in the sector I 1995 are still here today, and if they are, do they have the skills and experiences to help drive the sector on? I am not advocating a cull or mass redundancy exercise, because the experiences and insights we would lose would potentially undermine the continued successful running of services, sites and facilities, BUT I am an advocate for the sector needing a significant degree of new blood to help bring the different ways of thinking to a sector that is ever more about design, recovery and logistics than ever before.

We need technology specialists form the power and energy sectors to make sure the new treatment technologies can work in a commercial environment. We need sectoral insights from food and drink, manufacturing and hospitality to help ensure waste management best practice can be successfully rolled out across industry sectors. We need designers to engage with material specialists and recycling companies and reprocessors to ensure closed loop solutions are deliverable.

We need to learn from the investor community so we can communicate with them about new projects and proposed developments, while we need to learn new techniques to work with an ever better informed public to address consumer behaviours, recycling participation and contamination. So things will have to change and I am seeing this locally in the microcosm that is my consultancy business.

Recent recruiting insights?

While I have recruited extensively since I joined the sector in 1995, I have relied heavily on my network of clients, sub-consultants and competitors to help fill the roles identified. My personal networks through the CIWM, LARAC, ESA and ISWA have afforded me a great deal of access to quality people, many of whom had not thought about careers as consultants, but whom I believed could make the transfer to the dark art of consultancy. There has also been a role for web-based advertising, recruitment consultants, and increasingly social media to spread the word about the company’s growth plans and recruitment needs.

But as the sector has changed, so has the role of consultants, and the things that my team and I were doing five years ago are changing, and changing fast, which means we either need to develop new skills and insights/experiences or we need to secure new DNA to the business. And as the ‘look and feel’ of the new recruits change, so does our access to them.

Recent recruitment has seen me looking to bring 10 new people into my team, some to replace natural wastage as people move on or retire, while half are to fuel planned growth in new core areas of work, namely technical due diligence, investor support, waste and carbon modelling, and waste service delivery and operations expertise. I have found the challenge exciting, but equally frustrating. We have identified the skills, experiences and capabilities we need but we can’t always find the right candidates, and even when we can find them through social media, personal networks or increasingly through recruitment consultants who work beyond traditional waste sector boundaries, they might not fancy becoming a consultant or changing sector – at least not just yet.

Sector transformation

So on reflection, the sector is transforming and to do so it needs new DNA, but that DNA may not want to join the party at least not until the transformation is well underway and the end is secure. I expect I will find the five people I need to help take my business on to the next level in the coming months, just as the waste and resources sector will attract the right people it needs in the coming years. It might not be a smooth ride, and we may have some false dawns, but this transformation is real, and the sector will continue to be an exciting place to be, so I expect plenty of new DNA coming my way in the next decade, keeping me on my toes and challenging my perceptions and beliefs – just what the doctor ordered!

So your mission, should you choose to accept it? If you think you have the right DNA check out the Ricardo recruitment pages

I look forward to hearing from you.

As with all my ‘comments’ they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or share your opinions then email me on For more of my blogs please refer to

Adam is global practice director for Ricardo Energy & Environment’s Resource Efficiency and Waste Management Practice, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Royal Geographical Society. He has more than 20 years of waste sector strategy, service design, procurement and communications experience, both in the UK and overseas, and is a regular industry commentator, author and conference speaker, both in the UK and around the world.

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