Junior safety professionals..the hardest candidates to find?

Junior safety professionals..the hardest candidates to find?
by James Irwin - Director 

I'm often surprised in life how perception and common understanding do not equal reality and this can be seen in a number of areas across the health, safety and sustainability industry.

The reality of the health and safety industry is that it saves countless lives and helps millions of workers get home safely to their families. However, the perception and common understanding of the industry is somewhat different, indeed this led to the Prime Minister calling the industry “a monster”.

The perception among many is that sustainability and environment professionals are "nice to have" an “add on” rather than core to business profitability. Where as in reality environment and sustainability are absolutely core to profitability; Ecomagination has earned £1bn for GE, energy and carbon reduction programs save millions annually for BT and the horse meat scandal cost a major retailer £300m alone.

Another area where perception does not equal reality is in the hiring of junior health and safety professionals. Be it an Advisor, Coordinator, or Junior Consultant these sub £34k(ish) roles are extremely tricky to recruit. This is contrary to the often held view that junior roles will be the easiest to hire.

Why is this? It is simply a matter of supply and demand, there is not a large supply of candidates at this level, making the best highly sought after and the recruitment of them more difficult.

What is causing the shortage of supply? There are a few reasons, however I believe one basic reason is that health and safety is not seen as the attractive a career path as it could and should be. At the age of 17/18 when career paths are often being considered very few people know about health and safety as a career path and even fewer pick this as their study path of choice. This is in stark contrast to Corporate Responsibility and Environment where there is an abundance of graduates and junior candidates and these junior roles are relatively easy to fill with a very healthy graduate market. 

To me this seems crazy! A major reason many health and safety professionals joined the industry is down to a moral and ethical desire to help and inspire the workforce. The ability to build a well-paid career and do some good in society should be a marketers dream to “sell” to graduates! There should be a nonstop train of high calibre candidates (Dr Shaun Lundy, Academic Portfolio Leader for BSc and MSc degree programmes in Safety, Health, Environment and Occupational Hygiene at the University of Greenwich is doing some great work to rectify this).

Is it the roles themselves?  Is the lack of supply because typically, junior health and safety roles are focused on data, numbers, stats – a great foundation to understand “what's what” and build a career, however not always the most attractive offering in a competitive candidate market. Is there the opportunity to mix these roles up with some kind of mentorship so the candidates have exposure to the more strategic side of safety earlier, which might attract more candidates?

Finally, another reason for this shortage in supply at junior levels is due to the fact that for many health and safety is a second career. The SHP Online ‘State of the industry survey’ indicated that 71% of health and safety professionals had a career prior to the industry. This has many benefits, top of the list is the fact that the candidates will bring industry specific knowledge with them to their role, assisting immensely in a health and safety role, particularly when engaging with the workforce. However, like most people these candidates don't want to go backwards in salary and level and are typically looking for a position above £34,000.

A "typical" candidate market in most industries is much like an upside down martini glass, a lot at the bottom, few at the very top. Health and safety starts skinny, gets fatter mid-way then skinny (I'd welcome any ideas on what this glass looks like...you get the point!)

In addition to a shortage of supply, further complicating the recruitment of junior candidates (although not limited to health and safety) is the selection process itself. The lack of career track record makes selection of these candidates difficult. At interview, junior candidates can't always point to a catalogue of examples where they have previously succeeded in a professional capacity as they simply don’t have the experience. You would expect most candidates to use examples from other parts of their life, however a client then needs to translate this into their work setting.

As a result, at the junior levels the health and safety market talent pool is small, its hard to source and select, my advice, if you find a good one look after them!

James Irwin is a Director at Irwin & Colton, a specialist Health, Safety and Sustainability recruitment firm placing professionals in permanent and temporary roles across the UK.For more information please contact james.irwin@irwinandcolton.com

Posted on Sunday Jul 24