The labour market for safety and health practitioners in the UK has been in flux in recent years, influenced not only by the economic downturn and slow recovery but also by employers’ changing perceptions of the importance of OSH management. We brought together recruitment experts from Shirley Parsons and Allen & York to discuss these trends and to advise on how organisations can attract the best candidates and how practitioners can secure the best job offers.
LOUIS WUSTEMANN (LW): How is the job market?
AMANDA CLARKE (AC): The market generally is buoyant. There are lots of opportunities across a range of sectors.
JACK CORNICK (JC): There is a subtle difference between contract and permanent opportunities. The contract market tends to peak and trough every two to three weeks. However, it is strong and buoyant throughout the year. There is demand for anyone from advisers to mid-level management.
LW: Is that buoyancy influencing salaries after a period of wage constraint?
JC: I would say so. There is a demand for skills, which means certain companies are paying above market value to get the right person.
AC: The starting salaries have gone up maybe £5,000 in London and the South East in the five years I’ve followed the market. That’s had an upward effect on what companies pay advisers and managers. There is a lot of competition for the most talented people.
LW: The Sentencing Council’s guidelines on OSH penalties has raised some organisations’ exposure to higher fines; do you think that has pushed up pay?
AC: It has been a contributing factor. I have had people ring me and say: “I need to get someone in to look at health and safety in my business because I am lying awake at night thinking about the guidelines... I don’t want to be in court. I want to make sure we have a robust management system, policies and procedures.”
Amanda Clarke, managing consultant, Shirley Parsons
Amanda Clarke has been with Shirley Parsons for four years and has built up a wealth of experience across a range of sectors and organisations. She heads the services division, leading a team which supports organisations in the corporate, retail, property, consultancy, charity and public sectors. The team ensures organisations can access the high-calibre health, safety, environment and quality talent they need to develop.
People do move industries and can offer a different perspective from someone who has always been in that industry
JC: We are seeing clients move quickly to get the right people. Interview processes have streamlined. I have seen candidates interviewed two or three times over three or four days to get everything in place. If we look at the IOSH salary surveys in 2012 and 2017, the median salary has remained relatively stable around £40k. But in higher-risk industries such as construction, salaries have gone up 15% to 17% over that period. It doesn’t just come down to the sentencing guidelines. It comes down to reputation. Ten years ago, an incident may have been localised; now there are incidents that make the national newspapers and they are shared on social media. That can have a very damaging effect, especially if you are a business that supplies a service. Are people going to want to use you if you are not committed to safety?
AC: Reputational risk is definitely factored in. You can see that having an impact on the market when [businesses] get someone in on a contractor/interim basis while they hire for the permanent post. They can get that person in fairly quickly and have someone looking at [the issue]. It has had an impact on how people are hiring.
LW: If we look at what practitioners should think about in job interviews, is that reputational protection something they should focus on as well as compliance?
JC: The market is in a period of transition where we are moving away from a compliance culture to one where people are very proactive about their safety standards. There are businesses that have built their reputation on having great safety standards. They are winning business on the back of their safety performance and the way they treat their workforces. The skills set of practitioners has changed over time. There is now a market for specialist contractors that work with businesses on a very niche agenda. We are also seeing skills change from technical to cultural ones. There is a real emphasis on soft skills – people who can engage at any level in the business and are adaptable to change.
LW: If practitioners want to demonstrate they have those softer skills, what advice would you give?
AC: An astute professional could look at any qualifications or skills gap [they have] on the soft skills side. [They might] say, “I want to get into that position of leadership/management in my organisation [or], in my next organisation, is there a course I can go on to do that?”. Think about soft skills when you are looking at areas you can develop.
Jack Cornick, team leader, health, safety and construction, Allen & York
Jack Cornick joined Allen & York in 2016 to head the well-established health and safety team. His client base is varied and includes organisations that work in the finance, construction, manufacturing, logistics, waste and corporate property sectors. Allen & York’s extensive network of clients allows the team to provide support for roles ranging from entry to director level. He and the team have a combined experience of more than 20 years in health and safety recruitment and they are proficient in recruiting for difficult-to-fill positions worldwide. Most recently he has successfully recruited for positions in the UK, India and mainland Europe. He takes a keen interest in market trends and regularly attends conferences and seminars to ensure he is up to date with developments.
Throughout the time that you are on the premises, you are being judged on how you act
JC: It goes beyond the qualifications. If I am looking at a CV, I look for things like key achievements. Every organisation has a different culture and being able to adapt your CV for every role you apply for is difficult without going into that business and meeting them. If you want to come across as an engaged practitioner, [try] working in cross-sectional and multidisciplinary teams. If you are a safety adviser, any examples of where you have liaised with directors or senior management are going to come across well. It shows you can converse with people at all levels of the business and are adaptable.
LW: IOSH’s Blueprint competency framework pushes practitioners to find opportunities in their own organisations to develop those soft skills.
AC: That’s something else that I would say to candidates. Is there anyone running your business you can learn from? If you are an adviser, is there a manager or head of health and safety whom you can work with? Is there anyone who you think is a good leader or engager? What can you learn from them either informally or through a more formal mentorship programme? It’s about seeing what you can do in your current business to make yourself stand out from others.
JC: It’s important to look at opportunities outside your own business. There are groups on LinkedIn. People who are actively mentoring others in the industry. Little things like going to your local IOSH branch meetings can be a great way to network and share knowledge.
Fitting the role
LW: Do you think the level of qualifications employers expect is changing?
AC: Probably more than 95% of the clients I work with, even looking for a junior or entry level person, would expect that person to have a minimum of a level three qualification in health and safety; a National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH) certificate or equivalent qualification. It really varies from industry to industry. I work more with corporate businesses and there are two sides to it. There is more of an emphasis on softer skills and person fit. However, you still need a minimum level of qualification to demonstrate competency. For management level roles, you would be required to have the NEBOSH diploma or equivalent. It comes down to the contractual arrangements that businesses have.
JC: The drive for skills and qualifications remains really strong and that goes across every single sector but there is now more of an emphasis on skills outside that, which employers are looking at. Just because a job description says you need a NEBOSH diploma and you’ve got one doesn’t mean you are going to get it. Once you’re in the door and you can meet people, that’s when you can find out a bit more about the culture and where you are going to fit in with that business.
AC: You do see cases where the less-qualified candidate on paper gets the job just because of how they come across at interview. There is a perception in businesses that, if there are any technical skills gaps, you can normally train those people up. If you get someone who is the right fit for your business, it’s not a huge expense to put them through a qualification. If you have someone who has all the qualifications, all the bells and whistles but you know they not going to gel in that team, they are not the person you will want to hire.
LW: So a lot of organisations are looking to recruit on talent as much as experience?
AC: I’ve placed candidates who have come from high-risk businesses into more corporate or lower-risk environments and I think that’s because they had the right approach and were able to demonstrate that transferability. But it does tend to be one way. If there’s a person with transferable skills from a different industry I would recommend [the business] consider that candidate in addition. People do move industries. I’ve seen some good examples where candidates have made those transitions and done well. They can sometimes offer a different perspective from someone who has always been in that industry.
LW: Leaving aside experience, do you see any difference in the way candidates from different age groups approach the recruitment process?
AC: For candidates coming out of school or university, there is more emphasis on the STAR method, which is a way of answering interview questions. It stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. That methodical way of answering competency-based interview questions is something that people pick up on.
JC: I’ve seen different approaches from all generations. Many people who are very experienced are willing to try new things. Many are using social media to share their success and to network; that runs right across the age groups. What I have seen is a slightly different approach to the way people move roles. Candidates whom you would class as millennials or slightly younger tend to move on a bit more quickly, maybe every two to three years, whereas someone who is a bit more experienced or has more longevity in the market may stay four or five, but again that’s a very broad generalisation.
AC: There is more of a focus around flexible ways of working; more flexibility around office hours, more homeworking or part-time working for people who want a better work-life balance. You do see that in people whom you wouldn’t expect to see it from at that point in their careers.
JC: More people are conscious, regardless of how old they are, about what they are set to gain from a development perspective from any role they are going for. So not only financially are they going to get support for qualifications [but] are they going to work with someone who is going to challenge them? We are also seeing people are relocating to be closer to home. I’ve seen lots of people take salary drops because they’ve not wanted to travel two hours each way or a three-hour round trip. There are exceptions to that rule – people who are happy to stay away every night – but most people are looking for a better work-life balance.
LW: Going back to the STAR technique, would you recommend anyone who hasn’t come across it to learn how to answer competency questions that way?
AC: Competency-based interviews are fairly common. A lot of manager-level roles tend to be a two-stage process and one of those as a minimum would involve some competency-based interview questions. The STAR method offers a very robust way of answering them. You are trying to demonstrate a competence that they are looking for, often a non-technical one. So, for example: “Tell me about a time that you led a team and had an issue. How did you resolve it?” For some people, it comes naturally, but others would struggle for an answer. My advice would be to research the STAR method if you have been advised that you will be going for a competency-based interview. There are examples of common questions on the internet. Then, prepare examples for those that would fit the method.
It’s easier to go into a company and explain your motivation if you have a long-term plan
JC: Ninety per cent of interviews I see conducted in health and safety are competency-based, so have examples ready. Be prepared to back up what you are saying with experience and quantify it as well. Don’t just talk about what you did but also why you did it and the results you gained. In addition, it’s really good to be prepared for any eventuality. I’ve seen a lot of companies use innovative methods for their interviewing. Video interviews seem to be quite common [or] candidates talking into a camera on their laptop with no one to speak to and just questions coming at them. Presentations are really common as well. The competency-based framework is great. It will cover you for at least one if not, hopefully, both your interview stages.
AC: Candidates can get tasks sprung on them and part of the process is to see how they respond.
LW: Interviewers are looking for people who can think quickly and are not fazed?
AC: If you said to someone, “You’ve got 20 minutes to prepare a presentation” and they didn’t do anything, it would give the interviewer an indication of how they react under pressure. It’s not as if they are expecting a perfect presentation. It’s more about seeing what the candidate prioritises in that time.
Etiquette for interviewers
LW: However scary it is to be the candidate it’s also scary to be the interviewer and be afraid of recruiting the wrong person. There is a lot riding on it for the organisation as well.
AC: It works both ways. The candidate also wants to find out if the company is the right fit for them. Don’t let the pressure of “I’ve got to be perfect” get to you. Interviewers recognise that candidates are human and that they get nervous. The stress of the situation is taken into account. For interviewers, if you haven’t interviewed before or for a while, brush up on your skills. We do sometimes get feedback from candidates [like], “That was a pretty terrible interview.”
JC: Something we are seeing a lot more of is candidates realising, especially in a skills-short market, that they hold a lot of power. I have seen candidates get to a final stage and [receive] an offer, then turn round and say, “I’m really sorry but at that final interview I didn’t quite get the answers I wanted from my questions. I’m not sure this business matches my ambitions as a safety professional.” I tell employers, “Let them ask questions, let them be inquisitive and curious about what you are doing” because they don’t want to come away still having questions. The best place to be after a final-stage interview is for both sides to know where they stand and they have all the information they need to make a decision. As a candidate going into an interview I would feel a lot more empowered by that. You don’t hold all the cards but it’s much more of a two-way street than it was five to ten years ago.
AC: Interviewers and their businesses should also be aware of their reputation in the marketplace when it comes to recruitment. Some businesses still have cumbersome and longwinded application processes. If you make candidates spend an hour or two filling in an online application form just to get an automated rejection or email… is there any way that you can streamline that process? Can you communicate to candidates more effectively and more quickly? Gaps between first and second interviews can be over a month and the market is moving quickly, so is there any way [the company] can speed this up?
JC: To add to that, it’s not just about recruitment, it’s about retention. There is a common mistake I see employers make: they oversell opportunities. Candidates have gone into an interview and been given maybe false expectations of what the business is really like, what it is looking to achieve and how engaged it is. They are recruited and three to four months later it’s not quite how it was explained at the interview. All of a sudden, they are looking [for a job] again. Don’t feel because it’s a skills-short market that you need to sell the opportunity. Be honest, be transparent. Not only will you get the right person, you will keep them for a long time.
LW: As a candidate going into an interview, how much should you push the interviewer?
JC: There’s a difference between being challenging and being curious. I have seen candidates who have gone into an interview and been really challenging. They ask almost too many questions and challenge the way the business does things. You don’t really know how the employer is going to take that. There’s a point in the middle where you want to know a company’s lost-time injury rates and find out about where they’ve been and where they want to go. Also, as an interviewer, give candidates the opportunity to ask those questions. Don’t just assume they will ask throughout the interview. Give them the opportunity and don’t be offended if it is a particularly challenging question because if it does end up that you get the right person that’s the best result.
LW: What do you see as the most common mistakes that candidates make throughout the recruitment process?
AC: You can go right back to the CV stage. You need a high-quality, well-crafted CV. It is the first thing most employers are going to see. You need to make sure it’s concise but not too brief. [Avoid] the basic things like incorrect telephone numbers and spelling mistakes. Something that candidates may not realise is, if you apply a lot through job boards or company application systems, if you don’t have a postcode it can be hard for that system to pick up where you are. Then, it’s about demonstrating your responsibilities and key achievements and skills on the CV.
I have seen candidates interviewed two or three times over three or four days
JC: It’s difficult to tailor a CV specifically to a certain type of role. If a candidate is active in the market, they may be looking at five to seven opportunities with different organisations. Also, you don’t really know until you meet the organisation what it is they are looking for. Try not to be too specific. Be general on your CV but be very specific about what you have achieved. Don’t miss out [important] qualifications but don’t list all of them. Stick to your five to ten key qualifications that are relevant. Bullet points are good to highlight key experience.
LW: Rather than tailoring a CV to each role, are you saying that what you want is the best general version?
JC: It depends on the candidate’s situation. If you are applying for only one job, then yes, tailor your CV.
AC: You need a strong, general CV that provides a really good overview of what you can bring. If you can tailor it for a specific job, I would recommend it. However, I appreciate the situations under which candidates apply. For contract roles, for example, it can be that they just want to see some CVs by the end of the day and interview candidates the next day.
JC: Don’t forget opportunities beyond the CV to demonstrate specific experience relating to the role. Covering letters are good examples or personal profiles that candidates can attach to their CVs.
LW: What are the common mistakes candidates make?
AC: It’s around [lack of] preparation. You need to research the company thoroughly. Look at their website and at Google News to see if they have been in the news recently. Look at the profile of the people you will be meeting with on LinkedIn. Look at the wider industry they are in and any trends. At the interview, a common question is “Tell me about yourself”, so have a concise pitch and be able to sell yourself well.
LW: If you can’t talk articulately to them about what you are doing and what motivates you, they might take that as an example of what you’d be like if they offered you the role?
JC: It’s important at the interview stage that you come over as professional and engaged [but don’t forget] informal meetings or site tours where those companies are looking to see how you engage with the workforce. Potential employers view an interview very much as an across-the-table conversation but be wary. Throughout the time that you are on their premises, you are being judged on how you act and behave. There are many times where candidates have fallen short because they have relaxed after they’ve walked out of the interview room.
LW: Are there any final points you would make about what candidates should consider when applying for a new role?
AC: Think about what your long-term goal is and how your next job move is going to get you there.
We are seeing skills change from technical to cultural ones
JC: It’s also easier to go into a company and explain your motivation if you have a long-term plan but it must be realistic. If your goal is to be safety director of Marks & Spencer, you have to understand that that role probably only becomes available once every five to ten years. So perhaps safety director with a FTSE 100 business would be a good way to go and work towards [the more specific one].
LW: On this point, do you see much divergence of OSH job titles?
AC: It can be difficult to read too much into job titles. I work with businesses where they would term everyone as an HSEQ manager regardless of how much environment and quality is involved in those positions. There are organisations where they’ve looked at the health and safety business partner title, so someone who partners with operational teams and senior managers rather than someone who manages or takes ownership of it.
JC: We are seeing more business partners. It stems from the [rise of the] HR business partner. That became quite prevalent and they’ve taken that and run it in health and safety. It sits somewhere between an adviser and a manager level in terms of responsibilities. Job titles can be misleading but sometimes they can be important in terms of how safety is run in a business. When I am speaking to candidates and clients, I am more conscious of the job role than the title.
AC: It’s becoming a part of normal business operations as opposed to “there’s the health and safety department and they do health and safety”. It’s more about getting everyone onboard and qualified; getting people interested and looking to make it part of business activities rather than an add-on you have to do.