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Train to gain

More from: Need for new blood

The time when the waste industry was just about waste is long gone. Now it is all about sustainable resources, and developing the means to capture and put to good use as much as possible of the waste stream.

If ambitions are to be realised, it is also about moving towards an effectively zero-waste landscape during the next 20 years. We are never going back to the old days of throwing stuff in a bin and forgetting about it.

Policy has been a key driver in this shift from ‘waste’ to ‘resources’, with the introduction of the landfill tax in 1996 being the turning point. Increases in landfill tax have incentivised innovation in the sector and kept valuable materials on the market.

This has been complemented by a raft of further policies and initiatives to promote prevention, reuse and recycling. These include packaging and waste incineration regulations and straightforward banning of some wastes, such as tyres, from landfill.

But with the shift away from landfill comes the need for a variety of options for the destination of our waste, and a quantum change in the complexity of the processes necessary to bring that waste back into use.

Not only will the numbers of people engaged in the waste and sustainable resource industry change during the next few years, but the skills profile will too.

Depending on estimates, there are around 140,000 people employed in the industry, about 28,000 of whom are working in recycling. During the next six or seven years, it is estimated that the workforce involved in waste disposal will increase by about a third. The number of staff in the industry will, during the same period, almost double.

Much of this will come in newer areas - energy from waste, anaerobic digestion, high-end recycling - which will employ people on a radically different profile from that assumed to be satisfactory for the industry.

Therein lies a problem. I believe the industry still lives with the ghosts of its past - a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises undertaking little training or staff development; a public sector still with a relatively low-skilled infrastructure; and some large private sector companies that have grown through recruiting from others.

The industry, in short, does not train itself enough. That simply will not do for the future.

It is perhaps salutary to reflect on the fact that, as new technologies take over in areas once generally low skilled, almost all the training and skills are provided by technology suppliers rather than industry itself. This is a little like garages being entirely dependent on mechanics sent by the motor manufacturers for car repairs to take place - not a good place to be in for the longer term.

Clearly, structuring programmes of training within the industry, and developing the means to attract people into careers in the waste and resources industry, rather than offering just jobs, will be vital.

Some in the industry are getting down to serious thinking. The Waste Management, Recycling and Resource Recovery Industry Skills Initiative and WRAP are increasingly turning their attention to training. But the pace needs to quicken.

Not only must the industry be receptive to the need for more training and more skilled staff, but policy must support the transformation in the waste skills profile by ensuring new technologies have access to the investment and infrastructure they need to create the thousands of highly skilled jobs the waste sector has the potential to provide.

The best way in which policy can support the transition to a more highly skilled, and attractive, waste industry would be by well thought-through, long-term initiatives that remain technology- neutral, but offer support where nascent sectors are struggling to get off the ground.

Being able to put real money and resources into developing sector skills and a career-based industry will be a vital next step. It is a challenge both to the industry to kick-start it and to the Government to ensure that such plans are fully supported.

Dr Alan Whitehead MP, co-chair, Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group

This piece is taken from the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group’s collection of essays ‘Sustainable skills: The future of the waste management industry’. Please click here to read the report in fullor contact the Group on apsrg@policyconnect.org.uk.

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