The UK asbestos industry is suffering from a paucity of experts, warns Aaron Dodd.
There is a recruitment crisis in the UK asbestos industry, with asbestos consultancy experts being lured to the other countries with promises of employment, sunnier climates and outdoor lifestyles.
So how can we fix this? I have a few ideas.
1. Encourage the Government Select Committee to focus on labour shortages
Before Christmas 2021, the Select Committee focused on asbestos in the UK, but mainly around its management and removal. Attention should also be given to the chronic shortage of expertise.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that the Select Committee is discussing the asbestos industry – it has taken many years to get noticed – but succession planning needs to be brought further up the agenda. The analytical side of asbestos consultancy could attract employees with transferable skills, such as those from building surveying and forensic science.
Next time, a Select Committee should include HR, recruitment and training experts to raise the issue and discuss the other industries with transferable skills that could crossover to asbestos consultancy.
2. Temporarily lift immigration restrictions and fast-track visa applications
In the short term, the Government could consider temporarily lifting immigration restrictions and fast-tracking visa applications. Brexit hasn’t hugely affected asbestos consultancy, we had few foreign workers anyway. However, it has limited the net of potential workers and we can’t undertake recruitment campaigns in other countries due to issues around migration and the ability to work.
If asbestos consultancy was added to the exemption list, it would give businesses further options to recruit experts from those countries with a common lifestyle and without language barriers.
3. We need to be collectively responsible for investment in training
Asbestos businesses are simply recruiting from one another and, ultimately, creating unrealistic benchmarks for salaries. A business wins a contract and offers a higher salary to help get the contract fulfilled and, before you know it, the benchmark salary for an asbestos consultant has increased 10-15 per cent over 12 months. With increased operations costs, including fuel, these salary expectations become unsustainable.
The asbestos industry needs to take collective responsibility for investing in the future by taking on trainees. While they won’t bring immediate profit for a business, the benefits will quickly come once they’re trained.
Importantly, it will be more cost-effective in the long-term; training won’t cost much more than recruitment fees and it will create a sustainable future. The main question is how to retain the trainees? It is very difficult. Good HR can help but there’s no silver bullet.
Currently, all work is priced around a single person surveying, so carrying a second person – a trainee – is very difficult. Clients will normally go for the cheapest option.
We need people coming through the ranks, so changes to HSE guidance, making two-person teams a requirement for surveying, so beginners can be trained on the job to a high level of expertise, would be hugely beneficial.
4. Attract more women
Only around 3% of females work in this industry but it’s getting better with more women in the labs. Nevertheless, site-based staff are historically male. Women have the skills to help solve the staff shortage crisis.
One of the biggest concerns for female analysts is having to go through decontamination on site, in what is a male-dominated environment. Providing better facilities on site that give female analysts privacy and protection would be a good start.
There’s also a perception that asbestos analysis is a hard hat and safety boots environment, but the reality is that the industry is very much driven by technology and, in many cases, we’re working in clean environments such as retail, schools and hospitals. Women certainly have the acumen but more needs to be done to entice women specifically into the sector. It would open up so many more possibilities for everyone.