If I ask most fellow OSH professionals how they ended up in the discipline, invariably the response is something along the lines of “by mistake”. All quickly go on to clarify that OSH has provided a hugely rewarding career with variety, challenges and opportunities for growth, but it was not really what they planned to do when entering the world of work. When I started out in the Oil and Gas industry some 20 years ago, there were very few, what you would call, ‘HSE Professionals’. The discipline looked more like a collection of homeless cats – some wandered in from other disciplines, some from Operations who showed passion and aptitude and others, like me, who were Environmental professionals who broadened and then specialised in OSH later in their career.
The picture today of OSH training and qualifications is much healthier. There are more opportunities to get a university degree specifically in OSH and through the IOSH Chartership route, there is now more ongoing recognition of professional development, but we still lag way behind on the variety and maturity of other technical disciplines in attracting new talent. A simple search of UCAS (the University and Colleges Admission Service), for 2020 entry, shows there are 3,660 courses available for Engineering but only 49 courses for Health and Safety. There are 3 times the number of courses available for Fashion Textiles than for OSH, so we have a long way to go.
This is problem if we want the best people to be considering OSH as a viable career. The disruptive thinking that Millennials bring to our discipline is to be welcomed and their skills in technology, social media and data science are acutely underrepresented in our current population (and I include myself in that). So, as leaders in our profession, beyond starting our own university or taking a massive career handbrake turn and going into teaching, what can we do?
I think the first is to engage with local schools through the STEM programme. Most companies who employ technical disciplines will have some kind of outreach STEM programme. If not, you can become your own STEM ambassador through help from www.stem.org.uk. A well-planned session, set around real examples, can capture students’ imaginations and get them excited to learn more. I also find it hugely rewarding to see the buzz and ideas from a group getting engaged in a topic close to my heart.
If you are lucky enough to have a local university who provides an OSH undergraduate course, volunteer to be a guest speaker or to host students on projects. In a previous job, I worked with Imperial University Sustainability students. I often came away from those sessions learning more from them than I think they ever got from me, but I hope I helped to give them a taste of what life as an OSH professional was really like.
Embrace new technology! And I don’t just mean getting to grips with the new IT widget on your laptop or learning how to text on your phone but looking for digital solutions to OSH challenges in the workplace. If you speak to young people about Ultra-wide band sensors, augmented reality glasses or safe operations of autonomous ships, their eyes light up. This is the stuff that excites and interests young people to explore more about what we do.
Lastly, and really importantly, tell stories. Kids, specifically, love hearing stories, especially ones that challenge their view of the world and expand their imaginations. I had a long conversation recently with my 8-year-old about how to safely isolate a subsea gas pipeline if there is a leak. The conversation started, of all places, talking about deep sea fishing and sea monsters. Of course, the prospect of a big explosion at the end of the story helped to keep him interested.
The range of career choices for young people today is mind-boggling and many of the jobs that will need people in 10 or 20 years, don’t even exist yet. But one thing is clear, in our own discipline, we will need fresh ideas, new skills and passion way into the future and we all play a part in making sure we have the best and brightest heading our way.
“Hey man, the kids are the future” and all that….