How can the water sector attract top recruits when it is pitted against more glamorous parts of the engineering profession?
There have been large changes in the water industry since the government privatised the public regional water authorities in the 1990s. One of the consequences of these changes has been an evolution in recruitment practices in the sector.
MWH Global, Europe Africa design director Ian Davies thinks privatisation has placed the focus on repairing the existing asset base rather than building as many new, iconic water facilities as the industry might have done in past.
“There has been huge investment in new assets, both as a response to a previously ageing asset base, but also as a result of demanding new standards for drinking water quality and effluent discharge quality,” he says.
“There is now less emphasis on building more new assets and it’s becoming more about understanding, optimising and adapting the existing asset base to address ‘newer’ challenges.”
He thinks this might make it harder for the sector to compete for human resources with the more glamorous parts of the engineering profession. “How does the water sector compete for resources with the large iconic ‘structure-based’ schemes that other sectors are delivering?” he asks. But he thinks this struggle for the right recruits also represents an opportunity to more clearly define the role of the ‘new water engineer’.
Davies argues that the best candidates for the evolving sector or those engineers who are motivated by a sense of societal responsibility and environmental stewardship. The fact that the industry is now geared towards being more customer-focused and thinking about total expenditure (TOTEX) rather than capital expenditure (CAPEX) also calls for more rounded individuals.
“We also need people that can work collaboratively and are excited by the opportunity to work in multi-disciplined teams, engaging with clients, operators, stakeholders, contractors and technology providers,” he says.
The sentiment is echoed by Atkins client director in water, ground and environment Guy Ledger who thinks employers should widen their nets. “This can be supported by diversifying our recruitment from other sectors such as energy which would bring to the water market new thinking and ways of solving our clients’ challenges,” he says.
This will become increasingly necessary given Atkins’ success in securing major contracts for AMP6. Most significantly, this includes the Eight2O Alliance with Thames Water and work as one of Severn Trent Water’s main AMP6 consultants.
As a result, Atkins plans to hire 300 recruits across its Water, Ground and Environment division, including 85 graduates. This compares favourably with 2014 when it recruited 250 people and 65 graduates.
MWH Global, on the other hand, has already recruited 74 people this year and plans to take on another 30 to 40 staff before the year end. It too has secured AMP6 framework contracts with Scottish Water, Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent Water, Anglian Water, Thames Water and Southern Water.
Both Davies and Ledger agree that graduate schemes and apprenticeship programmes will help to boost numbers to cope with the new raft of work.
Davies reveals that MWH is about to launch a new apprentice programme. “This year, we are implementing a fully structured apprentice programme, which will double up as a foundation to our professional development programme,” he says. “We want to grow our own professionally qualified engineers, as well as technicians, right from school. We intend to appoint 10 apprentices this year and recruitment is underway.”