Health and safety: are employers missing out by focusing on degrees?

There are certain jobs where a degree is considered a necessity.

When recruiting health and safety personnel, though, employers which restrict their search to those who hold a degree – whether in occupational safety and health or another discipline – could exclude some of the brightest talent. Many high-profile and sought-after senior managers and directors in industry today began their careers a long way from a lecture theatre.

Health and Safety offers a number of gateways

One of the most striking features of the health and safety profession is its range of gateways into the profession. Its openness stems from the wide variety of options there are for learning and studying while in full-time employment. Ask a health and safety manager about their early career and plenty will tell you they began their working lives in an operational role within their industry before gravitating towards health and safety as they learnt more about it, perhaps by taking on extra responsibilities such as risk assessment or training. Discovering an aptitude for the subject and cultivating a genuine interest in this way provides the ideal motivation for study; and individuals who are prepared to devote time to studying while working full time are demonstrating just the sort of commitment and work ethic that should appeal to recruiters.

Often the first step for individuals wishing to move into health and safety is the NEBOSH National General Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health. This was the case for Matt McDonnell, now a Health and Safety Adviser at B&Q. At 19, Matt decided not to go to university and instead took a job in retail. Fast-tracked on a management programme, Matt developed an interest in health and safety and – after completing the NEBOSH General Certificate – secured a health and safety position within the same retail group. Further Certificate-level qualifications followed, before Matt embarked on the NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety.

“After deciding not to go to university earlier in my life, I’m really proud of my Diploma qualification,” says Matt. “Everyone recognises there is a genuine challenge in achieving the NEBOSH Diploma and there’s also great confidence in it.”

Second-career professionals may take a different approach

There’s no shortage of health and safety high-fliers who, like Matt, took an “evolutionary” route into their health and safety careers – staying within the same industry but moving to the safety department. There’s a strong argument that it’s an ideal career path. In health and safety, as in many professions, there are often desirable qualities in those candidates who have experience of other jobs within the organisation, industry or sector. They’re often better able to communicate with workers “on the ground” because they understand the pressures and how the work is actually done (rather than how managers think it’s being done). Matt, for example, views his colleagues as “customers” who need advice and guidance – not rules and regulations.

There are also many desirable attributes in second-career safety professionals: those individuals who switch to health and safety because they recognise the transferable skills and qualities they have to offer. Moving from the military to a health and safety career, for example, is a well-trodden career path. Adam King, now SHEQ Director at waste-to-product firm Renewi, abandoned his law degree for a career in the Royal Marines.

Vocational training route

When it was time to move on from the military, Adam took a job at a power station and soon caught the health and safety bug. He took on inspection responsibilities, gained his NEBOSH General Certificate, and the rest is history. His industry experience and the qualifications he went on to achieve on the job made him an ideal fit for his current position: “It turned out I was the only candidate who matched their exact requirements!”

The message for employers? Think twice before adding “degree educated” to your job spec for health and safety positions. The vocational qualification route – such as that offered by NEBOSH – provides people with the opportunity to gain the hard and soft skills they need to transform health and safety in their organisation.

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