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The UK urgently needs Groundwater Specialists

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Review of Availability of Candidates for Groundwater related jobs in the UK

The environmental goods and services market is a fast-growing part of the UK economy. The water and wastewater treatment and waste management sectors together account for more than 70% of the market. Many of the organisations in these sectors require the services of groundwater specialists. Currently the demand for people with these skills outweighs the supply. The UK Groundwater Forum has undertaken a review of the availability of candidates for groundwater-related jobs to examine in more detail the root causes of the problem. The Forum's review involved: the circulation in August and September 2006 of a questionnaire to potential employers of groundwater specialists (to approximately 240 organisations in the water industry, the public sector and the environmental consultancy field); plus, insights into the underlying reasons for recruitment difficulties from published articles and from informal discussions through the Forum's network of contacts.

Responses to the questionnaire were received from 13 organisations (~5% return). Although a small number, the results are consistent in many aspects. The review has found that a significant number of the recruitment exercises reported on (59%) did not result in the positions being filled or, where they were filled, recruits had lower levels of skills or experience than initially wanted by the employers. This was the case with posts across all levels of experience although it was a particular problem at more senior levels.

The recruitment problem stems from the increased demand for groundwater specialists due to greater awareness of groundwater issues, pressure to develop new water resources and the requirements of legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive and Habitats Directive. The majority of those who completed the questionnaire believe this demand will only increase further in the future. The main reasons given as to why this demand is not currently being met were the shortage of graduates from relevant university courses and the lack of people entering the profession, primarily because of pay levels. The number of postgraduate groundwater-related courses has increased in recent years although this still does not appear to be producing enough graduates to meet the demand. In the case of at least one university, the limitation on places on the Hydrogeology MSc course is the inadequate numeracy skills of the applicants. In relation to the issue of pay levels, employers report that salaries have increased significantly in response to the competition for recruits and that progression within organisations for groundwater specialists is fast. Employers are also addressing the lack of suitable candidates by undertaking more training of existing staff and recruiting from overseas, particularly the rest of Europe.

Sponsorship of staff and students to undertake relevant postgraduate courses has also been identified as a means to address the lack of suitable job candidates. Many respondents expressed the view that the number of students graduating from groundwater-related postgraduate degree courses needs to increase. This would address to some degree the difficulties in finding junior level candidates, but would take some time to filter through to more senior level posts. The survey has indicated that employers may be receptive to increasing their sponsorship of students if they could ensure direct benefits to themselves.

The implications of this review are serious, indicating the great difficulty that will be experienced in the future in managing the groundwater resources of the UK, given the reported shortfall in adequately trained personnel. Through the review the UK Groundwater Forum has identified a number of initiatives that it is considering to help address the problems being experienced by employers:

  • Examine what support the Forum can give to universities and careers officers to help promote applications to groundwater-related postgraduate courses from undergraduates with adequate numeracy skills;
  • Lobby influential organisations to try to increase the number of studentships offered to students on groundwater-related post-graduate courses, e.g NERC;
  • Explore opportunities to broker financial support for studentships by employers of groundwater specialists;
  • Continue to provide careers information through the UK Groundwater Forum web site.
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