Obtaining a professional registration (Chartered, Incorporated or Technician) used to be seen as an absolute requirement to work in the water sector. However in recent years the proportion of staff with a formal professional registration has reduced in most organisations. There are several reasons for this including increased specialisation of early career professionals so that they do not achieve the rounded experience needed for a formal professional qualification.

By Martin Osborne

Technical Director WSP

WSP is aiming to reverse this trend with a target of having 60% of technical staff professionally registered by 2020. We believe that a strong, enthusiastic and forward-thinking workforce is a prerequisite to WSP success. Therefore, investing in the development of our early career professionals and more experienced staff is critical to retain the best talent and maintain our competitive edge.

Developing staff to achieve a professional qualification is not something to think about when they have a few years’ experience and are ready to sit the assessment. At WSP we start thinking about it even before they start work with us.

Each year, we look for the brightest and best school- and college-leavers to join our teams, as apprentices combining training with work on exciting projects. A key early part of the apprentice journey is choice of the professional registration that they are aiming for and engagement with the relevant professional institution. We develop discipline specific competency plans; and individual competency plans based on the development requirements of the selected institution.

For graduates joining us, we will already have helped to shape their development through our involvement with university courses either as visiting lecturer or member of an advisory panel helping to shape the content of their course to match the needs of the industry and the challenges that they will face in their first months at work.

When new technical staff join us, their induction process includes encouragement to gain a professional registration and information provided by a range of professional institutions (including the Institute of Water) on the routes to registration and benefits from achieving it. This is the first encouragement to set targets for professional development and find the support to achieve them. We then support them in all aspects of career development to remove all of the barriers to achieving this.

Once staff join us their learning and development continue. We have developed structured training courses that are aligned with the competency requirements of professional institutions. Our Urban Drainage Academy has been running successfully for many years and delivers training matched to the competency requirements for catchment planning. We are now developing parallel courses for water distribution planners and for flood risk management staff. We also offer this training to staff from our key clients, so that our staff understand more of their needs and to ensure our clients understand what we are trying to do for them.

More experienced staff are not left out with regular “lunch and learn” sessions to provide a refresher of existing skills or to provide guidance in new techniques, standards and methodologies. These are provided either as face-to-face sessions or on-line webinars but with interaction through questions and discussion encouraged in both cases.

A key step is to monitor progress with an on-line competency database where all staff record registrations, specialist technical skills and development aims. With this information we can support those wanting to gain a registration and also identify those who could achieve a registration but have not yet started their journey.

We offer support and encouragement through a combination of the Learning and Development team, the line manager and most importantly an experienced mentor from outside of their immediate team. The system also allows experienced staff to register offers of support so that staff can search for a suitable mentor.

We also provide financial incentives with a bonus for both the staff member and their mentor when they gain their target professional registration. For mentors the key incentive is making a difference in helping enrich the personal development of a member of staff. As one of our Senior Engineers put it, “Mentoring broadens the mind and helping others to develop is always rewarding – and gives me the chance to give something back for all the help I received.”

So the journey to professional registration is not a short sprint when you have a few years’ experience, nor is it a lonely journey setting and meeting your own targets. Rather, it is a long-term opportunity for team members to support each other to develop their skills and capabilities.