This is a debate that’s likely as old as the profession itself & really does divide opinion with passionate arguments made for both.
First, let me give my opinion on this. If you’re new to the profession, I would recommend academic study in the first instance, learn the fundamentals of legislation & then look to gain the experience in a Trainee or Coordinator type of role. We should never consider ourselves a fully-fledged Advisor, Manager just because we hold an entry level qualification like a NEBOSH Certificate.
Health & Safety is such a far-reaching profession, there so much to learn that the journey is never over, nobody knows everything. Getting a mentor can greatly help, you’ll be able to pull on their experience & knowledge whilst at the same time making your own choices. It’s important when selecting a mentor that its not someone guiding you on their own biases. The Health & Safety profession can be quite odd at times, there’s some incredible people who represent the profession so well, but then there’s others who don’t. It can be seen as an ‘old boys club’, people can make judgemental derogatory comments on someone else experience or academic achievements whilst telling you how good they are or how their journey is the correct one.
If you choose academic qualifications, you’ll quickly learn what your learning style is, once you’ve figured this out, embrace it & choose your lane with this in mind. The NEBOSH v NVQ, v NCRQ v Degree is one decision that is best made with your learning style at the forefront. Research all options & consider which will work best for your learning style. Always remember ‘square peg round hole’, if something doesn’t fit you, you won’t excel & enjoy the process as you should.
There is no doubt that experience is crucial & should never be discounted. Too often job roles seem to focus on the academic side rather than taking a balanced approach to considering experience in equal measure. If someone has 20 years’ experience in a workplace, there are no training courses or books that’ll provide that level of knowledge, the downside to this is that the experience is centred on one area. Businesses often work to Management Standards such as ISO’s, this is where academic understanding comes into its own, having experience of the ‘shop floor’ wouldn’t be a transferable management skill for this.
Experience will help to build those all-important relationships & raise trust levels. The people we advise, if they know you understand the work & their experiences, the advice you give will stand a greater chance of being taken on board. However, if you’re standing there with a checklist telling them the book you read says they’re doing it wrong, well that’ll never work.
In today’s world, we need to constantly improve & develop to ensure were giving the best possible service. Lots of people entering the profession are understanding & appreciating the world is a bigger place, any information we need is literally at our fingertips. This means as service providers we can get answers in real time, learn in real time & our help is given/taken quicker. This can only be a good thing.
Qualifications v Experience. I believe they need to be 50/50. No one way is better than the other, however, when done together as an ongoing development plan, that creates a more well-rounded balanced Health & Safety Practitioner. The best Practitioners I know consider both Technical & Non-Technical skills development in their careers.
One way the profession can really make great sides is by Apprenticeships. Historically health & safety is a second or third profession, we find ourselves moving into it after an accident or incident or when we know longer have the desire for the physical work. If we made Health & Safety a viable career path at School Leaver/College Level this would essentially remove all arguments around Qualifications vs Experience as both would be gained, it would also open up the profession to a more diverse range of people who could bring new idea & ways of thinking.
***Please note, these are my opinions based on knowledge & experience working for 10 years as a Health & Safety Practitioner***
Neil is a member of the HSE People Panel offering insight into HSE in the rail industry. If you would like to ask Neil or another panel member a question get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org