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Looking for work as a Health and Safety professional during a pandemic

Written by Nicola Nicholson Prof Dip (SHEM) MIIRSM

Writing this article on 23 March 2021, the first anniversary since the first UK lockdown, seems pertinent.

I left my last job on the 11 March 2020, with the full expectation of finding another suitable position without too much hardship. I say this without being conceited, but being confident of my skills and abilities. Little did I (or anybody else for that matter) realise that in two weeks’ time, the entire United Kingdom would be under lockdown measures. This brought about legislation in the form of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020. Never has legislation moved so swiftly in the health and safety arena.

What did this mean for me and my job search?

Most, if not all employers put recruitment on hold, and as a result, there were few to no jobs available. This meant that not only of the few jobs that I saw as being suitable for me, were also now suitable for other candidates out there who were in a similar position to me, which resulted in a very competitive market.

According to data obtained from the ONS, there were 60% fewer jobs on the market during this period, compared to the previous year.

During the early part of lockdown, I did secure 1 telephone interview, which basically ended there. Weeks went by before another suitable post came up. So far, I’ve managed 5 interviews, and all but one said that I was the number 2 candidate. Cold comfort when there’s only one prize on offer, but it did my confidence good, as it proved to me that I was at least doing something right, and heading in the right direction. However, during this time, I noticed a few trends occurring.

Employers had a buyers’ market, which in itself is not a bad thing, but this did lead to a good number of employers acting very unprofessionally. Examples included being completely ignored (when you followed up on applications, especially in the form of written communications such as email). When I used to telephone, this was met with a laissez faire attitude in some cases, and downright condescending in others.

Sloppy job adverts, where it is up to you to interpret what the employer wants because the person putting the job description together either has very little, or no understanding of how the job spec scans with the person specification. Another interesting but annoying one, is the job advert that is a copy and paste job of the person who is leaving, along with all of their relevant or irrelevant qualifications/expertise and membership entitlements. What the employer wants in that case is another identical person to the one leaving i.e.: A Clone.

Interviews via zoom/teams/skype (when you’ve got no IT department to assist you), leading to getting unbelievably stressed because you know that if you mess it up, you won’t be able to *attend* the interview* which can lead to the position going to someone else.

Presenting to an audience during a live Teams interview is pretty daunting too, especially bearing in mind that whilst you’re doing this, you cannot see anybody’s faces (this is a home version of Teams), so can’t tell until after you’re finished, how well or not, it went. I couldn’t manage to get my system to work for one interview, and ended up having to dial in.

Cold calls or cold emails from recruiters, who insist on using a nickname for you, and having no clear understanding of what it is you’re looking for in terms of work. They’d rather do a key word search, in the hope that you’ll be interested or a perfect fit for the role they’re recruiting for, without checking over your CV. There has been literally one exception to this, and He was superb, and utterly professional. It’s a shame there aren’t more like him.

Job adverts were interesting to say the least. A good example would be seeing a job advertised offering a salary of between 30-50K, which tells you what exactly? In my case, I run the other way, as I know from first-hand experience that the employer didn’t know what they wanted so were casting their net wide, in the hope that *someone* would take. I’ve had this experience where you attend an interview, get told they’ll let you know within a week, only to be told that they want to interview more candidates. In one case, this went on for 3 weeks, when eventually they decided to start on second interviews. By the time they reached the 3rd candidate, they stopped all further interviews and I was out of the running. This entire process took 5 weeks from start to finish. No doubt some employers hired someone, but were they the right candidate?  If a company can’t sit down and take some time to determine what it is, they’re looking for, why should I apply, in the hope that I’ll be your catch of the day. Personally, my applications are very targeted as I don’t just want a job, I want the right one for me.

Another example was having little to no understanding of the qualifications and knowledge that a Health and Safety professional required, and again, this resulted in job adverts that were so sloppy in a lot of cases, to a few that were so restrictive that I kept seeing the post being re-advertised with slightly different wording a few weeks later.

What about employers who don’t actually want the health and safety specialist they are advertising for? The person they really want is a chemist, CNC expert, nuclear physicist or whatever the employer’s core business happens to be. This person will then get the H&S manager’s title. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my freelance work it’s that my clients didn’t need another expert in what they do; what they needed was an expert in relating what they do to how that complies with the HS&E legislation.

A further aspect were those jobs where employers will not accept C.V.’s so you’re forced to type out paragraph after paragraph about how your skills and qualifications match their person/job specification. One of these posts resulted in complete and utter radio silence, not even a thank you but no thanks. Bear in mind that a lot of these types of recruitment processes are lengthy, some of which span 10 or more pages, all of which has to be typed up. The candidate spends a lot of effort putting these applications together, which leads me to another employer. I spent a week completing and refining all the sections of the application, and within 2 days of my application being received by them, I got rejected by a bot! 

I followed up on one of these applications, requesting feedback. Again, a pre-programmed bot was all I got back stating *we don’t provide feedback*. I’ve committed this company’s details to memory, and no matter how attractive a job looks with them, I won’t apply because of the way they treat people.

I cannot begin to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced this what this feels like. The effect on your mental wellbeing is huge, especially when you know that you’ll have to do this all over again (possibly many times) until you secure that job. Your days are focused on job searches, and when a job comes up that you’re a good fit for, your work begins to delve deeper into the company, and find out as much about them as possible so that you’re interview fit. The anxiety is almost constant. You can’t really relax until you hear that you’ve either secured or not, that interview. Once the interview happens, the next wave of anxiety hits, until you hear back from the company. If negative, you have to analyse what you could have done better or what you could have changed. Sometimes you’re not given any feedback, so you’re left floundering in the dark, and so the cycle goes on, It’s relentless.

I understand recruiters and HR personnel are busy, but surely it cannot be too difficult to have a standardised reply to send out should a candidate be unsuccessful. The only field that would be required would be a name field.

A real bug bear of mine is job titles. This is peculiar to the Health and Safety profession. Looking for a health, safety and environmental manager role, I have to search for co-ordinator, officer, technician, executive, manager, assistant to name but a few as there is no consistency amongst employers or recruiters.

Lastly, and this is a huge one for me. My skills and experience mean that I am a Health and Safety professional so why do we not have our own category when it comes to jobs’ portals?  Every single sector is listed, apart from health and safety. Due to the nature of job adverts, most recruiters use the phrase *health and safety* somewhere in their job description, whether that’s for a toolmaker or shop manager (even though Health and safety is a mandatory training requirement by all employers) recruiters insist on using this phrase in some form or other so that means as a job seeker, I have to trawl through and filter out irrelevant job adverts that bear no resemblance to what I’m looking for. E.g.:  A Health, Safety and Environmental Manager job is the one I would be looking for, using those key words, and title search. What comes up is anything that uses the phrase *manager* or *health* or *safety* or *environmental*, usually in the description section, which is not what I was searching for, hence loads of wasted time and frustration.

I’ve contacted one well known online jobs portal about this before, but they weren’t so keen on allowing H&S professionals to have their own sector specific category. It’s about time that recruiters and the companies that operate these websites, gave us some credence, and for recruiters/HR professionals to be, well, professional. Afterall, I have to be when communicating with them/submitting my C.V. and subsequent written communications.

Nicola Nicholson MIIRSM

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