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Plan EH workforce the way NHS does

Strategic management of workforce is needed to address worrying EHP shortage
01 July 2021 , Katie Coyne

A shortage of qualified EH professionals could be addressed more strategically in a similar way to how the NHS manages future doctors and nurses, says FSA ceo Emily Miles.

Miles was speaking at the CIEH food safety conference on Tuesday (29 June) where she quoted the “fascinating and worrying” statistics the institute has gathered on the workforce.

She highlighted the 18% decline, over nine years, in the number of food safety and hygiene officers, and the fact that half of local authorities are not supporting the training of a new generation of EHPs. 

Miles, whose full presentation has been posted here, said: “There needs to be a more strategic view of the workforce, similar to how the NHS managing the future doctors and nurses: they think ahead about who is getting trained, the number of university places there are, and what funding is available.

“Local authorities need to be part of this strategic approach, particularly given their new post-Brexit regulatory responsibilities that are falling to the FSA and local authorities.”

Miles praised the profession for its frontline, emergency response to COVID-19 and dealing with “fast changing” regulations and multiple government departments.

She added: “I find the stories I hear from the environmental health profession incredibly moving. Throughout the pandemic I have seen it in the Food Standards Agency, local authorities, and the food industry as well.

“You see ordinary people doing extraordinary things - and doing it to serve the people we want to make a difference for, the people of our country. Because people needed us, and it was necessary, and it was for the right reasons. I feel very proud.”

Debate around helping EH graduates gain experience so they can access the profession was discussed the following day at the conference where the question was asked: How can you overcome the issue of graduates in environmental health not being able to get a job due to a lack of experience?

CIEH Wales director Kate Thompson said the institute hears this story regularly. She said: “What we hear from local authorities is that we can't get the people. We hear from new graduates: we can't get the jobs.

“And I think it is a combination of factors here. I think that it’s employers – there’s a tendency to want to employ people that can hit the ground running. I think there is an issue in some authorities that they don't have the resources to mentor and to develop new officers. It is a bit of a conundrum.”

Thompson asked whether it was something about the graduates coming through today, or simply that departments needed people to hit-the-ground running.

Ian Andrews - head of trading standards and commercial EH at the London Borough of Greenwich – gave a presentation on investigating severe allergic reactions but also took part in the panel discussions.

Andrews said this was a “very nuanced question” and that you would receive different answers from around the country, and the type of authority.

But he added: “I'm actually disappointed on behalf of the person who posed that question, because if local authorities and professions know that there's a shortage of individuals, all it takes is someone just to offer a few months experience. That's assuming that someone is in a position to do that voluntarily.”

Andrews said there should “always be lots of effort made” to try and help someone gain the experience they need.

“We hear of cases where someone's gone and successfully got an EH qualification or a degree, and then they turn away from the profession - we just have to avoid that from happening because these are people who are coming into an exciting profession, have got the right motivation - and for someone to do a U-turn and walk away or not be able to break into a network is a real shame.” 

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