Degrees of separation

The current OH job market may be buoyant, but do fully-qualified OHAs have
far more opportunities than those with experience, but no degree? By Sara Bean

Just a glance at the expanding job pages in the back of Occupational Health
illustrates two things. First, that there are plenty of jobs in OH, and second,
that many of them are paying good money. And with the increasing emphasis by
the Government on the importance of making an OH service available to as many
people as possible,1,2 demand is growing.

"It is clear that demand is high for well-qualified OH
professionals," says Sabrina Palmer, senior sales executive and project manager
for the recruitment pages of Occupational Health.

Basic OH salaries have increased in line with demand, with, according to the
leading OH recruitment agencies, average salaries for OH advisers at around
£28,000, though it’s becoming standard to see pay rates of £30,000-plus.

Of course, many of these jobs are with blue-chip companies, where money is
no object and who will only appoint a qualified occupational health adviser
(OHA). So does this mean that anyone without a degree need not apply?

Not necessarily, say OH recruitment specialists. Candidates with years of
experience, who can demonstrate continuous learning, are in with a chance, but
the competition will be tough against candidates who perhaps have less
experience but do have that precious degree.

"Why not pay qualified OHAs £30k?" says one OH recruitment
specialist. "Most have two degrees, first in nursing, then in OH or
specialist practice. The likes of Goldman Sachs are looking for expertise in
developing their business strategy and don’t want a hands-on nursing approach.
It’s only old-school candidates that call themselves nurses, as they’re more
focused on a treatment-based practice."

However, some companies will prize practical experience more highly.

"A lot of young people come out with a degree, which is highly
respected," says another recruitment specialist. "But some of my
clients find it difficult to accept that new graduates are qualified without
being fluent in all the necessary practical skills. And when it comes to
nursing skills, there’s the whole area of clinical governance."

There is also the question of the type of course you’ve chosen. Sue Lamb,
director of OH Recruitment, says: "Some of our clients are only looking at
candidates who complete courses that are recordable with the NMC, especially
where employers are healthcare providers. However, where a post is hard to
fill, some providers may offer to help a recruit upgrade from a non-recordable
diploma to a degree in a bid to use candidates with a lot of experience."

Jobs in the public sector are often seen to be less desirable, although
things are changing. "Salary scales in the NHS and local authorities (LA)
do not tend to match up to the private sector," says Jason Atherton, sales
manager for Key People. "But people are more likely to go to them if they
offer services to local businesses."

Marian Corcoran, recruitment manager at Cheviot Recruitment agrees.
"Through the RCN’s Agenda for Change policies,3 both the NHS and LAs, have
hugely increased their appeal, through better pay rates and much sought-after
benefits such as better team-working environments, good pension schemes, more
holidays, professional support and development, and flexible hours."

The big challenge for the profession is in making the route into OH more
accessible. For a qualified RGN to get onto a good OH course, they’ll usually
need to have a placement within an OH department, and that isn’t always easy.
It can be a catch 22 as they haven’t been trained in OH but cannot take up a
training place until they get a job.

Lamb says: "There is the whole problem of learning while working.
However, in places like the NHS or local authority units, candidates can be
readily supervised within a team with well-developed clinical guidance and
benefit from the experience of others."

For those that do manage to bridge the gap between practice and training,
the rewards are there, and even blue-chip companies are being forced to widen
their job remit to attract candidates.

References

1. HSC (2000) Securing Health Together: A Long Term Occupational Health
Strategy for England, Scotland and Wales, HSE

2. HSC (2004) A Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety in Great Britain to
2010 and Beyond, HSE

3. Agenda for Change, RCN, www.rcn.org.uk/agendaforchange

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