Shirley Parsons talks to IOSH Jobs about the challenges and highlights of the past 15 years in OSH recruitment.
What attracted you to set up a recruitment business for the OSH profession?
With a degree in chemistry and a Masters in pollution and environmental control, my first venture into health and safety recruitment followed a lightbulb moment over a curry with the directors of a health and safety consultancy I worked for in the late 1990s. A number of clients had mentioned the challenges they faced in recruiting good health and safety professionals and I suddenly realised we could provide a specialist health and safety recruitment service. Initially working for the consultancy, Shirley Parsons Ltd was created on 1 October 2005 with just two staff. I found I had a natural flair for remembering things about people; I love interacting with clients and candidates, I find them fascinating and no two days are the same.
What did recruitment in OSH look like 15 years ago?
Recruitment was simpler 15 years ago, there were more permanent roles, and we had fewer competitors. We would place adverts in magazines and journals, and these would generate nearly all our candidate interest. In fact, I clearly remember the first advert I ever placed happened to be in IOSH magazine. It was the January 1998 edition and my advert slogan was ‘New Year, New Job?’ for a contract position in Portugal. However the magazine publication date was brought forward and came out on 24 December, so I spent the whole of Christmas Eve on the phone!
What were your expectations before you started your business and what was your first impression of OSH?
Survival was my first expectation! I think we really wanted to help people; we had a good business model and made sure we prioritised keeping in touch with people. It was all about building long term relationships.
Health and safety professionals tend to be very personable, open, friendly and polite; they don’t mess you about. Due to the nature of the job they are genuinely interested in helping people and making a difference to quality of life.
What was the biggest challenge and what were the highlights?
After selling my previous joint venture I think the biggest challenge was ‘going it alone’. Wondering where the business was going to come from, balancing getting the right placements with getting the cash in, dealing with all the administration and red tape while trying to put on a positive professional front.
I would say the key to our success and growth has been the recruitment of talented people focused on the delivery of a high quality service. Four staff members have been with us from the first few months, and we've gone on to recruit 65 other staff in offices in Aylesbury and Reading in the UK, Boston and LA in the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Taiwan.
What do you wish you’d known before setting up a business in health and safety?
I think when we first set up we were totally naive, and it was the actual day-to-day logistics of running a business that proved difficult, rather than the health and safety recruitment.
My Chartered Membership of IOSH has been a real positive for the business – a unique selling point, enabling us to really understand the roles we are recruiting for, to have access to members through conferences and seminars and keep in touch through networking. Prior to COVID-19 I had lost count of the number of dinners, exhibitions and events I’d attended, enabling us to establish an OSH network which is second to none. Over our 15 years in business we have helped more than 3000 people gain new roles.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected recruitment in OSH?
I think the biggest change has been interviews taking place online, with offers being made without ever having met the candidate face-to-face. That said, with more senior placements, because of our on-going depth of connection with our candidates, we’ve been able to rely on our previous knowledge to guarantee their integrity to go for high level roles.
With regards to demand, it depends on the sector of course, and service industries have been disproportionately affected, but Health & Safety professionals have, on the whole, seen good retention. There has been some additional demand for candidates on a contract basis for roles such as COVID risk assessors, especially at institutions such as universities and laboratories.
That said, there has been a downturn and we’ve had to make use of the Furlough scheme. However, the whole company has bonded, and the team building that has carried on, especially through the early days of lockdown, has helped with morale.
Most memorable candidate?
There has been so many! I do remember a candidate who had been out of work for a couple of years, having been forced to leave his previous company (he subsequently won a tribunal) but struggled to get work. After talking to him I realised he was very genuine and subsequently managed to get him a good placement which was really satisfying. Helping people out when they’re struggling and have lost confidence is a real motivator. By working with someone, coaching them, you can bring out their best and get them back on track!
What are you proudest of professionally?
Being recognised as an authority in my field. I get a real kick when clients listen to our advice and act on it. When we carry out client feedback surveys, the responses are so positive.
What are some of the life lessons you would pass on to someone wanting to set up on their own?
You need to be strong, resilient, and persevere – it’s not for the fainted hearted! You’ve got to be convinced that you can do a good job for people. It’s much more rewarding setting up your own business, but it’s definitely not the easy option.
You need a strong set of values, be trustworthy, firm but fair, empathetic but not a push over, as people will mess you about. You have to learn to say ‘no’ sometimes, but you can do it in a nice way!
What has been your experience as a woman working in the OSH industry?
At the beginning of my career it was far more male dominated, but I used that to my advantage as it was easier to be noticed and memorable. The situation is improving but there still aren’t enough female candidates – only 22% of health and safety personnel are female. We quite often get asked for female candidates, even though companies aren’t supposed to do that, because women have more empathy, they’re better at listening. I think the younger generation of health and safety personnel, both men and women, have those skills; it’s definitely going in the right direction.
What do you think can be done to create a more diverse OSH industry?
Industry leaders across all sectors, not just health and safety, need to have the will to give more opportunity and encourage diversity. At Shirley Parsons, we take the time to really get to know and understand our candidates so that we can sell them into companies based on their merits, not just their experience. We also encourage our candidates to have the confidence to apply for jobs – women are far more likely to doubt their potential for a role.
I think the ability to combine a career in health and safety with a family life is helping to attract more women to the sector, and the job is relatively well paid. That said, it is a vocation, and if people don’t have the passion for it they’ll get caught out very quickly.
With more and more young people becoming interested in OSH, what advice do you have for them?
Be inquisitive: research the sector. There are so many ways to learn these days. I would recommend trying to find a mentor and to shadow someone in a current health and safety role – there is no substitute for hands-on experience, though I appreciate this is very difficult in the current pandemic.
The last 15 years have demonstrated the need for excellent health and safety people, and IOSH membership has almost doubled in this time. Support is readily available in this sector, and mentors will help you through the qualifications, which is not necessarily the case in other professions. It’s a really worthwhile role; you’re helping people, saving lives, and saving companies from litigation. You’re making a difference that has positive outcomes for everyone.
To celebrate its 15-year anniversary, the Shirley Parsons team has been taking part in fundraising activities during October. The aim is to raise £1500 for PACE, a local charity providing specialist education and therapy to children with motor disorders. If you'd like to, you can support them here.