It has been some time since there has been any discussion on the benefits of professional standards for the (waste) industry. Back in December 2015’s ‘Inside Waste’ magazine the interview with the then WMAA CEO, Martin Tolar, discussed his aspirations for what WMAA would potentially look like in 12 months, noting that ‘accreditation’ was on his ‘agenda’ and a wish to “create something that will start to see some sort of professional recognition of the skills sets that (WMAA) members have”.

So why am I highlighting this as a critical issue that our sector must formally discuss now? The Four Corners program on 7 August has, in my view, eroded the trust which householders and other stakeholders placed in our industry. The fall of commodity prices and nascent markets for the commodities we collect, along with the operational mechanics of our sector, have come as a shock to our stakeholders. We have seen our sector portrayed as environmental vandals, exploiters and criminals, and has also seen trusted (in my view) members of our sector being cross-examined and even ‘stood-down’. How did it come to this?

Our sector is not alone in losing the trust of its stakeholders. For example, in 2015, we saw Australia’s Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O’Dwyer, respond to the David Murray-led Financial Systems Inquiry.  Her announcement that all financial planning advisors will be required by law from July 2017 to hold a degree (or equivalent), undertake a professional year, pass a national competency examination, commit to continuous professional development and subscribe to a Code of Ethics was not unexpected.  Previously, I just needed to have completed a seven-week course and have an appetite for selling high-commission products to anyone I could in order to call myself a ‘financial advisor’.

So, what is the risk of mandatory or regulatory intervention to our sector? At this stage – low, given the great diversity of the sector and those it employs. That does not mean however, that we should not take the initiative to rebuild trust with our internal (especially our own workforces) and external stakeholders ourselves.

From just a workforce view, we have tremendous growth in a contingent workforce and according to Deloitte’s Head of Human Capital, the shelf-life of our skills is at an all-time low – reducing from around 10-15 years a decade ago to currently around 2-3 years. I believe that certification of professionals in the sector and a robust framework of continuous professional development (CPD) can help us manage these changes rather than simply thinking and referring to them as disruption (which is just code for saying ‘we do not have an appropriate risk management framework’).

Certification can also assist stakeholders to identify experts in the field, which is becoming increasingly difficult at a time where experts are popping up from everywhere and expert opinions are being offered from every keyboard and microphone. Professions are so much more than simply information and opinions, it is about longevity, credibility, a sense of purpose and social standing. Whilst for those who utilize their services, it is about confidence in knowing who the trusted and ethical experts are, and also how that expertise is maintained and who has certified that professional (given every professional has a Code of (Ethical) Conduct which is upheld by a formal complaint mechanism).

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This formal conduct and regulatory/complaints systems is a critical feature which can build trust for a profession (and its sector). This is important given there is undoubtedly a growing rhetoric between ‘trusted advice’ and ‘opinion’ and it is becoming increasingly difficult for stakeholders to differentiate between them, and also assess the risks of receiving and adherence to either.

As an example, a naturopath is required to have met entry requirements through the Institute of Holistic Medicine that includes 450 hours of clinical training.  A barista is required at a minimum to have completed a one-day training course.  Yet anyone can call themselves a waste manager in Australia as there is no entry bar that prevents anyone from claiming that they are a waste management professional as there is no set standard or awarding body.

While the word ‘profession’ means different things to different people, at its core it must indicate trust and expertise. Knowledge and expertise are changing rapidly, and while it is generally understood that simply deriving an income from a particular task may make you an ‘expert’ or ‘good at your job’ – being a ‘professional’ has a broader meaning. Back to moral and ethical conduct and I would suggest, the undertaking of CPD to maintain currency.

Other sectors in Australia have recognised and embraced certification and I would be lying if I said this road was easy, did not require vast resources and, in at least two cases with which I am personally familiar, the process can easily divide a membership. But it can be done and there are examples of our sector achieving this outside of Australia for example, the U.K.’s Chartered Institution of Waste Managers.

As a proud Chartered Waste Manager (with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management) I am one individual who believes that the professional recognition of industry practitioners is an essential part of developing the waste/resource management sector.  As a sector, we need to have a serious discussion whether certification is necessary and the nature of that certification. Indeed, just because it works for, and is jealously guarded by other professions does not mean that it is right for us. But for those pondering this question, let me reflect on my own status as a Chartered Waste Manager.

I worked hard – it is not something they give out lightly. I had the relevant qualifications and the years of experience in the industry before I could even apply, and the achievement is supported by undertaking a mandatory minimum of 30 hours of CPD annually, which must include elements of WHS and the principles of the circular economy.

So, is it worth it? In my view, yes. It differentiates me, and in the U.K. it was a specified requirement for at least two of the jobs I held. Without it, my job choice and even remuneration would have been impacted. In both cases, my employer knew I had a minimum level of knowledge and years of industry experience and could both apply and articulate those factors. Essentially, I was a tried and tested commodity, independently verified by three industry peers and underwritten by a respected institution.

Without a standard, being a waste management professional is not taken seriously. This is my experience of the Australian market. But despite this lack of recognition here in Australia, there are nearly 20 Chartered Waste Managers (CIWM) and over 20 Certified International Waste Managers (ISWA). The issue for many of us residing in Australia is finding appropriate ‘Australia- contented’ training courses, conferences, webinars and other forms of learning to meet our CPD requirements. Yet we all hold onto our certification and pay our annual membership fees diligently – clearly it is valued.

The truth is we live in a highly credentialed world which expects certainty and advice from those individuals with proven skills sets. Professional industry bodies and institutions have a critical role in raising the prestige and professionalism of the industry and/or individuals that they represent.  As such, associations tend to be governed by their members and therefore reflect the requirements of the industry as perceived through its members, be those individuals, corporate organisations or a mixture of both.

Being a member of a professional body does make a statement about an individual’s professional capabilities and commitment to an industry, but only in an industry which recognises its value.   Evidence does support professional memberships and industry bodies, and as more members of an association become professionally recognised, the lobbying power of that sector is shown to be increased with the influence of the association being directly proportional to the (size and status of the) membership.  This approach may increase Australia’s waste sector’s lobbying power and perception by key decision makers, and create a more measured and consistent policy and regulatory approach. Certainly, we need all the tools and trust we can muster at our disposal, particularly given our role in the protection of the environment and human health, so let’s open this discussion in the sector before we see mandatory regulation (such as that applied across several Australian jurisdictions to Contaminated Land Auditors) and let’s get our house in order.