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Developing skills

Environment Agency

Recently, the Society officially endorsed the Environment Agency's Technical Development Framework. Here, Agency's Chris Thomas+, Mike Harget# and Matt Whitehead* discuss the Agency's approach to skills development.

Geoscientist 18.5 May 2008

Estimates suggest that the "environment industry" in England and Wales is worth over £1 billion annually, yet it is often said that there is a shortage of people with the right level of skill and expertise. As the leading public body for protecting and improving the environment in England and Wales, the Environment Agency needs to ensure that our people have the right range of (often very specialised) skills. Consequently, in a rapidly moving context, we need a way to identify, develop and measure these skills.

In the past we have tried to develop consistent standards of work through a range of fairly complex competence frameworks. These did not provide agreement on what standard would be “competent”’, what it meant; how it was assessed; and how knowledge, skills and experience linked in.


“Capabilities” sit at the core of our new approach. These are high level descriptions of key behaviours, skills and knowledge. All of the capabilities needed within our organisation have been integrated into one organisation wide “dictionary”; in effect, a menu from which the skills for any job in the Environment Agency could be selected.

Capabilities are divided into five categories:

  • Personal effectiveness
  • Cross-functional know how
  • Operational and Technical specialist
  • Support specialist
  • Management

Most of the capabilities in the dictionary are deliberately generic, so they can be applied across different roles. This helps staff and managers to identify transferable skills, and do high level workforce and career planning. There are five levels of capability; 1=awareness or novice, 2=basic or being supervised, 3=confident or unsupervised, 4=distinguished or local expert and 5=national expert.

Each job profile now lists the most relevant capabilities. These also define “entry” (which of the five levels you should be at when starting the job) and “expected” (which of the five levels of capability you should be at to be doing a good job) levels of capability.

Environment Agency


Technical Development Frameworks

Our technical teams needed a clearer definition of the outputs and outcomes for specific technical and cross-functional capabilities, so individuals and managers could better judge levels of performance and development. In order to meet these needs we have produced a suite of Technical Development Frameworks.

A Technical Development Framework (TDF) is a tool that helps individuals and teams identify and develop the precise skills and know-how they need to do their jobs better. The TDF gives us greater confidence in measuring the capability of our officers. Like the capability dictionary, the TDF is built around a common format, containing descriptions of activities, tasks and indicators at each level of capability.

Groundwater and Contaminated Land Teams

The Agency's Groundwater and Contaminated Land teams contain many individuals with a geologically-based degree. These teams, and this area of work externally, have historically had problems recruiting and retaining officers with the necessary levels of expertise.

Capabilities are the core of an overall programme covering attraction, selection, training and workforce planning. We have a Geoscience Careers site to give potential applicants more information about our work. A “Handbook” for GWCL officers has been produced, including:

  • an overview of the team, its work areas and links with other teams
  • the TDF itself
  • a suite of “Quick Guides” giving basic information on each of the work areas undertaken by the team and linked to an Elearning package.
  • a suite of coaching / mentoring sheets. For each key work area we have developed sheets for levels 2 and 3 capability to support a formal national coaching network.
  • quick reference sheets showing how documents, coaching sheets and technical training courses interact.
  • some module handbooks for our key technical training courses.
Officers can insert relevant evidence as they develop and progress in their career. By collating all this information we can assess the capability of our workforce. This has underpinned a workforce plan, setting out our needs in 2011/12. From this we are able to target resources for training and mentoring. To this end we are supporting the technical training of our officers by developing a bespoke part-time MSc in conjunction with University of West England (UWE). We hope to have enough modules developed by April 2009 for our officers to be able to be awarded an MSc in Environmental Management.


The Environment Agency supports the professionalism of its workforce, and pays for one membership per employee. Therefore, it was important for us to ensure that the TDF could link to professional recognition. We approached the Geological Society to seek endorsement of our TDF. This has now been achieved and is a major step forward for us. It demonstrates our proactive approach to dealing with the skills shortages that we face. It reflects the professionalism of the officers within these teams, as it will act as a stepping stone towards Chartered Status. We are also able to award the title “Practising Geologist”, again endorsed by the Society, to officers who meet a prescribed level of capability.

We believe we are developing an exemplary approach to developing the skills we need to drive our business forward. We have developed a cohesive, comprehensive development programme for individuals, teams and national groups through skill-based workforce plans, designed to meet our organisation's changing needs. We would encourage industry to follow this lead and promote professionalism across all geological disciplines.

+ Head of Business, Geoscience, Environment Agency, Olton Court, Solihull, West Midlands, B92 7HX; # Technical Manager – Geoscience, Environment Agency, Manley House, Sowton Industrial Estate, Exeter, Devon, EX2 7LQ; * Technical Advisor – Geoscience, Coverdale House, Amy Johnson Way, Clifton Moor, York YO30 4UZ.