Addressing the Principal Designer Skills Shortage

Reading the consultation documents for Building a Safer Future it is refreshing to see a drive to increase knowledge across the construction sector. In particular we are facing a huge skills shortage in the role of principal designer (PD) under the Construction Design Management Regulations (2015) (CDM), with many boasting experience over little to no design knowledge, that being said some are extremely professional and talented but I would say this is the exception rather than the norm.

Addressing the Principal Designer Skills Shortage

I think it is no secret that the sector is slow to change. Perhaps largely down to a complacency and subsequently laziness in approach to change. Naturally when we find our comfort zone and understanding we are inclined to stay in that safe zone... it's easy, it's safe. It's also a productive zone, but not a long-term solution. If we don't challenge ourselves, we will never move forwards or find new ways that may be even better. Making tools from stones, learning to fly and making it to the moon are just a mere few examples. Challenging ourselves, for a greater good or even necessity perhaps started with a thought and a dream with this new knowledge passed down to survive and grow.

I have found our recruitment for the right CDM & PD consultant a real challenge. Whilst I have met with many talented people and interesting individuals there is a real split between those who are safety biased and those who are design biased, with the latter very rare. The challenge I can see is for those who are in the thick of their H&S careers, holding NEBOSH diploma or MSc (or equivalent) how or what motivation is there to re-enter self-study to gain the design knowledge and where might it come from? My personal experience is that this can take up to 6 years. 

Rightly the HSE identify the PD as a person who is a "designer". This is further discussed in the Building a Safer Future consultation. Someone with the experience and knowledge of design that they can have input over the design. RIBA recently provided input into a CONIAC (Construction Industry Advisory Committee) document discussing the integration of CDM15 over the past few years, they were highly critical of the CDM Adviser citing a tendency to focus on trivial safety matters ('From Compliance to Consultation & Collaboration', March 19) I was somewhat bereaved to read it but know of the message they are trying to teach.

That's not to say that all PD's must now be Chartered Engineers or Architects by Monday next week but there is a fundamental understanding of first principles in these professional qualifications. This understanding and knowledge assists in a mindset change from hazard management to risk management and an ability to understand and challenge the proportionality of the controls being designed. Holding fundamental knowledge on engineering and design principles provides a firm foundation to be able to interrogate designs. Fundamental practices of ALRAP (As Low as is Reasonably Practicable) and Newton's Law, case studies like Piper Alpha and the Silver Bridge disaster give a depth NEBOSH could never touch and leapfrog experience when applied correctly. 

As principal designers we are responsible for the design stage and we must seek to increase our knowledge dramatically. The role is a professional role with its own career path and an integral part of the design team, and it should be marketed it as such. We should seek out the emerging talent who have the degrees and masters in design qualifications and entice them into the industry. We should be proud to pass on our skills and knowledge under a developed career framework and refrain from unrealistic 10, 20, 30 years of experience before being deemed "competent". My fear is, if we continue the current trend of a NEBOSH certificate and 20 years’ experience, we will have no principal designers to fill the roles in the future. Much less to carry out the critical role of ensuring fire safety has been duly considered in a HRRB (High Rise Residential Buildings).

Application of these principles is key and ever evolving. Our role and duty now is to pass on the knowledge, mentoring and supporting the next generation. Making them better than us so our designs are better and safer than before.

Author details:

James Hymers
Associate Health & Safety Consultant
Pick Everard

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