Does A Degree Matter?
In the mid-part of the 20th century, with reinforcement of Heinrich's research, and with Bird reiterating the importance of human factors in preventing incidents, the breadth of the health and safety field increased significantly, and with this came the need for more specialised educational requirements. Tertiary qualified fields such as psychology, risk management, ergonomics, well-being, communications and change management were being tailored to the context of health and safety. The idea was that incidents and 'loss' could be further reduced if those responsible for doing in the workplace had higher levels of education.
Historically though there's been a tendency for health and safety personnel to be sourced from field-experienced employees, not from a university background. Employers believed that these employees were sufficiently 'educated' by their experience in the workplace and that they brought with them an understanding, pragmatism and insight into the real challenges of the workplace and were ultimately knowledgeable on the specific risks and countermeasures necessary in that workplace that university educated employees didn't have.
These employees were, more often than not, exceptional communicators who were acknowledged by their peers as "one of the team" and were perceived by the workforce as individuals who genuinely cared about the welfare of their friends and peers. If they had any safety education at all, it was likely self-initiated through attendance at whatever short courses in health and safety was close-by or that were mandated provided by a regulatory requirement. These employees came 'off-the-tools' in engineering, maintenance, operations or other trade qualified jobs and in some cases even from administrative or assurance backgrounds to health and safety but whatever the background, their education tended to be practical and workplace-based, not in a classroom.
Over the past 10 years though, with the increasing availability and prevalence of formal education in health and safety at a university level, came the discussion of what is the 'right' level of education for health and safety professionals.
With a quick search, it's easy to find health and safety related training (classroom or online). These courses range from a basic awareness course to a PhD level. More and more H&S professionals are taking the initiative to obtain tertiary (university) qualifications specifically related to health and safety.
Correspondingly, there is an increasing tendency for employers to mandate university degrees as a basic requirement to for their health and safety employees before they can be considered as 'professionals'. What this has resulted in is the reality (and you need only trawl the job-boards to confirm it), that without a degree it's much more difficult to get work that it was 10 years ago.
I also believe that increased focus on university education is the result of professional organisations (IOSH, IIRSM, ASSE, SPE) efforts to change the perceptions of health and safety (as a cost to the business) adds value similar to other technical professions such as engineering or accounting. The mission of these organizations is noble, but I believe that their mission somewhat skews the what it means to be a health and safety professional.
The question for me personally is whether university educated professionals are adding value that non-university degree professionals are not. To me, the answer is quite simply no. I firmly believe that it's purely dependent on the H&S professionals themselves, their skillset, experience and their abilities specific to what the organizational need. Some organizations need strategists, some need doers, some need problem solvers, some need communicators - every organization is different, and their mission should be to find professionals that are the right fit for their organization. Where there is a business need for highly educated professionals, get them, where there's a need for employees that have less formal education, but excellent field or trade experience and the personal attributes for health and safety, get them.
Also, we must understand that history is peppered with hugely successful people that don't have university educations, so for me it sets a dangerous precedent in only permitting university educated personnel to enter and progress our profession. 'Education' comes in many forms, and we don't know what successes we might be missing if we narrow our search before we understand all aspects of the potential employees, not just whether or not they have a degree.
I think it's critically important that we, as a profession, first reinforce to business leaders the importance of not undervaluing the practical, proactive, pragmatic, collegial and 'can-do' attitudes of health and safety professionals from all educational backgrounds, including those with lesser levels of education and that 'adding value' also takes many forms. Some people might not have access to higher levels of education, but they could sell ice to an eskimo, and sometimes in health and safety - that's exactly what we need.