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Talking Skills with RSK

A case study interview with Sue Slijvic, Director at RSK

What is the history of RSK? How did it begin and how has the business got to where it is today?


We started out in 1989 and were set up by Alan Ryder. He’d finished his PhD in environmental assessment and pipelines at Aberdeen University and persuaded his ecological professor to join him in founding a company. There you have the R and the K. I’m the S and I joined them in November that year. I was working with Alan on an ethylene pipeline as a landscape architect and he said why don’t you join me. He gave me 10% of the company and his old car in exchange for my new one, which might not sound like the best deal but I saw it as an opportunity, so I moved north to give it a go! I was based here, in Helsby, and he was based in Aberdeen.

We specialised in pipeline projects originally, as there were a lot going on at the time and that’s where our experience was. Not surprisingly, we were very reliant on oil and gas to begin with and also on cables for the "new Internet”! It became obvious that we needed to diversify to secure our future, so we joined with a company in the property sector, the idea being that if oil and gas were down housing was likely to be up and our risks would be spread. The property company came with an American partner. We’ve joined with companies that have led to American partners twice now, but, in both cases, we exercised the option to buy our shares back, which means we are still a wholly employee-owned company. There are 15–16 of us on the RSK group board but we now have 30–40 sub-companies.

Currently, a lot of our work is still with the energy sector, including renewables and nuclear, but we have branched out into transport too. There are more transport projects going on; we’re heavily involved in the Mersey Gateway project and HS2 is a big project for us. Things are very exciting at the moment in RSK! 

Do you do much work abroad? 

Yes, we have been working abroad since the early 1990's. However, more recently, in 2008 with the UK economy on a downturn, we decided to focus more on international expansion. We already had some contracts across Europe, but we opened new offices abroad and planned to diversify our services. In the end, what actually happened was that we picked up more contracts from the gas and oil industry so we ended up diversifying clients instead! We also made the decision to move into Iraq because we saw that there were clients struggling to get on the ground because of contamination issues and decontaminating land is one of the things we do. We now have 50 employees over there and we’ve set up the first UKAS-accredited laboratory in the country. We recently received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade for our work over there. It’s great that the work we’re doing in Iraq has been formally recognised.

So, what sort of activities does RSK carry out?

Most of our services are associated with soil and our (people’s) interaction with soil. So, if there’s a problem with the ground that will cause a problem for developers then we work hard to sort it out.

"Simply put our focus is soil and the way humans interact with soil.”

What sorts of things are wrong with soil?

There are lots of differences between the ground in different sites and reasons why it might or might not be suitable for specific uses. There could be geological hazards in the area or buried historical remains. The soil could be fertile for growing plants or not; it could also be contaminated with chemicals. We analyse the soil and if needed, treat and clean it. There can also be a huge diversity of life on a site, so we will look at all the plants, bugs and animals that live on it and ensure that protected species are safely rehoused or relocated! We oversee construction and make sure that contractors do what they said they would in their planning application. Once we’ve analysed a site and helped with any changes that needed making, we help to put it back together, landscape it and look after it afterwards. 

How many staff do you have at RSK and what are their different job roles? 

Here in our head office in Helsby, we have about 120 staff. Overall, we have around 1200 people working for us. Typically, we employ graduates. Most of our managers are technically trained. They have come up through a specialism; we say we deal in "isms” and "ologys”! It used to be that we employed people with master’s degrees but now we take them when they’ve just graduated so we can give them the technical skills they require. 

Of course, alongside these employees we have a lot of people working in administration and support services. We rely a lot on our direct sales team who build relationships with clients. We have a team to write our largest tenders and a marketing team to create our brochures and manage our social media. We have human resources department, finance, accounts and credit control departments too. We have quite a big IT department, as we do quite a lot of IT development ourselves. We now have a subsidiary company called Business Solutions Ltd in India that has 80 people who do apps and IT developments for their clients and what we need for our clients. As we are quite a flexible company, we have lots of spin-offs that are part owned by directors or bits of the company. For example, we have a spin-off that is an aerial inspection company with a drone! 

Have you taken on apprentices?

We do. We have a laboratory in Hyde that tests soil that takes on apprentices. So does our drilling company, Structural Soils.

What jobs/skills do you see yourself needing more of moving forward?

We don’t have enough structural engineers or skilled noise technicians, asbestos surveyors or CAD technicians. It’s difficult to get people to fill these roles, especially in the South. We’ve opened an office in Wigan and our Hemel Hempstead office sends work up to Wigan, as you can find people to do the work they require up here! It’s very expensive to have an office in Central London, so many companies would actually rather not be there. I was talking to one of the large engineering companies in London and they say their London office would be unsustainable without their Polish CAD team: all their CAD work goes to Warsaw. The bright young people over there are very dynamic and well educated. It’s very vibrant in Warsaw; I haven’t felt that buzz at all over here. Of course, it’s cheaper out there too. 

"Young people should have more confidence to approach businesses and tell them ‘you want me!’”

Is there anything missing in the young people coming out of school or university today?

Well, the graduates we get have come through a long recruitment process and they are outstanding. I think to some extent young people today just need more confidence and social skills, the softer skills. They could come and knock on my door and say, "You need me; I am enthusiastic and you want me.” But, I’m not sure any young people have the confidence to do that. I’m not saying it would work every time of course but not many people try! I think more teaching about how to come into an interview and not just wait to be asked questions but to come in with enthusiasm for the company and try to tell me why they want to work here and why I should take them would help young people.

Do you offer work experience?

Yes, but we could do with having people who could be interested in working for us in the long term. Work experience is very valuable to young people and yet on the most recent occasions we’ve had someone on work experience in it’s been because the school has rung up about someone who hasn’t got anywhere else to go, which isn’t likely to be someone who’s going to be passionate about what we do. 

Have you done any work with schools? 

We’re pushing the STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] ambassador group, as you get a bit of training in how to help schools and a bit of support, and people approach you with ideas so you can choose which ones to respond to. We do quite a lot of careers talks and I think we’re on the list of some of the schools in the local area so they keep coming back to us. We also give our staff the opportunity to go out and help to show technology, for example, we have thermographic cameras that show where buildings are losing heat. 

The work we have done is normally with the careers staff rather than subject staff, which seems a shame, as we are a great example of where you can end up if you like science or geography. I mean we have PhD volcanologists here who could be a great resource to a local school studying volcanoes; they could go in and get young people excited about their subject! I’m not sure whether subject teachers realise we are here or have thought of using us as a resource but, as long as they are only not in work occasionally, I’d be very happy for our specialists to go out and get children enthused about science, geography and the planet.

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