Insider Insight: Peter Skinner

Peter Skinner, chief executive of Environment & Ground Engineering at consultancy AECOM, shares his career insights

Peter SkinnerWhat has helped you get where you are in your career?

Flexibility and tenacity are two qualities that have helped me to get where I am. Very early in my career I decided I would look to grasp as many different opportunities as possible. The choices I’ve made as a result of this decision have allowed me to work all over the world and in a range of different technical fields. The ability to balance technical rigour with practical solutions has also been key.

Who have been your role-models/mentors?

Charlie Fraser, who was my manager when I worked in Botswana, inspired and supported me. He taught me three very important things that have helped me to progress in my career: trust, motivate and respect your staff; be good technically; and be effective with clients. He also taught me that there is nothing better for self-improvement than being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

What qualifications are the most necessary/most beneficial in the environmental consultancy field?

While achieving a degree qualification is key, gaining experience in the world of work is crucial. I therefore recommend people interested in a career in environmental consultancy get some work experience after university before they continue with any further education. That way you can add pragmatism to the theory. Many businesses, including AECOM, support the ongoing development of their employees and there will often be opportunities for further study as they progress in their careers.

What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way? And how did you adapt to these challenges?

Changes in the market can sometimes be stumbling blocks. The best way to overcome these types of challenges is to be adaptable and flexible. The next big challenge for the sector will be Brexit. Many UK-based businesses have been working towards meeting EU regulations and standards for environmental performance and it remains to be seen whether these will still be as relevant in the future, and how strong the market will be. The environmental consultancy sector must be ready to adapt as things develop so that they can help their clients through any regulatory changes.

What have been the pivotal moments in the field?

The growth of competition in the market in the late 90s was certainly a pivotal moment that saw an influx of engineering consultancies adding environment to their service offering. The global financial crisis a decade later also had a huge impact on the sector. Not only was less money being invested by clients, but regulators’ approaches to enforcement also slowed as government cut back on public spending.

The UK’s ambitious infrastructure investment plans will be a new and exciting moment for the sector, with environmental consultancy crucial for the development of major infrastructure programmes. There will be also be increasing opportunities for the sector as countries work towards the commitments they made in the Paris Agreement.

What stages of your career have been the most rewarding?

There have been three distinct stages in my career that have been the most rewarding. The first was learning the technical skills I needed to master my discipline. The second was when I started to build a team of highly-skilled people, enabling them to succeed and develop. The third is my current role, where I lead a team of 1,600 people. Providing strategic direction and inspiring people to reach the best of their ability is incredibly rewarding.

How do you get the most out of your team/colleagues?  

Key to getting the most out of a team is communicating well, and that means listening more than talking and giving people space to feedback. I find it is always worth taking a lesson from the medical profession; at the Doctor’s surgery it is often the ‘and another thing’ that is the real issue. As a manager, empowering others to take on more responsibilities and not trying to do everything myself is also important.

Where do you think there are the most job opportunities in the sector?

In the UK, the biggest number of job opportunities for environmental consultants is in infrastructure as the country’s pipeline of major projects continues to progress. Globally, there is a lot of work in air quality and the opportunities in this field are only likely to grow. There is also likely to be a lot more sustainability work stemming from the Paris Agreement.

What other advice do you have for people about to embark on careers in the sector?

It can sometimes be difficult to get on that first rung of the ladder, so it is important that people are specific on their CVs about what they want to do. They will be competing with lots of other people with similar and relevant degrees, so showing that they have done some market research and have a clear idea of what they want to do really stands out. Flexibility and a willingness to grasp new opportunities are also attractive qualities. It may sound clichéd, but it really is important to demonstrate that you are a rounded person who can work as part of a team.