Association for Project Management
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Q&A with Andy Sharples, project director at Sellafield Ltd

Sellafield is one of the biggest construction sites in Europe, its multiple projects delivering infrastructure which will be used to empty the facilities on-site which have been storing nuclear waste for decades. From cleaning-up the country’s highest nuclear risks and hazards to safeguarding nuclear fuel, materials and waste, what happens on the site is nationally important. But even this vital work couldn’t escape the effects of the pandemic. Sellafield was a finalist at last year’s APM Awards (the Shell Health, Safety, Security and Environment (HSSE) Award) for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What interventions has Sellafield put into place to ensure the safety of its workforce and to keep projects running at Sellafield?

Safety is always our first priority at Sellafield, in everything we do. We weren’t alone in shutting down all our non-critical work during the first lockdown, but what we were able to do was bring all our project management expertise to the fore and safely restart our construction sites and offices very soon afterwards.

With the level of planning, we were able to ramp down site operations extremely quickly in March 2020, moving thousands of people off the site and creating safe working environments for the c.1,500 key workers whose presence on site was essential for the UK’s nuclear safety. This scaling down was by necessity very fast, but safe and programmatic – ours are not facilities that can be simply switched off.

Our planning to restart operations began immediately, not only to facilitate maximum planning and assessment but also in recognition of the nature of our mission.  HSSE is at the heart of our project delivery and we produced – at pace - a set of Covid-19 Standards which we have used to govern all the restart packages, central to enabling Project Delivery Directorate to achieve consistency with the Sellafield Ltd enterprise-wide risk assessment on Covid-19.

Sellafield Ltd has been praised for its campaigns to help raise awareness of mental health issues, what schemes/initiatives has the organisation put in place, especially during the pandemic, to help manage stress and support the mental health of its project professional employees?

We provide a range of wellbeing support for our employees. This includes our bespoke Employee Assistance Programme, and a diversity and inclusion hub full of useful information. There are 14 employee-led diversity networks across the business. And we have more than 120 mental health champions available across the business who can be a listening ear and signpost people to the support they need.

We regularly share employee stories of how they’ve managed their wellbeing during the pandemic. This has included case studies on those continuing to attend the workplace, those working from home and those supporting community activities through volunteering.

We use awareness days and events to promote the work our networks do to support our workforce and to signpost people to colleagues who might be going through similar issues. And we run campaigns to promote gender balance and mental health and wellbeing.

In addition to all this in 2020 we launched a new employee engagement platform, which allows employees to discuss topics with colleagues – the secure platform is moderated and allows for anonymous queries. It has proved incredibly popular in its first 12 months.

Why should project professionals consider working at Sellafield, and what job opportunities are there available?

At Sellafield, we’re building infrastructure to create a clean and safe environment for future generations. As a reason for getting up in the morning, it doesn’t get more important than that.

Our work is huge in scale and scope and designed to leave a lasting legacy across the supply chain and in our communities. We have fantastic opportunities on offer – delivering projects at this scale and complexity offers the people working on them the chance to learn skills they would not pick up anywhere else.

We have designed and introduced an industry-leading framework to deliver our projects, the Programme and Project Partners, which sets out a clear 20-year plan. What’s more, working at Sellafield means working closely with some of the best organisations in the world, including big names like Morgan Sindall, Jacobs, KBR and Doosan Babcock. Our infrastructure delivery portfolio offers long-term, exciting opportunities for project professionals.

People seem to forget exactly where Sellafield is – within easy reach of one of the most beautiful places in the world – the Lake District. I know we have people on our site who have chosen Sellafield and relocated here because of the opportunities offered both inside and outside our fence.

Good mental health and wellbeing isn’t just about where you work, it’s about where you live, too – having the right work-life balance. I think it’s vitally important for anyone working in projects delivery to consider where they will end up working as much as what they will be doing.

Do you consider the skills gap and talent pipeline needed for future work in projects to be a challenge for the profession?

There are currently a number of large infrastructure projects being delivered across the UK – if you think of Sellafield, Cross Rail, Hinkley Point and HS2 – we all need highly skilled professionals who can deliver the work for us. For the project professionals themselves it is a great opportunity, as they can move to the work which is most interesting and challenging. For organisations, it makes us re-think the type of work we’re offering people and the development opportunities we have on offer.

In 2016 we established the Project Academy for Sellafield with the University of Cumbria to develop our projects people. There are a range of qualifications on offer, ranging from one day introductory courses to those at degree and Masters level. Our APM accredited career pathway offers access to a range of professional development and training opportunities. We also have our industry-leading project management apprentice and graduate programmes which have developed over 100 people to date. We’re committed to growing the next generation of project professionals and upskilling our existing colleagues.

Would you like to see project professionals better represented at leadership level within organisation (i.e. c-suite and/or board level)?  

Within our organisation we do have project professionals represented at leadership levels and I am part of the executive team – this reflects how important project delivery is for Sellafield, our delivery strategy and how it’s central to our purpose. Projects are also represented on the next generation executive which is designed to develop colleagues who show the potential to become a future leader– so we are focused on current project leadership and developing our next generation.

What skills do you need to be a successful project manager?

Being a successful project manager relies on a number of things. Firstly, I would say that you need a good knowledge of the project management discipline and the tools, techniques and experience to deliver the work. However most importantly you need to have resilience, enthusiasm and commitment to your work. The best project managers have an ability to effectively deliver work but also to motivate and lead a team of people.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Nuclear can be quite a complex industry to work in. Often there can be competing and challenging stakeholder requirements and having a large number of senior stakeholders can make alignment quite difficult at times. However, developing solutions to overcome these challenges is often what makes the role more interesting!

I have been very clear that I want Sellafield to be seen as an exemplar of project delivery in the UK. We are already transforming the way we work. Working as one team with our partners will help us continuously improve. It’s a challenge, but one I am more than willing to take on.

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