Waterways Operative

The Job and What's Involved

River LockWaterways operatives are involved in a wide range of work to ensure Britain's inland waterways are kept in good condition. They make sure rivers and canals are attractive, safe and accessible for people in boats or those using the banks and towpaths.

They may be responsible for a stretch of waterway or have specific tasks.

Some operatives look after the historic structures of the waterways, the bridges, locks, tunnels and mileposts, which are constantly exposed to the effects of the climate and have to bear the wear and tear of around 11 million visitors a year.

They may also be responsible for canalside and riverside areas, removing litter or maintaining paths. There are regular cutting programmes too, though these have to strike a balance between the needs of a working waterway and creating attractive, environmentally rich verges and hedgerows.

The work varies across the UK and with different navigation authorities, but duties may include:

  • Monitoring the water levels and controlling them using sluice mechanisms and weirs.
  • Using dredgers to remove silt and load it onto hoppers to be taken away.
  • Operating locks or helping boat crews to do so.
  • Repairing and maintaining equipment such as locks, bollards and hooks.
  • Advising boaters on safe boat handling and helping with boats that have broken down.
  • Reporting incidents of fly-tipping in the canal and arranging for removal of dumped items - from household rubbish to mattresses or even cars.
  • Reporting problems with local wildlife, such as injured swans.
  • Tidying and picking up debris and reporting pollution incidents.
  • Cutting grass, planting flowers and cutting back overgrown vegetation.
  • Advising visitors on local places of interest.

Boats require a licence for most waterways. Waterways operatives may be responsible for issuing licences, accepting payment and policing licence evasion.

Experienced waterways operatives may have responsibility for the day-to-day management of volunteers and paid staff. The work may involve liaising with environmental groups and other voluntary organisations.

Waterways operatives usually work standard office hours, though this may vary, depending on the time of year and the amount of daylight. Some will work weekends and evenings during the summer months and some jobs are seasonal.

Operatives work outdoors in all weather conditions. The work can be very demanding physically.

Some aspects of the job may involve exposure to grasses and pollen, which could make the job difficult for hay fever sufferers.

Waterways operatives usually wear a uniform and protective clothing, such as reinforced boots, overalls, or ear defenders when working with noisy machinery.

Starting salaries may be around £12,000 a year. An experienced operative may earn around £16,000 a year.

A highly experienced waterways operative, managing a team, may earn around £23,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most waterways operatives are employed by British Waterways or the Environment Agency. They work on canals and rivers throughout the UK.

British Waterways manages 80 per cent of the canals and rivers in England, Scotland and Wales, caring for 2,200 miles of canals and rivers.

Voluntary work through organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association, Waterways Recovery Group, The Wildlife Trusts, BTCV and local canal, community, environment and heritage organisations, can be a good way of gaining experience.

Vacancies are advertised in the local and national press, on the British Waterways website and the Environment Agency website. Some jobs may be advertised in publications and on websites specialising in environmental jobs.

Education and Training

There are no formal entry qualifications and requirements vary, depending on the actual duties and responsibilities. GCSEs may be required for some jobs, while others may call for practical skills.

The 14-19 Diploma in environmental and land-based studies, in engineering or in construction and the built environment may be a good starting point.

It is an advantage to have a good knowledge of the local area. Practical experience of boating, gardening, environmental work, building or DIY can be useful.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is usually on the job. A new waterways operative works alongside an experienced colleague. Employers may organise formal training programmes for new staff, usually covering health and safety issues and first aid. There may also be training in customer service skills.

Staff may be able to work towards NVQs at Levels 2 and 3 in environmental conservation, gamekeeping and wildlife management, or in other subjects related to their specific duties. Operatives involved in training volunteers may take training or leadership qualifications.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A waterways operative should:

  • Be good at operating equipment.
  • Have good stamina and physical fitness.
  • Be confident and able to give information to the public.
  • Work well independently and as part of a team.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic when enforcing health and safety guidelines.
  • Be aware of safety hazards.
  • Be able to carry out a wide variety of tasks.

Your Long Term Prospects

Waterways operatives may be able to move into a supervisory role as a waterway supervisor or project specialist with British Waterways, or to patrol officer or team leader with the Environment Agency, depending on the region.

It may be necessary to move to a different area to gain experience and promotion.

Get Further Information

Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA),
Fearns Wharf, Neptune Street,
Leeds LS9 8PB
Tel: 0113 243 3125
Website: www.aina.org.uk

British Waterways,
64 Clarendon Road,
Watford WD17 1DA
Tel: 0845 671 5530
Website: www.britishwaterways.co.uk

Environment Agency, Rio House,
Waterside Drive, Aztec West,
Almondsbury, Bristol BS32 4UD
Tel: 08708 506506
Website: www.environment-agency.gov.uk

Inland Waterways Association (IWA),
Island House, Moor Road, Chesham HP5 1WA
Tel: 01494 783453
Website: www.waterways.org.uk

Waterway Recovery Group (WRG),
Island House, Moor Road, Chesham HP5 1WA
Tel: 01494 783453
Website: www.wrg.org.uk

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