Modern Apprentices Step Up to Keep Orkney’s Water Flowing

26 May 2020
L-R David Shearer, Ross Whitehill and Sweyn Cowie

Social distancing

Modern Apprentices David Shearer, Sweyn Cowie and Ross Whitehill are embracing the distinctive challenges caused to their working life and studies.

Keeping the country’s water flowing while keeping our own team and our customers safe during the coronavirus pandemic has been Scottish Water’s over-riding focus in recent months. However, we also need to ensure that there will be skilled and experienced key workers available to continue that work for the longer term.

Scottish Water currently has three Modern Apprentices based in Orkney who are embracing the distinctive challenges caused to their working life and their continuing studies at this time.  


Water treatment apprentices, David Shearer and Sweyn Cowie, and water network and sewer response apprentice Ross Whitehill are already playing a vital role in keeping the water cycle running in Orkney. 

As part of the modern apprentice programme, they are used to working as part of a team and having colleagues around them to answer any queries that come up as part of their day to day duties.

Due to the need to socially distance, however, David and Sweyn are now playing their part in running the water treatment plants they cover on a solo working basis – but support is always at the end of a phone if any issues do arise.

Meanwhile Ross is dealing with the challenges that come from having to ensure he remains two metres from colleagues while physically trying to fix burst water pipes or clearing sewer blockages.  All three are also juggling their changed work commitments with a new approach to their college studies towards SVQ and HND qualifications.  


David, who is three years into his apprenticeship and usually spends one week in every six at college in Glasgow, said: “We only have one person on site at a time as far as possible at the moment to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. One person usually does two or three days in a row at one site, then switches with another operator. 

“I’m quite confident operating on site alone as I’ve been in the role for a number of years now, but we are well supported and there is always someone at the end of a phone if we need any help. As occasional lone workers, we also have safeguards in place to ensure our safety.”  

He added: “As well as allowing me more time to keep on top of college work, which I’m finding harder now there is no face to face teaching, the single person policy also means we can be more flexible right across the different teams on the islands.  

“For example, if a number of colleagues need to self-isolate, there is now extra flexibility that can be called upon to cover these roles, so it’s good there is that resilience in place.  

“I feel very grateful that I’m working for Scottish Water just now. I think we’ve been very well cared for and supported throughout the coronavirus pandemic.”   

Sweyn, who joined Scottish Water eight months ago, said: “It’s been a really useful learning experience being on site by myself. This summer I will begin standby duties responding to alarms at our two water treatment sites on the mainland, so I think this time spent working the sites alone will help prepare me for those additional duties. 

“I’m getting on with the routine stuff as usual and if anything comes up that I need help with, I know there’s always someone at the end of the phone so I’ve got no hesitation calling them in that instance.   

“It’s a really good team here, really supportive, which is great. If there have to be two people on site, then we make sure that social distancing is in place. With the implementation of these measures, we’ve been successful in producing the high-quality drinking water our customers expect while maintaining the safety of our team and others.”  

Ross, who spends a lot of his time out at jobs which require more than one person in attendance, has found the new measures harder to implement in some aspects of his role and said: “It is things like ensuring you are keeping two metres apart when you are both digging a hole - you are so conscious of it but you’re also trying to get on and do your job so it has been a challenge.   

“It hasn’t been an issue at all in terms of dealing with customers because we wear our gloves and our masks and make sure that we are well away from them if we need to speak to them, but it does make the physical aspects of our job more challenging.”  

He added: “I’ve been with Scottish Water for around nine months and my days can look completely different week to week. I can be heading out in the van to fix a burst or fit a connection, or it can be dealing with a choke on the sewer response side of things. That variety is one of the things that I was looking for: you are never bored, never stuck doing nothing. There’s always something to get on with.”