Rob Knapper: My Journey into Rope Access, Progression, Persistence and Promotion!

I began my career in rope access as an inexperienced level 1. Without any prior experience in climbing or abseiling, it was all alien to me. I left school and worked for my father’s jewellery business, where I learnt to manufacture various types of jewellery. After around six years in the jewellery trade my father’s business could no longer sustain my position, so I had to look for another job. I immediately found an opportunity to join a friend’s landscape gardening company so that’s what I did. I had to learn skills such as mowing, hedge trimming, dry stone walling, laying paving and other various landscaping skills. After two years I decided to look for a more sustainable career, and looked into getting my rope ticket. All I needed to do was pay around £500 and take a 4-day training course with an assessment day on the fifth day.

Career in Rope Access: Level 1 

I attended the level 1 training course which was enjoyable. You get to climb around a training room and learn all the techniques you need to get started in the industry. It was quite physical, and you certainly use leg and arm muscles that you do not usually use so sugary drinks and muscle rub is a must.

On the day of the assessment I was nervous, but I found the assessor to be really friendly and put me at ease and once I got started, I felt confident and the nerves had disappeared. I passed the course with a very good grade which I was extremely proud of, considering I had no prior experience in rope access. The following week I found myself hanging off the side of a building 170 metres tall, fearing for my life. It was at this point when I thought this might not be the career path for me. I was inspecting anchor bolts on the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth which is on the seafront and very high and very exposed for a first ever abseil job. However, after several jobs gaining more experience, I found myself thoroughly enjoying my work.

Honing My Experience for Level 2 and Level 3

I was subcontracting for a few companies for around a year. This can be tough as most contracts are usually a week or so worth of work, so you have to keep on chasing for your next job. Often the jobs are not local enough to travel so an overnight stay would be required. This would come out of my agreed daily rate so I could find myself earning less than minimum wage after all my expenses. However, gaining the rope log hours was the most important factor for me so I could progress to the next level. To progress through the rope access levels you need to obtain a minimum of 1,000 rope hours and one year served. After a year of subcontracting I was approached and taken on full time by Total Access, a company who I was subcontracting a large proportion of my time.

At this point I was ready for my IRATA level 2. I had gained over 1,000 rope hours and exceeded the one year required to attempt my level 2. I passed my level 2 at the first attempt with another very good grade. This time the training course involved additional technical rescues and climbing techniques along with more in-depth knowledge of the industry. As a level 2, I continued to work for Total Access with the view of gaining a further 1000-plus rope hours as soon as possible so I could progress to my IRATA level 3—which I achieved a year after. The financial benefits of having a level 3 appealed to me, so I was keen to get to my level 3 ASAP. Also, I wanted to progress to being in a position to supervise projects and take charge of ensuring the team delivered a high standard of work.

Further Working on My Skill Sets

By now, I had gained experience in a wide range of skill sets. These include window cleaning, painting, sealant work, sign installation, lightning protection installation confined space cleaning and confined space rescue. Apart from this, I had acquired competencies to include IPAF, PASMA, CSCS, Confined Space Search and Rescue and First Aid at height to name a few.

During my time as a rope access technician, I have carried out a wide variety of tasks both good and not-so-good. These ranged from working inside a nuclear shaft dressed like an astronaut clearing debris after a fire had taken place, and at a sewage works replacing parts for the waste process equipment; to working on the London Eye, Jodrell Bank, Britannia Bridge and many more interesting and iconic structures.

Career in Rope Access: Leadership Roles and Beyond 

After around five years as a rope access technician I received a promotion as cleaning and maintenance project manager. In this role, I was now in charge of costing, planning and managing projects. It was not an easy transition as I have never worked in an office environment before. In fact, my career track all involved spending considerable time on site and taking part in physical tasks. That said, as a project manager I enjoyed the challenge of delivering projects to a high standard. This meant ensuring the safe execution of all works, thus maintaining profitability and sustainability for the business. In addition, I saw to it that I could maintain my IRATA level competency and not get rusty. Hence, I continued to be active on site from time to time.

Following a number of extremely rewarding years as project manager, I received an offer to join a very successful and innovative business as director of the Cleaning and Maintenance Division.

I feel now with all the knowledge, experience and confidence that I have gained from more than 10 years in the industry, combined with my drive and strong resolve, this next chapter of my career is going to be a successful one.