So you want to work in ecology and environmental management?
Getting onto the career ladder in our profession is challenging as any aspiring ecologist, environmental manager or conservation officer will tell you. Whilst there are a wealth of degree programmes and some (not enough) apprenticeships, getting that first paid job can be a struggle.
There are jobs out there though. One way to give yourself the best chance to maximise your chances of landing a job is to make sure you have the knowledge and skills that employers are looking for. So what are they looking for?
At the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) we use feedback from employers and early career members to influence the content and learning outcome criteria of degree programmes that we accredit (http://www.cieem.net/cieem-accredited-degrees). We believe that accredited degree programmes give graduates the best chance of being equipped to successfully get that first job. But whether following an accredited programme, a non-accredited programme or entering the profession through a non-academic route, there are things that you can do to increase your employability.
In 2011 we published the findings of research into skills gaps and skills shortages in the sector. Closing the Gap: Rebuilding ecological skills in the 21st century (CIEEM, 2011) was a response to anecdotal evidence of growing concerns that, at a time when arguably the demand for ecological and conservation management skills has never been greater, the critical skills are in decline in the UK. The key findings of this research identified a number of specific skills gaps and shortages:
- Species identification in general but especially of invertebrates, fish and lower plants.
- Ecological survey, data assessment, evaluation and monitoring for fish and invertebrates.
- Ecological impact assessment across a range of habitats.
- Habitat creation, restoration and management in marine, coastal and upland habitats.
There were also knowledge gaps, particularly in the following areas:
- Application of environmental economics and techniques for the valuation of ecosystem services.
- Understanding of freshwater, marine and coastal processes.
- Understanding of spatial planning.
- Knowledge of mitigation techniques across a range of habitats and species.
- Understanding of environmental legislation and its policy implications.
Balanced against these findings is the need to understand the extent to which these skills are required. For example fish identification is quite specialised and the number of potential employers is relatively low.
During the latter half of 2016 we undertook further research to establish where we are now in terms of skills gaps and shortages and to understand which areas of professional development are considered to be a priority for investment because of the needs of the roles. A report on this work, which was led by Dr Debbie Bartlett CMLI FCIEEM and Eulalia Gomez-Martin MSc Grad CIEEM, will be published later this year but the initial findings may be surprising.
Participants were asked to identify recent and future development needs by using the CIEEM Competency Framework, which identifies 40 technical and transferable competencies – the latter being common to most professions. The findings indicated that, whilst species and habitat identification and management skills are still key, it is some of the transferable competencies that individuals and employers are investing heavily in. Examples include:
- Communication skills.
- Project management.
- Business management including an understanding of the realities of the work environment, whether that be in a commercial, voluntary or public sector role.
Feedback from employers suggests that these are skills rarely found in early career job applicants.
So how can these skills, apparently so highly valued by employers, be acquired? Is it in the classroom? Well, yes, some of them can be to a limited extent. But surely the most effective place to learn is in the workplace. If employers want applicants who can demonstrate at least a basic level of understanding and skill in these areas then they need to provide more opportunities for potential employees to acquire them, ideally through appropriate work experience.
In early 2016 CIEEM published new guidance for members on providing work experience
(http://c-js.co.uk/2k6GQq5) (5.5MB). The guidance, aimed primarily at employers but also of use to those seeking work experience, sets out ways in which a successful experience can be planned and provided to the benefit of both parties. There are some key principles to bear in mind.
- Work experience should be planned to ensure that the participant gets a range of experiences that will help their career.
- There should be an exchange of expectations so both parties are clear on what will happen.
- There should be proper supervision and support – the workplace can be very daunting. Host organisations should be generous with their time, resources and access to relevant training.
- It is not a source of unpaid or cheap labour – participants are there to learn.
Employers must take responsibility for encouraging and supporting enthusiastic, talented and motivated people to find a way into our sector and helping them become established. Work experience is not the only way. It sits alongside accessing knowledge networking opportunities (for example through the CIEEM Member Network events), providing input into academic programmes and supporting practical studies. But work experience is the best way, if not the only way, to provide aspiring ecologists with an insight into the realities and pressures of the work environment and the opportunity to acquire, pre-employment, those transferable competencies employers require as well as the more generic technical skills in an applied context. Besides, most employers find those undertaking work experience bring with them knowledge, ideas and commitment that can be of real value to the host organisation.
For more information about CIEEM, membership and our practical resources and guidance please visit www.cieem.net