How volunteering got me the job
By Beth Aucott, Warden for the RSPB
Before I went to university I wanted to be a vet. I did all the relevant work experience, slaved over my personal statement, was predicted all of the correct grades and got rejected from every vet school I applied to. It was real kick in the teeth. I’d wanted to be a vet since I knew what one was so suddenly I was having to re-think my entire life plan. After careful consideration and lots of lists I decided I wanted to work in conservation so off I went to study Zoology, in the naive belief that when I graduated I’d be perfectly equipped to get out there and save some species.
I graduated university four years later as a Master of Science and came to the depressing realisation that I had no skills or experience that set me apart from the thousands of other people who had thrown their mortarboard in the air that summer. I could use a whole host of computer programmes, understood the science of numerous ecological processes and could carry out research but apart from building the odd bat box from my rather sporadic attendance to conservation society events I had no practical experience of conservation.
Whilst frantically searching for a job I could do or a way to boost my CV I discovered that Staffordshire Wildlife Trust ran a midweek work party. I pinged them an email asking if I could come along to hopefully learn more about such things as coppicing and rush cutting and maybe gain some new practical skills. A week later saw me board the mini bus they used to transport volunteers, slightly nervous and not sure what I may have let myself in for. The day was brilliant. We spent the day pulling ragwort, which is not everyone’s favourite job, but I was surrounded by people willing to share their knowledge with me and I had the chance to get up close to lots of wildlife. Over the following 11 months I worked on reserves all around the county, learnt how to use a brushcutter, became very well acquainted with bowsaws and loppers, erected my first fence and was educated on all types of flora and fauna. Lucy, the Reserves Assistant, was amazing; taking the time to explain everything to me and as time went on giving me a chance to try new things beyond the normal remit of a midweek volunteer such as carrying out safety checks by myself and even leading the work party when she wasn’t there.
As well as providing me with relevant skills and knowledge, volunteering gave me a chance to see what practical conservation work really entailed. It varied greatly but things such as sinking thigh deep in a bog with a brush cutter, being scratched to bits by gorse, getting soaked to the skin whilst putting up a fence and continuing the same job week after week were all part of reserves work and l returned each week, to step back onto the minibus, with a smile on my face.
I was lucky that I loved the practical element right from the start. Over my time with the Trust we had a few other people that would join for a session and realise that the practical element wasn’t for them. Volunteering is a good way to experience different parts of the sector and work out what you like. Most of my time was spent out on the reserves but I also had a chance to dip my feet into the world of education work and got involved with a couple of surveys. Those weren’t paths that I wanted to pursue but it gave me a glimpse into how they work.
After a year with Staffs WT the only things holding me back from getting a job was my lack of qualifications for using machinery such as brush-cutters and chainsaws. I managed to fill this gap by getting a place on the Wildlife Skills programme – a series of traineeships funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and hosted by a number of Wildlife Trusts in the South West. I spent a year with Somerset Wildlife Trust working with the Mendips reserve team, gaining more reserves experience and
picking up an array of qualifications. In my feedback from my interview I was told that one of the reasons I was offered the position was that I knew what I wanted to do in future and recognised how the traineeship would help me achieve that. That aim and knowledge came from my volunteering experience; it had shown me a career path that I loved and made me aware of what I needed to do to start to walk that path.
After my traineeship I got my first job in conservation as an Assistant Ranger for the National Trust. It was a short term contract and I went on to another role with the National Trust, followed by a stint with the Wildlife Trust in Bedfordshire before reaching my current position as a Warden for the RSPB. I’ve been lucky enough to help care for some truly beautiful places, be involved with brilliant projects and work alongside inspiring people but I’m very aware that if I hadn’t been brave enough to step aboard that mini-bus on that first day of pulling ragwort I may have taken a very different path.