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Conservation - an accessible industry?

Logo: BCP Council

By Brian Heppenstall, Senior Ranger, Hengistbury Head

Introduction

Countryside Jobs Service (CJS) are reporting that the numbers of applicants for jobs in the countryside sector are reducing. Are we inadvertently limiting access to our workforce? What can applicants do to meet criteria for paid work?

I manage a large and busy nature reserve with a popular undergraduate programme, taking in upwards of 25 placements each year. I reached out to over 40 of our former students from the last five years, to ask them what hurdles or issues they have faced when trying to get their first job in conservation. The table below shows the summary of responses with attached quotes.

“Hurdles” to paid employment (in order of most common answer)

Quote

Duration of experience expected

You need experience before you’ve been given a chance to get it.

Courses not providing practical elements

Degrees can lack practical experience, even at a land-based Uni, I don’t spend enough time experiencing what I’ve learnt.

Employers requirements for licences (i.e. chainsaw)

Being expected to have licences to apply for jobs in the environmental sector, which are time consuming and expensive.

Lack of careers advice

Not knowing what kind of jobs are out there has made it harder to find the right placements and experience.

University could stress the importance of a placement year, a year volunteering yes, but at least you have some funding.

Difficulty for mature students, or those with dependants, to progress

Being a mature student feels like things are against you, volunteering isn’t practical when you have bills to pay.

Little to no feedback given after interview

Often, feedback was either not given, or vague, so it was hard to know where to improve and why I wasn’t considered suitable.

Confusing/complicated job descriptions

Confusing job descriptions meant that it was hard to know what was mandatory.

Feeling of candidate being chosen prior to the role being advertised

Organisations appear to want to hire people who have volunteered with them (sometimes for years previously) but that favours people who can afford, and have the time to volunteer alongside or after studies/employment.

Me with a fledgling sparrow  (Brian Heppenstall)
Me with a fledgling sparrow (Brian Heppenstall)

So are these conditions real, or simply perceived? And how can they be overcome?

Experience

The criteria for some entry-level posts on CJS over the past few months would suggest that the sector does set a high bar. Assistant Ranger roles, for example, regularly asked for these, or close variations, as “essential criteria”:

  • Land based, conservation or environmental qualification - ranging from Level 2 to BSc
  • Understanding of countryside management (specifically through employment or volunteering)
  • Ability to manage projects (sometimes multiple) and their delivery
  • Experience of working with partner organisations
  • Good practical experience and use of a variety of hand tools
  • Experience of dealing with members of the public

In comparison, a very brief search for entry-level roles in sales showed adverts regularly stating “we will consider those with no experience in the industry” - for roles which pay around £4k more, per annum, than their equivalents in conservation.


Experience can be a hard quality to gauge, each recruiting manager will determine what they consider to be sufficient experience - and just like one of the other points in our feedback, sometimes it’s easier to recognise the experience levels of someone already known to a recruiter (i.e. a current volunteer). For those undertaking a degree, the best opportunity you have to gain experience is on those days that you do not have contact hours - or outside of term time, if you can find a local nature reserve, consultancy, or similar to host you. The feedback I have received highlighted that sandwich years should be encouraged, at this point you may have access to financial support through the University/Institution you are attending. Those who had taken up a sandwich year, reported that by being able to supplement their academic knowledge with industrial experience, they were better prepared to enter the workforce.

Hengistbury Head 2018 placements, learning botany ID from Jim  White (MBE) (Brian Heppenstall)
Hengistbury Head 2018 placements, learning botany ID from Jim White (MBE) (Brian Heppenstall)

Relevance of Degrees

There are numerous degrees, college courses and other routes, such as apprenticeships, offering routes into conservation roles within the UK. Land-based institutions, such as the Royal Agricultural University and Harper Adams, offer degrees that include more of a hands-on programme - these courses are specifically designed to produce graduates for the conservation sector, they also include licences for use of chainsaws and other equipment, within the cost of the course.

Other institutions, and locally, Bournemouth University's (BSc) in Ecology and Wildlife Conservation is a good example, is broader in its outlook and looks to produce candidates for both conservation and ecological employers (i.e. ecological consultancies). These courses contain mandatory placements (BU has 10 weeks over the first two years) with an option for a sandwich year, these courses tend to focus less on practical skills (such as habitat management) and look instead to provide a grounding in the science involved in environmental work (but also includes field studies, in areas such as monitoring).

Professor Rick Stafford, of BU, feels that a degree is important in developing students abilities outside of practical skills, but that more could be done to prepare the graduate for employment, "a degree has to develop many areas, such as critical thinking, and not be focussed solely on practical skills. More support to develop these skills outside the curriculum could be provided, such as the University subsidising licences for handling certain species, or for competence in equipment use, for example chainsaws. Student societies would be the ideal place for this to occur".

If you’ve been through a degree and found it is lacking in criteria that employers are looking for, then you might find that volunteering, or carrying out additional training through short courses is a way to increase experience or other areas of your C.V.

The Countryside Jobs Service is a good source of information for training providers and courses. Elsewhere, the Countryside Management Association (CMA) or the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) both offer training to their members at either no cost or reduced costs.

If you haven’t yet taken steps towards working in the industry, then perhaps consider alternative routes. Land-based colleges, such as Kingston Maurward and Sparsholt, offer diplomas in conservation subjects (level 3 courses can be adequate for some entry-level roles) and are likely to also provide you with some competencies in equipment use and practical work. These routes can also lead to top-up courses which provide a full BSc degree, which could help with progression within the sector.

Placement Mollie Taylor, toasting a marshmallow after a reedbed  management session (Brian Heppenstall)
Placement Mollie Taylor, toasting a marshmallow after a reedbed management session (Brian Heppenstall)

Requirements for additional competencies, i.e. equipment

licences

Entry-level roles can sometimes include a requirement for licences to operate equipment such as chainsaws or tractor use, these can be costly. In the South-West region, for example, a licence for cross-cutting and felling of small trees (using a chainsaw) can cost over £500 (including hire of protective clothing), in 2019 - for those fortunate enough to be working full time on an average wage - this represents two months of disposable income (according to a survey by website Salary Finance). For those without a full time salary or savings, this could be unachievable in the short-term.

Some charities run internships which are voluntary or expenses are paid, and occasionally, in return, you will receive training in relevant areas, such as machinery use. You may also be provided accommodation, however, it should be recognised that long-term volunteering, could be unrealistic for some who cannot afford to cover their own living costs for this amount of time (often between 3 and 12 months).

What can we do as an industry?

Making the step into paid employment is unlikely to be ‘easy’ in any sector, with supply of candidates outstripping the demand for available jobs. However, requirements for costly licences and a desire for relevant experience for a great deal of entry-level roles, make the conservation sector, arguably, less accessible than others.

A study in 2017, showed that young people in the wealthiest areas, are 18 times more likely to attend university than those from the poorest (Burr, A. 2016). By adding requirements that either directly, or indirectly require a financial resource (licences, long-term volunteering), we risk our entry-level roles being out of reach for those from deprived backgrounds and we subsequently reduce our pool of candidates. In other words, we are likely limiting diversity.

I believe that we have an opportunity to increase the diversity of our workforce and make our sector more accessible; and we can do this by reducing our requirements for entry-level roles.

Unpaid placements, or internships provide opportunities for experience and sometimes licences, however they are considered illegal unless they are a part of a higher education course (UK-based) or if the intern is working for a charity, or not-for-profit organisation - which then allows most of the conservation sector (and museums and arts) to offer these roles.

Placement, Rachel Richards, marking a damselflies wings as part  of a dispersal research project (Brian Heppenstall)
Placement, Rachel Richards, marking a damselflies wings as part of a dispersal research project (Brian Heppenstall)

However, the Sutton Trust (Montacute, R. 2018) believes that these unpaid roles favour the wealthy and limit the opportunities for social mobility, in 2018 they stated that a 6 month internship in Manchester, would cost a young person £4,965 in living costs, assuming that the employer is paying for transport (for those in London the costs are higher).

Startlingly, the University of Essex have found that those students who have undertaken an unpaid placement, can expect to earn less up to three years after, than those who entered paid work straight away, were less likely to go into a managerial role and ultimately have less job satisfaction (Holford, A. 2017).

In my experience, the conservation sector is full of knowledgeable, enthusiastic and friendly professionals - well used to explaining what we do to different stakeholders. I believe that we can turn this knowledge exchange inwards, and take the time to instill new recruits with our information.

Once the criteria for experience and licences have been reduced, we can use effective interview techniques to recognise people with good communication traits and then instill in them the knowledge that they require to perform the duties in that role.

I recognise some short term roles, such as those for seasonal estate work, are an example of a new employee who needs the experience and qualifications to make an immediate impact and in this context, those requirements are wholly justified.

In terms of licences and competencies, I acknowledge that budgets within this sector are slim, but there are so many benefits in developing and training your workforce, a report (Spar, B. & Dye, C. 2018) found that 94% of employees would stay longer in an organisation if it invested in their career because they feel more satisfied. By removing the requirement for costly licences from our entry-level posts, and absorbing that cost within our budget, we may improve retention and increase satisfaction of our employees by providing on the job training.

There has been some research carried out into diversity within land-based disciplines including environmental conservation. Significantly, a Lantra report into labour market information, carried out in 2009, revealed that 97% of the environmental conservation workforce is from the white ethnic group (Lantra, 2009), this compares with an average of 91.2%, across all sectors.

2019 placements in foreground carrying out NVC surveys, Mollie  Taylor in tractor in background - learning tractor competency  (Brian Heppenstall)
2019 placements in foreground carrying out NVC surveys, Mollie Taylor in tractor in background - learning tractor competency (Brian Heppenstall)

A worldwide management consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, have found evidence (Hunt, V. et al 2015) that the more diverse a company is, the better its customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making - which should be as important to a conservation organisation as it is to a major corporate. Crucially, as environmental professionals, we are often in situations where we are trying to convince others of the importance of conservation, if we are more diverse as an industry, then more people will be able to identify with us and our messaging.

There is a wider awareness of these issues, Phil Bolton, National Board Member of the Countryside Management Association (the lead body representing Rangers, Land/Estates/Greenspace Managers and professionals) commented that “the CMA are fully aware of the difficulties faced by individuals hoping to engage in a career in the industry and are presently in advanced discussions with other lead bodies and allied associations discussing the very points raised in this article”.

In conclusion, high-level requirements for  entry-level roles within the conservation sector risk limiting the diversity of potential candidates. Each additional requirement has a financial implication that could make paid work in conservation beyond the reach of some. The average student will leave University with a debt of £50k - and if you are from a poorer background then this is likely to be higher (Belfield, C. et al 2017). For those believing that they have given enough to prove their passion and commitment by undertaking a costly and lengthy education, the requirements that we have set, could become more than hurdles, they become barriers. By replacing these requirements with an investment in training, allowing time for new recruits to gain experience on-the-job and assessing abilities such as good communicative skills during a robust recruitment process, I believe that we can lower these barriers and widen accessibility and diversity within our sector.

References

Burr, A. (2016) Impossible? Beyond access: getting to university and succeeding there

Belfield, C. et al (2017) Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future

Holford, A. (2017) Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships

Hunt, V. et al (2015) Why diversity matters

Lantra (2010) AACS LMI report and Skill Assessment for the Environmental and Land-based sector UK 2009

Montacute, R. (2018) Internships - Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair.

Spar, B. & Dye, C. (2018) 2018 Workplace Learning Report

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