Applicant vs employer – the difference of opinion
Through our work CJS perceives the problems that applicants face as well as the issues met by employers during recruitment. To try and highlight some of the problems CJS asked a few employers along with some applicants to give their opinions on the countryside recruitment process.
A number of our social media followers were happy to provide details of their experiences whilst trying to secure that elusive job in the countryside sector. It is clear that employers and candidates have differing perspectives.
The application process
Good applications take time and effort, many candidates feel this is not always appreciated by employers.
Katrina Dick says: "My first encounter with job application forms was for a seasonal ranger position. I really wanted the post and having read the job description and needs for it I simply wrote a whole essay about my love for nature and how I fitted in with all the essential and desirable criteria." She says she can spend "a good average 5-6 hours on an application to make sure it was succinct, answered the criteria for the job, included the organisation’s objectives and values and how I fitted into this and which of course was grammatically correct". Steve Luckett agrees and says: "If employers could remember candidates have invested a lot of time researching roles, completing applications (usually more than just the one they are advertising) and preparing, if selected, for interview before they get to meet them that would be appreciated."
The variation in type and length of application required can be off putting with questions asking everything from what you do in your spare time to demonstrations of leadership skills. Katrina says her longest to date was 16 pages running to over 6,000 words once complete.
Inconsistences in job descriptions and essential and desirable criteria
Mollie Taylor says: "I believe that the level of experience labelled ‘necessary’ or ‘essential’ within current job roles are inconsistent with the career paths that current job seekers are aligned with." and believes "more support should be given to job seekers; and employers should become more flexible on what criteria really is ‘essential’."
Everyone who commented mentioned the perpetual problem of "experience required" even for entry level posts.
Debs Trewick-Carter says: "I have been vigorous & tireless in my job applications, applying for anything remotely connected to ranger or countryside management tasks. Roles that are advertised as temporary, part time, fixed contract and seasonal. Some positions are advertised as entry level or assistant Ranger and even trainee!" and on asking for feedback has been told: "on occasion I gave a fantastic interview BUT was always beaten (and sometimes only just) whatever that means …………by someone with more EXPERIENCE! Hey …hold on a minute, I applied for trainee or entry level, at best an assistant to a qualified ranger! " This despite having 500+ hours volunteering under her belt, mostly achieved during her "intense" L3 Advanced Technicals in Land and Wildlife Management, City and Guilds course at Plumpton College.
Which brings us to the next problem.
How are candidates to improve their applications if they don't receive feedback? Steve Luckett comments: "Feedback is often generic and often it's down to me to chase it, couldn't everyone get a personal call - is 5 minutes too much to ask?" Mollie Taylor agrees and highlights another issue: "My personal experience has resulted in a number of lengthy application processes, with no feedback or courtesy email when unsuccessful." Katrina Dick adds: "It used to drive me crazy with worry, had they got [my application] or had they not? Although this is something I have seen a marked improvement on in the last year, with automatic emails being sent out as a receipt."
Having successfully navigated the complexities of the application process for a select few comes the interview.
Steve Luckett says: "I understand the recruitment process can be costly and time consuming for employers, but I found it very stressful trying to arrange time off, travel and sometimes accommodation to attend interviews."
Katrina Dick, who is based in Scotland, agrees: "If I am then invited to an interview I am more often than not expected to cover my own expenses, and of course as jobs in the countryside sector are scarce I am having to be incredibly flexible in terms of where I apply which has given me job interviews from Sutherland in the north of Scotland to Manchester in the north of England." This flexibility is not an issue for Katrina as she herself says: "As a single, career woman with no ties this has not presented itself as an issue to me but I am aware of many skilled people having to give up the dream of becoming a ranger due to ties such as family and mortgages."
Occasionally candidates feel they are "making up the numbers" as other applicants are obviously known by the panel and/or other staff. Steve recalls a second meeting with a fellow candidate at interview: "after we both were unsuccessful for a previous position and he told me he wasn't offered it because he didn't have tractor experience - but that was clear from his application so what was the point of interviewing him?" He also wonders: "if for our industry a traditional interview panel is appropriate – 45 minutes talking across a desk is not what I'm good at but I have practical skills and knowledge to show people. I've always performed better in written exercises when I have a little more time to consider problems and situations - isn't this more reflective of real life and work?"
Is it worth it?
Despite all of these grumbles, some of which are not limited to the countryside management sector and I'm sure many of us have encountered similar situations (I know I have), everyone agrees it's worth the herculean effort required. Katrina says: "it's a hard sector to get into. Is it worth it? Yes! Would I change [the sector] for the world? No way!"
Take home points for recruiters
1. Be honest in your description, if you need experience say so and don't term your low paid post as graduate / trainee / entry level.
2. Keep your application form and process short and simple.
3. Acknowledge application receipt, an automatic email is better than nothing.
4. Try to be flexible in your essential / desirable qualifications and skills.
5. Include an interview date in your advert (or job pack) even it's still to be confirmed.
6. Consider your interview process. Would a practical task be more appropriate? Or if it's to be a more theoretical discussion could it be held digitally, via Skype?
7. And finally, here's the big one: give personalised feedback.
Now the turn of the employers, our thanks to all the people who contributed to this piece.
I've interviewed for jobs, probably the last one was last year. I'm also involved in shortlisting for some posts although HR do the actual recruitment side of things. I work for a County Council's Countryside Service doing a ranger type role I think the job roles are changing more in some organisations. Rather than being a practical hands on role, it's turning into more of a contract management, office based role. (Not the case with my role but anecdotal evidence suggests this is happening more and more in local government posts as more stuff gets put out to private contracts!)
Certainly we advertise more posts now as being part time, with some anti-social hours, but with no pay enhancements to cover it. I have also noticed the last few jobs we advertised we had very few applicants for. This may be due to the part time nature of the role plus needing to do weekends on a flat rate. The part time roles therefore seem to only attract semi-retired professionals as younger people need a full wage coming in.
When we do get applications from younger people some have no practical experience at all to back up their application. They may have a degree but can't actually put a fence up. When we've had people on work experience and I talk to them about what they're planning to do when they leave uni, they tend to want to do more consultancy type roles and they're better paid. We did try advertising an apprenticeship at one stage but we had barely any applications so it didn't work out.
I've been in post for 15 years. When I applied for the job (there were three ranger posts up for grabs at the time) there were over 100 applications and we used to get 40 or 50 applications for a single job. Now we're lucky to get a dozen and I know my colleagues in the Public Rights of Way Team really have issues with this for certain posts.
My personal opinion on the situation is that university degrees are far too expensive now (it was free when I studied). It's putting young people in too much debt. And you're not going to take on that kind of debt to then enter a poorly paid career, often on temporary contracts, where you are also required to do a lot of voluntary work to pad out your practical skills. But that is just a personal opinion!
It is a view from the public sector and obviously we all struggle with our finances at the moment, so you may find the charitable sector view a bit different!
Working for Warwickshire’s Country Parks offers a varied and interesting opportunity for anyone starting out in a countryside career. We manage a range of reclaimed habitats including gravel pits, landfill sites and disused railway lines for the benefit of people and wildlife and each year we look for additional seasonal staff to help cover the sites during the busier summer months when visitor services are the priority. We have seen a steady decline in the number of applicants over the years and lately we are finding a lack of candidates interested in working directly with the public. There appears to be a desire from recent graduates to go straight in to pure conservation roles where they can work on a specific habitat or species and the conservation charities and trusts offer that opportunity far more than we, as a council service, can offer.
The application forms we do receive are varied in their quality; some are too vague and are too difficult to read! Candidates need to ensure they fill out all of the application form, and provide us with full address details, for themselves and any referees. They need to write or type clearly any email addresses and use the job description and person specification to provide headings and cover everything with an example under each. It is most important to look at every line under the essential criteria, and explain on the application how they meet it. We are looking to find how they match up to these through the application form. Make it easy for the shortlisting team by listing out the items and putting their match against each one. The lengthy descriptions of how they have always loved nature and being outdoors are interesting, but will not help them stand out from the crowd, what we need is examples which relate back to the person and job specification. Understandably, starting out, candidates may have gaps but they need to think of anything which is transferable to a country park situation. If it’s not written down, we cannot guess if they have the essential criteria we are asking for.
When we have sifted through the applications and finally get to meet the candidates we start again and this is their opportunity to shine. Some fantastic forms have provided some difficult interviews. An interview should not be an unpleasant experience, so we try to be friendly and relaxed, we want candidates to open up and talk to us. What we have found is some people struggle to speak to us and they don’t provide full answers explaining their experiences and how they could relate to our roles.
Something that we look for in our applicants is the ability to use their own initiative, be proactive, take decisions and have some common sense; these are crucial attributes for countryside rangers in a busy semi-urban country park. Something we hear regularly when questioned on initiative is ‘I’ve worked on my own as part of my dissertation doing surveys’. Working on your own initiative is not the same as working alone. Initiative is the ability to assess a situation or problem and fix it, to take action and get it resolved and some candidates can struggle to provide a full example of how they demonstrate this ability.
We also need seasonal staff who are confident with talking to the public, and are willing to, or have had experience of leading and instructing children as this is a fundamental part of the ranger role during the summer season.
We have had apprenticeships within the service over the last few years. It gives them the opportunity to learn on the job, be practical and develop the skills required under the guidance and instruction of more knowledgeable staff. This has been successful for both the apprentice and for ourselves in so far as the majority have gone on to gain successful employment in this field. Unfortunately it’s often not within our own service, as the permanent positions don’t come up very often. Rangers do tend to enjoy their roles and stay put therefore creating a lack of opportunity for candidates trying to break into the industry and land a more permanent position.
Authors: Rachel Hextal (Ranger) Tracy Jones (Education Ranger) Paula Cheesman (Parks Manager)