How did you get into that? Questions Rangers get asked

Logo: National Trust

Matt North, Lead Ranger, Dark Peak, National Trust

Matthew North
Matthew North

“How do you get to be a ranger then?”

This isn’t an uncommon question and doesn’t come as a surprise.   When I am at work I do have RANGER written in big white letters several centimetres high on my back.

But it’s really hard to answer in a quick sentence without a throwaway line like, “find a partner who gets a good wage”. Lots of people want to get a job in helping look after the environment for as many reasons as there are different jobs. There are

many different job titles for those roles; estate workers, ecologists, visitor experience managers, countryside officers, wardens, project officers, nature reserve managers, arborists, environmental educators and of course rangers. Rangers usually have to do a bit of everything.

It’s a very competitive field; lots of people want to get countryside management jobs and they are not common. Austerity over the last few years has contracted the field further as the current political climate does not appear to place a value on helping people access green places while protecting and enhancing natural and cultural heritage. This has resulted in countryside services and projects, frequently in local authorities, being cut to the bone or completely done away with.

This is despite lots of people jumping up and down saying this sort of thing is really, REALLY, important for things like biodiversity, mental and physical health, social cohesion, the economy – locally, regionally and nationally - education, child development, reducing

crime, agriculture, climate change and flood mitigation. There are many more but I don’t have much room to include them all so I suggest you do a bit of research.

Now we also have the uncertainty of Brexit. Regardless of political opinions, this will have a long lasting impact on the environmental management field for years to come. Whether this is positive or negative will be borne out in time.

It’s not impossible to break into this job market though. I have led and supported much recruitment for countryside management/ranger posts.

I’ve also managed to make my career in the industry since my first full time post in 1992 so I know what it’s like to apply for jobs and be interviewed for jobs I desperately wanted! So here’s a brief summary of my points and thoughts.

Dramatic landscape across Kinder, Edale and the Dark Peak  (National Trust images)
Dramatic landscape across Kinder, Edale and the Dark Peak (National Trust images)

First of all: Do you really want this career? It’s not all driving about in a 4x4 with a new chainsaw in the back whilst looking to the horizon with a furrowed, if suntanned brow.

It can be hard, physical work, for not much money that may require you moving around the country for the jobs. Contracts may be short term due to funding or project lifetime. Most posts also involve working with visitors, volunteers, local communities and your team so it’s handy if you like people and can get on with them.

This still you? Now you have to see how you can get on that job ladder!

Volunteering: There are lots of reasons why people volunteer, they may be looking to start or change to a career as a ranger, gain some experience, pick up and practice new skills as well as the social aspect and feel they are doing something useful.

A good volunteer is worth their weight in gold; Providing hands, eyes and ears for places that are frequently under resourced. Volunteers may be unpaid but they should be respected and managed accordingly. They should not be there to pick up litter day in, day out, (unless that’s what they signed up for!) or be a cheap alternative to employing someone. It’s a difficult balancing act but don’t forget you may be managing volunteers in the future so it’s all practice, even if you may have some challenging experiences initially.

If you are looking for voluntary work, check out what’s available and be clear about your motivations when applying for such work. What are you offering and what does the organisation you are giving your time to offer in terms of opportunities, training and support? Be aware that volunteers can take up a lot of time for staff who have plenty of other things they need to do so don’t expect them to be at your beck and call.

When you have a bit of time under your belt could you ask for more responsibility? Do you want to concentrate on one aspect or try and get a broad a range of experiences in, for example; education, writing management plans, health and safety, practical work on habitats, boundaries and countryside access provision. How about recruiting volunteers from different backgrounds to those currently coming in? Want to lead groups or tasks?

Remember what you have achieved and why. It’s all useful for that application and interview.

The people you work with can also provide references. As well as formal requests for references, I like to ring referees up to get some background from them on you when shortlisting or considering offering jobs.

It’s worth noting that I have recruited ex volunteers. They still had to go through the application process but the advantage was I knew them and what they were capable of and they knew the team and job.

Academic study: Job descriptions and profiles will say what qualifications and/or experience is expected. Do some research on what these are so you can see what is the industry standard for the career you’re looking for.

An academic qualification based in the environmental field will give you a good grounding in principles and knowledge that you can use on the job.

However, studying these days is expensive. You wouldn’t buy a car or house without doing some research first so I would suggest the same when choosing a course. Does this qualification point you in any particular career path? Has anyone who’s done the course gone on to get a job in what you are hoping to do? Do you know someone in the countryside management industry who can look at the syllabus and say if they think it would be useful?

I would recommend looking for those courses that have work experience placements incorporated. This really helps applicants stand out from the crowd of recent graduates applying and in my personal experience found these opportunities invaluable in my career development.

Does the university/college course you’re considering talk to the countryside and conservation industry regularly to check what they are offering on courses is what the employers want? For example I was a bit flabbergasted when I found out a local university has stopped offering a module on GIS/Mapping for its environmental courses!

Dramatic landscape across Kinder, Edale and the Dark Peak  (National Trust images)
Dramatic landscape across Kinder, Edale and the Dark Peak (National Trust images)

Training: Not got an environmental graduate qualification? Not the end of the world. I have worked with people with degrees as diverse as music and maths. You do need to get some knowledge and experience under your belt. NVQs or similar can be useful ways to get up to speed.

Such training is frequently part of apprenticeships and similar offers. These are a really good way for organisations to obtain the skills base they need for their staff.   Keep your eyes peeled and check if organisations such as the National Trust have any programmes planned. If so, is there a time of year they recruit and what are they looking for? Again applying for these posts is competitive so use the time to prepare yourself to stand out from the crowd.

Applications: If you have found your dream job on the Countryside Jobs Service, chances are so have a lot of other people.

The first hurdle to get over is the initial sifting of the applications. When recruiting I have regularly had a pile of more than a hundred applications to go through to shortlist for the next stage. Normally I use a score sheet based on the main points in the job profile and description and judge each applicant accordingly and give the ones with the most points an interview.

Who makes it through this time consuming and will sapping process? Those people who bother to read the information provided and make it very easy for me and my colleagues to put ticks or scores against those points that we feel are important.   So if you see words like ‘experience’, ‘teamwork’ or ‘customer service’ it’s worthwhile going through your application thinking “Have I covered all these points and succinctly demonstrated that I can do this?” Think about how easy it is for us poor recruiters to see what you can do.

How can you stand out? I’ve given some tips above but I would suggest the following:

  • Do you show you want to work for us? Don’t knock off a standard CV and covering letter that reads like you have inserted the name of the organisation on to a pro forma. If I read your application, I want to know why you want to work for the organisation I represent and the places you are looking to work. Do some research! If you know about the values of the organisation you are applying to, you can represent these to the public and generate support and understanding.
  • How committed are you? I once offered a traineeship to a candidate who wanted to get into the profession. She didn’t have a broad range of experience but she spent a weekend a month digging ditches all winter with a local group of volunteers because that was all that was available where she lived. This wasn’t the only reason for my decision but it tipped the balance for me.
  • You may not have examples of specific experience to demonstrate why you are the best applicant but can you give examples of similar situations or demonstrate transferable skills?
  • Be honest! Don’t make stuff up or over embellish. If my spider sense starts tingling in the application or interview process, I will investigate and check it out. I want to be able to trust you if you come and work for me.
  • What other values and behaviours do you think are important? Do you like teams? Do you stop learning when you get a job? How do you approach difficult situations? Give examples so I don’t have to read a standard response of “I am a team worker but enjoy working on my own initiative to solve problems…” for the umpteenth time.

Interviews: Recruiting is expensive. It takes a lot of time and effort and is a very big decision for the manager and team as well as the applicants, so we invest time and money to find the right person.

As such, don’t be put out if you think it’s rather an involved recruitment process rather than a simple sit down interview. We don’t sit around coming up with daft things to do because it’s fun!

We want to see what you can do, how you behave and see how you fit with the team. For example as part of the interview I have regularly asked for portfolios or presentations demonstrating why you are a good applicant for the job, sent candidates out for a walk and a chat with a team member or put interviewees together on a job. All this is to get to know you, help you relax and see what you can do. We aren’t there to catch you out!

Good luck in your job hunting. The only advice I can give is, if you want to do this as a career, you will get there in the end. It is worth it.

First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Management in association with the Countryside Management Association on 23 September 2019

Updated information December 2020:

Matt North is no longer employed by the National Trust

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