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Time to put an end to Voluntary Traineeships?

An opinion piece

Spring is the season of change, growth and opportunity as the hedgerows explode into life and the skylarks start displaying. This is also the time of year when career seekers will be scouring CJS in search of a seasonal foot-in-the-door. Increasingly, however, that includes not just traditional seasonal contracts and project funded posts, but also “voluntary traineeships”.

It’s not a new phenomenon, but it is a growing one and has never been more relevant. A year of lockdowns and an impending recession has impacted our sector and made both politicians and the wider public reassess the value of nature, creating both challenges and opportunities.

Volunteering is the heart of the countryside and conservation sector. Volunteering keeps our organisations going, opens doors, is great for health and wellbeing, injects knowledge and skills into our teams. Our long history of natural history volunteering is something we can be proud of in the UK. There are multiple reasons why people may be motivated to volunteer, and career development has always been one of these, but we need to take a long hard look at these “trainee” roles and consider carefully if they are appropriate volunteer opportunities for forward thinking conservation organisations to be recruiting for.

A barrier to diversity

When many hours of unpaid work are an essential prerequisite to even applying for a job, we end up choosing our workforce on the basis of means rather than talent or potential, and have to question how “voluntary” these roles really are.

Defenders of these roles will say: “Our graduates have a great experience”, “Most of our trainees move into relevant jobs” or “We have people queuing up to join the programme”. They are right. Many people do benefit from voluntary traineeships – I know I once did - but that doesn’t necessarily make the practice acceptable. I’m writing this anonymously because I benefited hugely from the support I received from knowledgeable and well-intentioned staff during my traineeships. My traineeship was the springboard I needed to get into the sector, and I’m very grateful to them for that, but stories of personal success shouldn’t be used to excuse a systematic issue. There will always be a long queue of people able and willing to do whatever it takes to get into conservation, but we need to start seeing all the people who never had the option to join the queue.

Career changers with childcare commitments and mortgages to pay, care leavers struggling with rent, anyone whose parents can’t afford to bail them out if their car breaks down...

It is not the remit of the countryside and conservation industry to right all social wrongs, but it is on us to ensure we have the most talented, competent, passionate and representative workforce we possibly can, working for wildlife. When significant voluntary experience and several tickets is a pre-request to even “entry level” roles, we’re slamming the door on potential.

Training is an inherent and required aspect of any job – it’s not a substitute for payment. Providing accommodation in leu of a salary is equally unfair because although it may help with living expenses, no one can live off air, especially if they’re expected to operate a chainsaw all day! Asking anyone to work unpaid for 3-days a week (or more) leaves them just 3 days to earn a living – assuming they’re allowed one day off. On minimum wage that would be £10,000 a year (approx. in 2020, for over 25 year olds’), manageable in some locations but considerable less than the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Minimum Income standard for a single adult. In some cases, volunteering over a certain number of hours can also jeopardise state benefit claims, further restricting who can get involved.

Impacting our sector

Low pay is normalised in our sector, to the extent that it can be easy to forget just how out of line our salaries are with the level of skill and training expected, particularly at entry level. None of us pursued a career in conservation for the money, but this is a predicament that has got worse over the years. Graduates now leave university with upwards of £50,000 of debt – if we expect them also to limit their earning potential for another year or two post-graduation then the sector becomes increasingly unappealing.

We also need to look seriously at the impact on our wider industry. Gradually replacing entry level and assistant roles with trainees – paid or unpaid - undermines everyone’s right to fair pay, eroding pay scales higher up and impacting the quality of work we deliver. Trainees may be bright, talented individuals but if we increasingly rely on them to deliver frontline work then the transient nature of these roles means we’re missing out on the benefits of having longer term staff in post. Staff who know a site, can work consistently year-on-year and can integrate into the local community.

Industry standards and laws

Volunteer law is notoriously knotty. Whilst not strictly illegal many of these trainee roles do toy with the laws designed to protect volunteers and charities. Roles which provide strict job descriptions, specified hours and define a minimum length of term largely fall into the definition of “voluntary worker” rather than a true “volunteer”. It’s shaky ground, as even when it is specifically stated that such terms do not constitute a contract - an act of organisational arse-covering – a contract could still be proven, as has been done in other industries.

Whilst many traineeships boast their successful employment figures, let’s not forget there is no guarantee that anyone actually will get a job at the end. There is no industry standard for these roles and quality varies. Some traineeships are very well planned, offering individuals broad experience, a suite of qualifications, and genuine flexibility to allow people to fit their parttime volunteering around their primary job. Other traineeships offer nothing above “on the job” experience or may offer brush-cutter and chainsaw tickets in exchange for 12 months of what is essentially contractor work, with not much more to bulk out the CV. There are also potentially fewer opportunities for these trainee-graduates to step into if these roles are indeed being used to replace what used to be seasonal contracts.

I know lots of people who have benefited from their traineeship, and if you work in the sector, you will too because we’re standing in the echo chamber! Sadly, I also know people who didn’t reach their goal. People who slipped back into old careers having burnt through their savings, people who took “relevant” stop-gap jobs with contractors but haven’t moved on to the dream job, and people who never really had the aptitude for the work but found out the long and expensive way instead of being turned down gracefully at interview stage.

Many universities now take a dim view of unpaid work placements and will no longer advertise them. Graduate Fog don’t shy away from naming and shaming charities which exploit career seekers. The tide has turned, and this has the potential to come down on the conservation sector like a ton of bricks.

The National Trust have already led the way by winding down their unpaid careerships in favour of paid apprenticeships. NT and RSPB were both involved in the 2015 NVCO review of volunteer traineeships. Many organisations continue to advertise these roles though, to mixed reactions, each year and when one organisation uses exploitative voluntary trainee roles it drags us all down.

This is something we have been talking about for far too long, it’s time to actually take action and set some industry standards. Could we form a working group? Join together to set up a standard that serves both individuals and the sector? We need to hear from everyone: assistants, rangers, volunteer managers, senior leadership, trustees and, of course, students and trainees. So consider this a call to action, and if you want to get involved, make sure you make yourself heard on the Facebook page. Let’s see if we are brave enough to consider real and impactful change.

We are all just trying to do our best for wildlife and offering “voluntary traineeships” can be a way to offer willing early-career conservationists experience in the sector, whilst getting work done on small budgets. But we need to recognise that this approach is a barrier to diversity, erodes overall quality of conditions and pay, and the lack of industry standards can leave individuals vulnerable to exploitation and our sector open to reputational damage. It is high time we stopped making excuses and pulled together on this because we need to do better, for people and for wildlife.

Further reading:

https://knowhow.ncvo.org.uk/your-team/volunteers-and-your-organisation/ncvoguidancevolunteerinternshipsvoluntarysector.pdf

https://www.countryside-jobs.com/article/2020-03-05-when-is-a-volunteer-not-a-volunteer

Find out more about the latest Countryside Ranger Apprenticeship in this recent article for CJS at http://c-js.co.uk/3bgC6MD

It's not only happening in countryside management. There has been recent discussion within CIEEM and elsewhere on exploiting freelancers and early career ecologists. Read recent blog posts and articles originally published in CIEEM's InPractice magazine. Now freely available online here 

JOIN THE DISCUSSION on the facebook page here

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