What volunteering experiences do employers rate?
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By Susanna Holford, Volunteering Co-ordinator, Dorset Wildlife Trust
Volunteering is fun, exciting, and sometimes life changing. People volunteer for a variety of reasons including health, physical fitness and wanting to change career. A career in conservation is a dream for most people, looking to work with wildlife, in the outdoors, actively helping species and habitat protection and recovery and inspiring and engaging with people from diverse communities. Volunteering is often a useful way of gaining experience to get a foot on the environmental career ladder. Volunteering enabled me to transfer from the health to the environment sector and to start a career again after eight years out of the workplace. I have been a volunteer, employee and sat on interview panels for Dorset Wildlife Trust so what volunteering experiences do employers rate?
Employers initially look for applicants who have had a volunteering experience relevant to the job they are applying for. For example, skills learnt surveying heathland plants in Surrey are going to be more pertinent for a job as a countryside ranger in the Dorset heathlands. than experience surveying parrots in Australia, exotic and adventurous though it might be.
When an employer is choosing between candidates who have similar volunteering experiences, they will look at the “soft skills” obtained by applicants in their volunteering experiences. “Soft skills” is a term used by employers to describe the people skills employees should have to succeed in a workplace. Examples of soft skills are flexibility, teamwork, time management, communication, leadership, presentation skills and problem solving. Research programme volunteering such as the Dorset Seal Project for example involves considerable data manipulation. This helps develop critical thinking skills as volunteers must collect, analyse, and interpret data, explain the results, and hypothesise a solution to the problem. Outdoor -based careers such as rangers and wildlife surveyors also need good IT and report writing skills which can be developed through office volunteering.
Evidence of volunteering over a reasonable amount of time for one or more organisations is useful because it shows commitment, loyalty, and enthusiasm. Specific skills may also be honed during this time. Volunteering experiences in a range of conservation organisations are useful as each organisation will have their own ethos and emphasis, and different methods of working. In addition, a variety of experience is helpful so habitat management on woodlands and heathlands is better than experience on one habitat, similarly surveying experience of several distinct types of wildlife is better than surveying only one.
The environment sector is as much about collaborating with people and helping them connect with nature as working with and for wildlife so volunteering in and outside the environmental sector with young people, people with mental health problems and people with additional needs for example can be useful because conservation officers and centre staff will collaborate with diverse communities.
Finally, employers notice candidates who have a unique selling point so an unusual or innovative volunteering opportunity which develops unique skills that other staff and candidates do not have will stand out. For example, learning to fly a drone which can take video and photo footage to help map reserves using Geographical Information Systems or working on pioneering projects such as the reintroduction of beavers and rewilding at Wild Woodbury run by Dorset Wildlife Trust.
Volunteering was life-changing for me and for those of you out there seeking employment in conservation, I wish you good luck!
Case study: Luke Johns, Poole Harbour Reserves Officer and Jonny Owen, Wild Brownsea Project Officer
“As with any candidate for employment we are looking for a broad range of relevant experience within the sector and a commitment to pursuing a career in conservation. Jonny did not have a university degree when he first started, but he showed a commitment by volunteering for a considerable period with Dorset Wildlife Trust and other organisations before taking a leap into a traineeship. At the end of his traineeship, he knew that he needed to gain more practical experience so he chose a job that would help him with that. He then came back to us with exactly what he needed to take the next step into a Project Officer role which encompasses both engagement and practical conservation.’
I was a relative latecomer to the environmental sector in my mid-thirties. As part of my career switch, I enrolled in an Open University degree in Environmental Science. However, it was the breadth of volunteering I did alongside my degree that gave me the practical skills, species ID knowledge and broad experience which meant I was able to secure a traineeship with Dorset Wildlife Trust. My volunteering journey began with the weekly Dorset Wildlife Trust Great Heath practical work parties where I began to learn about heathland ecology and management, use of hand tools and get a feel for the sector. Simultaneously, I volunteered once a week with National Trust on the Cyril Diver survey project. Here, I got to rub shoulders with experts and assist with surveys, quickly discovering a passion for botany. This enabled me to progress to a key volunteer role with Dorset Wildlife Trust as a Sites of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) botanical surveyor. I deepened this understanding of botanical surveys by volunteering with the Species Recovery Trust to monitor rare marsh clubmoss. Heathlands were becoming a major fascination, so I volunteered with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust helping to look after habitats such as making sand-scrapes. In all, I volunteered for around two years before landing my first paid conservation role. Volunteering was the key to changing my life and has made my dream to work in conservation come true! One last piece of advice – do record all your volunteering! Make yourself a simple spreadsheet and log dates, organisations, tasks completed and the contact details of the volunteer coordinators. This will be invaluable when it comes to applying for conservation roles.
Case study: Marc Kativu-Smith Coastal Centres Manager, and Sarah Hodgson, Coastal Centres Assistant
Sarah undertook several volunteering activities including helping with events, school groups, beach cleans and survey work, which as well as being great fun, helped her to develop skills like species identification, planning, public speaking, creative thinking, communication, working with partners and provided her with Health and Safety knowledge. These skills and knowledge are invaluable if you want to work in an engagement role in conservation and are also transferable to other jobs and sectors. Sarah learnt a lot of skills that equipped her to be successful in her new role, and volunteering with Dorset Wildlife Trust was an enjoyable and important part of that journey.
I began volunteering with Dorset Wildlife Trust nine years ago and quickly knew that this was a career I wanted to pursue. My role as a volunteer marine warden at the Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge Bay was immensely varied from assisting with guided Rockpool Rambles and visiting school groups to carrying out seashore surveys and beach cleans. As well as working alongside some very passionate people, in an amazing location, it was incredibly rewarding to feel like I was doing something meaningful and inspiring others.
As a volunteer I was also entrusted to take on a key role in the Dorset Seal Project. Through collecting data and creating a seal photo identification catalogue the project aimed to improve our understanding of the seals that were frequently spotted along the coast. This really gave me the opportunity to learn and develop valuable new skills such as forming links with local community, stakeholders and other organisations, data analysis, report writing and public speaking – something which I used to dread but I now have so much more confidence, having delivered talks at conferences to audiences of up to 150 people!
Now employed by Dorset Wildlife Trust as a Coastal Centres Assistant, I believe that the knowledge and experience I gained whilst volunteering played a fundamental role in my journey into conservation.
Case study: Colleen Smith-Moore, Wild Paths Coordinator and Sophia Nagle, Wild Paths Trainee
Sophia’s application to the Wild Paths traineeship stood out, due to her volunteering and love of engaging people with conservation. Her passion for this was demonstrated by the variety of volunteering that she had participated in. This included supporting community activities such as scavenger hunts and bushcraft events at Lorton Meadows, Weymouth; supporting other charities, within the adventure and survival skills remit; and leading Girl Guides. This demonstrated a love of being outside, inspiring others and a willingness to support and teach. Combined with Sophia’s volunteering for Dorset Wildlife Trust this demonstrated how much Sophia wanted to get into full time employment within conservation. We knew that she was passionate and would maximise every minute of a funded traineeship to learn as much as possible about practical conservation. We were able to provide Sophia and nine other trainees in the Southwest with this fantastic opportunity, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
I knew from an early age that I wished to pursue a career which would allow me to spend a lot of time in nature. In my teens, my family relocated to Dorset after some time overseas and, to meet people in my community, I began volunteering for Dorset Wildlife Trust at fortnightly task days at their Lorton Meadows reserve. Although this was infrequent, over the course of two or three winters I became acquainted with various people and other opportunities for volunteering within the Trust and other organisations, including local projects and the RSPB. As well as gaining valuable practical experience and making contacts within my chosen industry, I gained an understanding of the way conservation organisations work, and the types of roles which would become available to me in the future. Eventually this led to me gaining a traineeship with Dorset Wildlife Trust, where I’m now learning a lot and filling the gaps in my skill set. I’m confident that, on completion of the traineeship, I’ll be able to gain full-time, permanent work in wildlife conservation.
The Wild Paths project jointly hosts ten trainees, in five southwest Wildlife Trusts: Avon, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. It is a fantastic scheme funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The partnership offers people from diverse backgrounds a chance to access bursary funded, work-based training and enter a career in the natural heritage sector.
First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in affiliation with the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) on 28 February 2022. Read the full issue here
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