Recruitment in the Countryside Sector
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An opinion piece from Gemma Gregory, Senior Project Officer and Mark Hudson, Assistant Area Manager
Derbyshire County Council’s Countryside Service has a 50+ year history of looking after countryside sites across the county of Derbyshire (excluding the Peak District), including woodlands, country parks, canals, former stately homes and an impressive multi-user trails network. We have grown from a small team, brought together from several complementary parts of the Council to support the restoration of many post-industrial sites in the 1970s and 80s, to a team of 100-plus staff in its heyday in the early to mid 2000s. We now stand at around 50 full time equivalent staff, following a series of cuts, savings, and then the impacts of austerity on the Council’s budget. Such is the life of a non-Statutory service, but we’re still here and are very grateful for that – many other similar services are long gone.
What we’ve begun to notice in recent times is a real difficulty in recruiting experienced and skilled staff, especially at the front line of our sector – Wardens and Rangers. Where in the past we’ve received up to 80 applicants for a Warden post, now we are more likely to see 9 or 10, of which 1 or 2 are of the standard to be offered an interview. Also, applicants are less knowledgeable, have fewer years of experience (if any at all), and have fewer practical skills. This seems to be a trend across the sector, where we are seeing posts re-advertised several times, even for the previously much-coveted National Trust posts. We are also finding that good quality candidates have the pick of the roles, and when offered a post may decline and go elsewhere. So what is happening to recruitment in our sector?
There may be a number of factors at play here: wages have never been sensational in countryside management. Perhaps this is now more of a factor for younger people considering this as a career? It is definitely a factor in people leaving our sector. Post-degree there are now so many more options for work in the environmental sector, many of which are better paid. Jobs in the ‘climate change’ arena are better paid, perhaps because they are seen as ‘professional’ roles. There remains a legacy of countryside management being regarded as ‘manual work’, despite the levels of education within the workforce. There is no doubt that jobs in the outdoors, in all weathers, can be demanding on the body. Perhaps this is also keeping people away from the sector, or even causing skilled and experienced staff to leave the sector as they get older?
Another factor at play here is the longer-term impact of austerity. The loss of many Council countryside services and reductions in roles within the central Government departments such as Natural England, has shrunk the sector. This has also had an impact on those charities which have traditionally relied upon Council contracts to support their wider work. In short, the paid jobs market in the countryside management sector has shrunk quite considerably, and therefore this may have discouraged people from even considering our sector as a career. Training, especially at degree level, is expensive and therefore a considerable long-term investment. A lack of paid roles may have been discouraging people from setting out on a career in countryside management. And who can blame them?
So, what do we do about this situation? Well, the countryside management sector is becoming more and more relevant with climate change and the biodiversity crisis being in the news and in the hearts and minds of the public. There is no doubt that the sector needs its consultants, and other higher paid roles, but it also needs the ‘do-ers’. We need people educating the public about the importance of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in the countryside and in our parks, we need trees to be planted, habitats to be managed, fences to be mended and paths to be accessible. We need to retain the skills and knowledge of more experienced staff by passing them on to a fresh new cohort of enthusiastic people starting out in their careers. But most of all, perhaps we need to raise the profile of our excellent front-line staff. They are going to be the real heroes of reversing climate change and the biodiversity crisis, if we are to achieve those two huge goals.
Perhaps we also need to acknowledge a painful truth – for a long time the countryside management sector was populated by traditionally white, male and middle-class staff. We have tackled some of this over time, and there are now more women than ever wielding a chainsaw, but shouldn’t we be broadening our appeal further and reaching out directly to under-represented communities? Outreach and engagement are paramount here and I think the countryside sector needs to engage more with communities that do not visit and understand the countryside – maybe we need to be focusing less on the countryside and more on the urban centres – to bring countryside to these areas? We’re starting to work with our HR recruitment specialists to try and reach our wider communities in Derbyshire, and would encourage others to do the same (if they aren’t already).
We also perhaps need to accept that people applying for our jobs may be less-experienced, but that we will do whatever it takes to invest in those people, in whatever way we can, to build those skills and develop that experience. This may not mean that we need vast training funds, but could we be taking other opportunities to grow skills and knowledge, alongside getting chainsaw tickets? Job-swaps, work shadowing, mentoring, acting-up opportunities, working together more to share expertise. One thing that is a positive is that there are more people applying now who have attended apprenticeships. Apprenticeships allow younger people, and those older people wishing to change career, to gain valuable experience alongside long-term experienced staff and paid for tickets, whilst getting paid for it. Apprenticeships are very relevant today and could be used to reach those communities that are still largely underrepresented in the countryside management field.
We have never been more relevant as a sector, and it’s a genuinely exciting time to be working in countryside management. It’s time to re-focus and invest in our people to do the important jobs that they have ahead of them. It may also be time to start having some conversations about pay, and how others view us.
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