Building toward a diverse environmental workforce

Logo: Action for Conservation

In 2020, Voyage Youth, Generation Success, Students Organising for Sustainability UK and Action for Conservation joined forces with 33 leading nature and sustainability organisations to launch Race for Nature’s Recovery, an employment scheme to support 125 young people from predominantly underrepresented backgrounds into paid six month work placements. Now, 18 months after the scheme launched, we are reflecting on the changes, learnings and challenges from the scheme and looking to the future.

'We are honoured to have informed, inspired and invigorated such a wide range of young people through this scheme,” says Paul Anderson, Chief Executive Voyage Youth. “In doing so, we have helped instill in them a belief that they can go beyond just occupying positions in the sector. They can thrive, and in doing so open doors for others to follow.”

How did the scheme benefit young people?

We’re delighted that nearly two thirds of young people from the scheme are still working in the sector today. This progression is primarily owed to their tenacity, hard work and passion but we’re delighted that the scheme helped them get a foot in the door. Some progressed within their host organisations, like Ymani who was hired full time at Friends of the Earth following her placement. Others leveraged their placement experience to apply for roles elsewhere, like Sam who completed his placement at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and progressed onto a Membership Manager role at the London Wildlife Trust.

During their placements, young people undertook dedicated training and mentoring from our partnership. The majority of young people felt this support boosted their workplace skills, environmental knowledge and, most importantly, confidence that their voice would be valued in their workplace and self-awareness of their strengths in the role.

“The training has really given me the opportunity for deeper self-reflection in relation to my place, feelings, conduct and general functioning in a professional setting. It also helped to better define my current industry and set me up for future opportunities,” reflected a young person in the scheme.

Young people could also access bespoke career ‘matchmaking’ and job application support as they approached the end of their placement.

Picture of Jah in a white t-shirt in front of trees and plants.
Jah, who was a Youth Engagement and Administration Assistant, Action for Conservation through the RFN scheme (Action for Conservation)

What changes did the scheme lead to?

Nearly all host organisations reported changes to recruitment and onboarding processes, making roles more inclusive and accessible for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. This included placing job ads within more diverse communities, removing unnecessary experience or education requirements on the job description and granting guaranteed interviews for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds who met all essential criteria.

‘Something we have changed a lot is our recruitment practices, trying to really address barriers,’ shared one host organisation. ‘We are seeing a broader range of candidates now for our other roles. I think that's one thing we've really gained from this experience.’

Host organisations changed their approach to staff retention and progression too. Many expanded their induction processes, including informal and social aspects such as explaining the dress code and what the team typically does for lunch. They also made specific efforts to introduce young people to senior individuals within the organisation to help them feel less overwhelmed and more connected to the wider organisation.

We became aware that organisations are able to legally advertise fixed termed traineeship roles exclusively to individuals from backgrounds underrepresented at a particular level of the organisation. This is classed as positive action and acceptable under employment law for trainee roles. The Environment Agency and the BBC have taken this approach to boost ethnic diversity within their teams. We hope this useful learning will boost diversity in future employment schemes.

You can read more about the changes implemented by host organisations in relation to staff recruitment, retention and progression in our learning resource.

What challenges did we face?

We were grateful to leverage funding from the Government’s Kickstart Scheme to cover the majority of salary costs for the placements. However, this meant that recruitment for all roles was facilitated by local Job Centres, making it difficult for the partnership to ensure that every role was filled by a young person from an underrepresented background and guarantee the reach we desired.

The short term duration of the placements was a big limitation. Several host organisations lacked the funding to extend their placements beyond the scheme. This inherent financial pressure also limited some organisations' ability to overcome ‘perceived risks’ in recruiting someone with less typical experience, academic background or qualifications.

Young people’s experiences varied across the scheme and some did face challenges along the way. Young people reported feelings of imposter syndrome in their placements, particularly where they perceived they lacked knowledge on environmental topics. Some individuals had their names mispronounced in the workplace and found it difficult to relate to their colleagues - no matter how well-meaning - due to the lack of diversity within their teams. Others felt frustrated about the lack of pathways for progression within their organisation or support to apply for internal opportunities.

What’s next for this work?

Race for Nature’s Recovery is one of the first initiatives to take tangible action in the sector to boost diversity in our workforce and we hope it will act as a catalyst for further change. Many host organisations reported significant changes in their leadership’s appetite to support similar initiatives and drive much needed change in this area. We were delighted to see that New to Nature, a new employment scheme for young people from underrepresented backgrounds, was instantly oversubscribed when it launched this autumn.

Now we’re exploring how we connect and deepen the impact of short term employment schemes to align them with existing initiatives and work happening in the sector to ensure lasting change and opportunities for young people.

In the autumn, we ran a series of focus groups with early-career young people from diverse backgrounds. These aimed to gather perspectives on barriers to progression in the sector and discuss the need for a tailored leadership programme for high-potential leaders from underrepresented backgrounds. We’re currently exploring how such a programme could be designed and funded.

We're also looking at how the sector can better inspire and prepare young people who haven’t yet started their career. We know we need more inclusive and targeted leadership and mentoring opportunities, increased campaigning for better careers guidance and schools engagement. Vitally, we need more permanent, paid traineeships for young people from diverse backgrounds to gain essential experience and ensure they’re ready to hit the ground running and feel confident shaking up the sector when they do join it. Similarly, we need progression schemes that support and mentor these young people to become established in the sector, addressing diversity at all levels within organisations and across the sector.

We’re excited about the change happening within the sector, as supporting more diverse young people into roles is only part of the solution. Organisational action around inclusion is fundamental to achieving lasting change. This autumn, Wildlife and Countryside Link launched a joint route map to boost ethnic diversity in the environmental sector, devised by the brilliant team at Full Colour. The route map outlines tangible milestones for an environmental charity, and key change agents within it, to take over the next five years to remove the barriers and ceilings to becoming more ethnically diverse. This is the sector’s very first shared vision for its diversity and inclusion efforts.

This ambition for change is underpinned by The RACE Report, which saw, in its first year, 91 nature and environmental organisations collect comparable data on racial diversity within their organisations and share this in a transparent, open and honest way, greater accountability and quicker change.

You can access our reports on the scheme on the resources page. If you have any questions about Race for Nature’s Recovery or any of the initiatives above, or simply want to learn more about how you can join the movement for a more inclusive environmental movement, please get in touch with us at

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Posted On: 17/02/2023

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