Click to read: From one debt to the next: what does the future hold for conservation graduates?

From one debt to the next: what does the future hold for conservation graduates?

Gerald Durrell, like most naturalists of his time, hoped dearly that an enthusiastic, passionate generation would be excited to follow in his footsteps. And this is exactly what has happened. Only, a great proportion of these dedicated conservation crusaders who have trained tirelessly and volunteered where possible, are facing relentless rejection from conservation organisations for entry-level positions and internships.

My generation was the first to be brought up in a world where the impacts of biodiversity loss are well understood and well conveyed. The introduction of the Zoo Licensing Act in 1981 meant that zoos in the UK were no longer just tourist attractions and, since before I was born, have been required to contribute to conservation in some way. We were taught from a young age about the importance of biodiversity conservation; it is no surprise that so many became inspired to make a difference.

A great number of young people have spent substantial sums of money on animal- and plant-related degrees, before accepting even more debt to cover post-graduate study upon realising a degree was no longer sufficient. In choosing wildlife conservation as a career, graduates have already surrendered to the fact that their salaries may be considerably lower than those of many of their peers who chose different paths, yet they still struggle to get onto the first rung of the career ladder.

Landing the perfect role

The Internet is not short of advice for budding conservationists on how to land their perfect role, but none of these posts are without the term ‘volunteering’. We are already in buckets of debt, and now we are told that we must undertake not one, but several volunteering roles in order to boost our CVs enough to be considered for an entry-level position with a salary that doesn’t reach the threshold required to start paying back our student loans.

There is no denying that this trend favours the wealthy. Some argue that they simply could not afford to live if they spent the majority of their time in an unpaid role; many have so much study debt that it wouldn’t be possible. And then there are those who, though they may have the means, aren’t comfortable not earning – they don’t want to be reliant on their partner, family or friends footing the bills – and why should they have to be?

I asked Amy Davies, Head of Human Resources at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, whether volunteering is one of the most important things to have on a CV. In her response, Amy stated that she thinks volunteering is important for more junior positions, but “that doesn’t mean you have to travel to the other side of the world and spend the remainder of your student loan to get there. Securing a role is as much about behaviours as it is about practical experience, so often employers are looking for evidence of volunteer work that might highlight your strengths as a team player, or your ability to lead a group or manage a project – and that could be within a conservation-related organisation close to home.”

She went on to note that “Self-study and improved learning is also important, if you can’t afford to volunteer further afield, then take steps to improve and track your knowledge. Attend seminars, go to conferences, become a member of accredited conservation bodies. This all looks good on a CV and can also serve as an excellent networking tool.”

Are the current recruitment trends sustainable?

Surely more and more people are going to be put off the idea of a conservation career when they realise the depth of the commitment. I tried to find potential solutions to this recruitment issue, but it hardly seems to be acknowledged. Conservation organisations simply don’t have enough funding, and this is a global problem to which there is no quick fix.  

When asked if the number of applicants Durrell gets per role is increasing, Amy replied:

“The important thing for me to note here is that ‘Durrell’ as an organisation is made up of people with various skill areas, backgrounds and experiences, and I’m sure everybody involved considers themselves to be in some way conservation focused, working towards achieving our mission. They may be within our mission enabling network (e.g. fundraisers, support staff) or our mission-delivering network (e.g. field project staff, zoo keepers).

“In terms of candidates with conservation-related degrees, being completely honest, the vacancies do not come up often, which means we do receive unsolicited applications and requests for work over and above our normal recruitment drives. We also see a spike in candidates asking to work for us for a fixed period, paid or unpaid, but for us to sponsor their travel and living expenses, which we just don’t have the capacity for. Ultimately, we are a charity, and every penny is spent carefully.”

Amy thinks that the calibre of applicants is also increasing; “people are aware of the salary restrictions that apply when working for a charitable organisation so we generally tend to get high-calibre candidates who are passionate and have a willingness to demonstrate ability.

“In specific reference to graduate candidates with conservation backgrounds, we are seeing increased reference to volunteering to highlight dedication and on-site learning. They want to work here and so they take the criteria seriously. Candidates are also showing a willingness to improve their applications and sell themselves, using internships, volunteering and training in addition to qualifications and work experience.”

Is there any hope for more conservation funding globally and in turn, more paid conservation jobs in the near future? Amy isn’t expecting to see big changes any time soon. “Until we (and by 'we' I mean all people) consider conservation to be worthy of investment, the cycle of unemployment in degree-qualified candidates will continue to a certain extent”, she warns. “We are dependent on organisations, including partnerships, which value our mission delivery goals and we will continue to try and educate others in order to secure future funding.”

Posted 20 September 2017

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