Guest Blog – Conservation bursaries by Oliver Simms

MaltaOliver Simms has recently graduated from Durham University with a Classics degree and is about to start work as an accountant at the National Audit Office. He is a keen birder, hill walker and passionate conservationist, who has volunteered extensively including at Raptor Camp in Malta. He has served as Trip and Partnerships Officer for Next Generation Birders for the past year but is standing down next week due to his new job.

Back in April, Danny Heptinstall wrote a thought-provoking piece on this blog calling for a “youth conservation movement”. Anyone present at Birdfair, who would have seen over 100 Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature members present, would agree that we now have one. As I sat with fellow members of this “youth conservation movement” in a pub in Oakham on the Saturday night of the fair, conversation turned to the barriers facing young people in conservation. The usual answers like the lack of environmental education in schools or the desire of young people to get rich were brought up but what I feel is one of the most significant barriers to young people pursuing a career in conservation was largely ignored until I brought it up.

I have become increasingly concerned that the requirement of the majority of entry level conservation jobs for applicants to have at least a year’s unpaid volunteering experience is a significant barrier to young people from poorer backgrounds. The placements offered by large charitable organisations like the RSPB and National Trust are great but participants either depend on the support of their parents or have saved up enough money to fund their living costs during the placement. With the increasingly crippling costs of living, an increasing number of young people, particularly those struggling with university debts, are not in this position. As competition for jobs in conservation is so great, these placements are effectively a prerequisite but, in my opinion, the question now has to be asked whether having this experience is really a test of passion for conservation or the wealth of someone’s parents.

I decided against pursuing a career in conservation at this stage but this post is not about people like me. I am very fortunate that my parents could have supported me through an unpaid placement but I know many cases of people who have turned the back on a conservation career simply because they could not afford it. I also know of an individual who was forced to give up a placement with a large charity due to financial issues, despite loving his work. Thankfully he has not given up his dream of working in conservation but many would in his situation.

The two solutions often suggested are that young people from poorer backgrounds doing placements can even find part time work or sign on. For some, these may be an option but not in the majority of cases. Many understandably do not wish to claim benefits and the law is very ambiguous over whether this is permitted during such long placements, while finding part time work is often impossible for people at the more remote reserves or those without good evening public transport connections. I posted my thoughts on this issue on the A Focus on Nature Facebook page and a couple of people posted examples of paid placements open to those without substantial experience. I urge anyone considering a career in conservation to have a look but they were noticeably limited in number. More surely needs to be done.

In an ideal world, all these placements would be paid but I appreciate funding is tight for conservation charities. My solution would be a bursary scheme to fund minimum wage 6 month or year long placements for those from the poorest backgrounds. I would like these to work in such a way that young people apply for the same unpaid placements as those from richer backgrounds and then the bursary is awarded after the application is successful. How exactly this would work requires fine tuning but it is essential that the funded placements do not soon become like other entry level conservation jobs and require a mountain of experience.

The benefits of my proposal are obvious for young people looking to get in to conservation but what are the benefits for charities when there is so much pressure on funds and there are multiple applicants for each unpaid position? The first is simple – passionate young people, who could make a great contribution to the work of these charities, are not prevented from working for them by financial constraints. The second though is even more important. Making conservation careers accessible to people from all backgrounds is surely going to make it less of a middle-class elite issue and bring it in to the mainstream. A passionate employee of a conservation charity is surely going to spread the word of campaigns and issues to friends and family. I know this is optimistic but my proposed bursary scheme could be the first step in moving issues like Hen Harrier persecution, so important to readers of this blog, in to the eye of most the public.

For the reasons I have outlined above, I am now calling on charities, such as the RSPB and National Trust, to set up this bursary scheme and on the youth conservation movement to lobby to make it happen.

If anyone wants to discuss the issues with me, comment below or e-mail oliver@cornwood.co.uk

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25 Replies to “Guest Blog – Conservation bursaries by Oliver Simms”

  1. Thank you for saying this, this is a hugely significant barrier to many attempting to enter the conservation sector, but may I make an additional point.

    It is not just youngsters who have trouble funding these placements. I am 37, 1 unit short of having 2 masters degrees & have disabilities, nameably mild aspergers & related anxiety & depression. To have a lifelong disability is expensive, so has sucked what little savings I had out of my accounts a long time ago & finding work is hard when you have stigma to fight as well as the sheer volume of applicants..

    I'm guess what I'm trying to say is poverty & its barriers exclude many from being able to fund these placements, so it would be fantastic if they could be available to all who can prove need. Then my heart may stop breaking every time I have to pass an opportunity by because I can't afford it.

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  2. Oli,

    great post on an important issue. I completely agree and would probably go further. Conservation NGOs, like companies across society, need to stop using interns to do unpaid work. Volunteering is more difficult - some people use volunteering as a leisure time activity, but where it is genuinely used by someone as a career progression opportunity, unpaid volunteering should be avoided.

    Otherwise, as you say, the conservation movement will continue to be made up of a small section of society (white, middle-class and often male). This makes the movement weaker and reinforces existing injustices.

    Because of this, we can't just pass the buck to the large conservation NGOs. It's also up to the likes of us (A Focus on Nature, Next Generation Birders) to do some of this work, by building alliances with organisations we wouldn't normally work with - Black Environment Network, Women in Conservation Leadership and those interested in birdwatching, nature and conservation in less affluent inner city areas. As our experience has taught us, let's lead, and maybe the big NGOs will realise they'll get left behind if they don't follow.

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  3. A great blog, but it's not just about young people, there are a vast amount of people out there with years of experience that could do great things for conservation. People who have ideas to challenge current ways of doing things because they've seen it not just read about it. You can't just learn about conservation you have to live it and breath it, this only come with time, NGO's should look at all ages. I've also seen many young people give a year to NGO's only to be told that the funding for their role has gone and they have wasted a year of their lives, some have just been used as free labour.

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  4. I agree in theory with everything that has been said and I think that conservation is overwhelmingly middle class - a bursary scheme would be massively beneficial to some of those looking to work in conservation but in reality is probably a few years off. I do also believe, however, that there are misconceptions about volunteering, placements and so forth, and also positive steps that every young person can take who wants to work in conservation.
    First off, conservation volunteering doesn't necessarily have to involve coppicing, planting hedgerows, digging scrapes and so forth (the practical side of conservation) - there are lots of jobs with a focus on communications, education and writing, and the commitment in reality needed to volunteer in these areas isn't massive. Writing you can do from home in the evenings (you don't even need a car!) - that's what I did (blogging and writing articles for a couple of Wildlife Trusts) and it gave me valuable lessons that have led to bigger and better things. Volunteer with your Wildlife Watch once a month, or help out with social media output. Take the skills that you already have and make it work for you, expand on them, and make it fit with your future job.
    Secondly, a large part of this is simply society shifting from one where a degree was all that mattered to gain employment, to one where experience and education go hand in hand (even though I know some excellent folk in conservation who don't have degrees at all!). There are few students (excepting medical students, vets, and so forth) who can truly claim that they don't have time to volunteer whilst at University: there are few courses where the contact hours are more than 20 per week, and in reality in total most courses don't top 40: that leaves plenty of time to get stuck in to a bit of volunteering whilst your student loan is supporting you financially, thus making you far more employable when you leave education.
    Finally, this isn't just about conservation. I have a friend who now works as a nurse: she has a strong degree in the subject but also had to have months worth of voluntary/low-paid experience (in some pretty horrendous places) before she got on to the course, let alone in to the job. The same goes for a friend working in journalism, and another who works in teaching. Most jobs now require experience as well as education, and it is surely the responsibility of educators (teachers, lecturers, etc.) to emphasise this to their students whilst they are in education, and the responsibility of the students to act on it.
    Well done to Oli, though, for bringing up this engaging subject and very well written, too!

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    1. Great comment Lucy. It is important for every aspiring young conservationist to make the most of every opportunity to gain experience and, as Lucy suggests, this can include making your own opportunities.
      I have seen plenty of CVs from young people claiming to be 'passionate' about the environment but with no evidence of having done anything beyond watching Attenborough on the television. Those youngsters who from an early age get involved in activities such as wildlife recording, conservation volunteering, blogging, campaigning and so forth stand a much better chance of getting a job than those who simply wait until they have completed their degree and then start applying for placements.
      This does not mean that Oliver has not identified a genuine issue or proposed a potentially interesting way of resolving it, but before you ever get to the stage of applying for placements with conservation bodies there is a lot you can do to improve your chances without needing a massive bank balance behind you. What's more it is fun and fascinating and will provide a lifelong interest whether or not you end up working in conservation!
      There are, by the way, some great examples of young people demonstrating real commitment and enthusiasm who feature from time to time on this blog.

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      1. "'passionate' about the environment"

        A phrase that should be retired from use - like "many and various" it marks the user as vapid, insipid, uninspired, colourless, uninteresting, feeble, flat, dead, dull, boring, tedious, tired, unexciting, uninspiring, unimaginative, lifeless, zestless, spiritless, sterile, anaemic, tame, bloodless, jejune, vacuous, bland, stale, trite, pallid, wishy-washy, watery, tasteless, milk-and-water, flavourless and a complete ****-wit to boot.

        Nevertheless it is much favoured by NGOs

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        1. filbert - have you been on holiday? Did you have a nice time or not? You seem tetchier than usual on your return?

          At least you are passionate about the English language - if that isn't too much of a cliche?

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  5. I totally agree with you Oliver. I have volunteered over 350 hours for various animal establishments, done work experience with Wolf Watch UK and have good connections with people. This experience wouldn't have been possible if I did not have a generous bursary from Durham University. I have worked part-time every year since 2008; varying from retail, catering and elderly care. I have managed to secure a year industrial placement with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which thankfully provides accommodation and a stipend.

    I rely heavily on student finance, because my £2 a week pocket money from my grandparents isn't quite going to cut it. As someone who would like to be financially independent, I have come to realise that the likelihood of me ever earning a wage high enough to even start to pay back my university fees is slim. However I don't mind the looming debt if I am doing a job that I love and working with animals.

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  6. Thanks to everyone for their comments so far.

    Matt - I agree that they should all be paid but this is a good start. Paid internships also solve the problem that others have brought up about it not just affecting young people. However, just because we can't help everyone does not mean we should try to help those most in need of the help - young people from poorer backgrounds.

    Lucy - I agree that there are many things young people can do while they are at university and volunteering is a great thing to do. However, as conservation jobs become even more competitive, these longer placements are becoming more of the norm and they are excluding people from poorer backgrounds. I also agree it is not just a problem in conservation but that does not make it acceptable.

    Thanks for the comments, likes and retweets. We now need to work out how to make it happen. I look forward to a response from the RSPB, Natural England and the National Trust.

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  7. There are clearly issues about how people can manage to start a career in conservation, and the abundance of talent competing for limited numbers of jobs has both upsides and downsides. I do, however, sometimes think we underestimate the good that you can do in support of conservation even if not actually employed by a conservation body.
    Like Oliver, I'm a classicist (Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Philosophy in my case). After leaving university I joined NatWest, retiring from them twenty years ago – long before the financial crisis and also long before any bonus culture! I did various jobs in NatWest, including trust work, which gave me an insight into charity law, and I ended up in financial control and corporate strategy. At the age of 32 I was invited to be Treasurer of BOU and I once worked out that from then until I was about 65 or 66 (I'm 70 now), there was only a single period of about 8 months when I wasn't doing something, usually finance related, for at least one conservation charity or another (I've also been Treasurer of BTO). Where are the 32 year old Treasurers now? Don't underestimate the challenges of the the role and the good you can do. There should be no shortage of opportunities.
    I have also been a paid employee of a conservation charity, working at BirdLife International part time for five years after leaving NatWest. Producing project accounts for funders may not sound riveting stuff but unless it's done right, funders won't pay up. It helped that I knew both about money and conservation.
    I've even managed to do a bit in the field. I've been a ringer for over fifty years, and went on the early expeditions studying fat deposition in trans-Saharan migrants in the Iberian peninsula. I invented the whoosh net, which has helped in the catching of many species of conservation concern, and I have been part of a large and successful project putting up nest boxes for Barn Owls.
    I'm very sorry that this sounds like blowing my own trumpet, but I can't think of any other way to try to encourage people, particularly younger people, that there is lots of good you can do for conservation even if it isn't your main career. My great future is now behind me, but for those whose futures are still ahead of them, don't despair! Something will turn up. Lots of different skills are needed in the service of conservation. There's even a case for making a lot of money somewhere and giving it to conservation!
    Oliver, and anyone else feeling the same as you, good luck!
    PS. I very nearly wrote something like this in response to Danny's guest blog, but by the time I had formulated my thoughts, the moment had passed.

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  8. Froglife, have for a long time held this view and tried to support those who for various reasons face barriers to engaging with conservation.

    Most recently we have advertised a paid traineeship on our Scottish Dragon Finder project based in Glasgow. This received incredibly high numbers of applications which further demonstrates the need for this type of opportunity.

    That said, another point that I feel you ought to take into consideration is the fact that there are a huge number of well qualified, experienced candidates who also struggle to get on the job ladder due to the lack of available job opportunities. These people may well have managed to fund their way through volunteering/internships/degrees/masters but still struggle to get employment.

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  9. In my experience, there are schemes out there that offer these opportunities, they are just not very evenly distributed and too few in number. The organisation that I work for, Bristol Natural History Consortium (www.bnhc.org.uk), has been able to offer a series of paid six month placements over the last four years thanks to funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund's Skills for the Future Programme http://www.hlf.org.uk/HowToApply/programmes/Pages/SkillsfortheFuture.aspx#.U_4GNsU7fTY.

    Each placement has prioritised different groups during the recruitment stage. I was a classic example of a graduate with little practical experience, without the means to spend a year doing voluntary work, and the placement gave me the perfect entry into the sector that I needed. I was then able to secure a full-time post at BNHC, and have been here since. Other people who have completed the placement have included someone who despite being a passionate naturalist and communicator was working as an estate agent, finding it difficult to break into the sector due to not having a degree. The placement gave her the opportunity to prove her skills and make the career change that she had been desperate to make for years.

    We are now at the stage where the grant funding will end in November, so next year unfortunately we won't be able to run the placement in the same way, but I'm sure will look to do something similar in the future.

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  10. I agree that some kind of bursary could help people fund residential volunteering, but I think minimum wage is a bit too much, especially as many entry level conservation jobs are only minimum wage or perhaps slightly above it. Perhaps £30 per week or slightly more, would be better as this would still be enough to buy food, and a few other things (like your phone, for example) as well as visiting home every now and then?

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      1. Well maybe £30 per week is a little low, but if you've just graduated and have been spending 3/4 years living as a student, you're probably used to trying to spend as little as possible. And as the accommodation for these residential volunteeting opportunities are often free (based on my research), surely providing you with say £30 or £50 per week would be fine as it's enough to buy good etc with?

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  11. Hi,
    Very thought provoking post Oliver. I have to say that I found myself nodding in agreement to a lot of Peter Wilkinson's and Lucy McRobert's replies. I work in conservation as a web developer and will soon be adding GIS to my skills. The whole essence of making things happen in conservation is made up of people with various skills, ultimately they're all working on the same team and hopefully caring about conservation, so there are a variety, but not necessarily a plethora, of opportunities to get involved on a professional level.
    I've just googled vacancies for a certain national conservation charity. The first post that caught my eye was for a "General Manager", involved in leading a team to reach membership recruitment targets, the wage: circa £40,000(+bonus), in my eyes this is a job for a proven salesperson, the charity needs membership money to acquire land and pay wardens etc…but a post requiring a deep seated passion for conservation?. A little further down the page was the post of "Warden", involved in leading a team to develop the reserves and improve the fortunes of threatened wildlife, the wage: £16,000 to £18,000.
    The idealist in me thinks that this wage gap is wholeheartedly wrong. But on the other hand, if someone is prepared to do the demanding job of a warden for such a low wage, then there's a good chance that they're the right person for the job, because they must care more about the job in hand than the money, right!? Or is it exploitative? I'm still not saying that this wage gap is right, but isn't this the same with volunteering, you are proving your commitment, you are doing it because you want to do it, rich or poor there is always a way to make things happen and perhaps that's a key indicator that a conservation employer will gleam from someone who has taken a harder route. It shows tenacity and adaptability to overcome problems of personal funding to pursue a long term voluntary placement particularly if you are from a poorer background. Tenacity, adaptability and making things happen from minimal funding are skills that are essential to individuals working in conservation.

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  12. Quick comment on the opening statement:

    "Danny Heptinstall wrote a piece on this blog calling for a “youth conservation movement”. Anyone present at Birdfair, who would have seen over 100 NGB & AFON members present, would agree that we now have one."

    I would disagree! Although admittedly I wasn't at the Birdfair this year...

    At the core of my April piece was the idea the UK youth conservation movement could be so much more with a little nurturing. Yes 100 young people is a fair number; but at my University alone we have more conservation-related students in a single year and across the country thousands of potentially interested young people remain unengaged. It is also worth remembering those 100 young people are a tiny fraction of the c.20,000 attendees of the Birdfair.

    That's not to dismiss or diminish the work of AFON or NGB, rather it highlights the reality of the situation. AFON and NGB are doing great things for the currently engaged, but what about the rest?

    Otherwise I think this is a great piece raising an important point. As someone from a lower-income background, I agree there are many barriers to people like me getting involved in conservation. However, I do sometimes wonder if some young people see having a career in conservation as a right rather than a privilege?

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  13. Not a mention of job creation! I came through the ranks starting at Leighton Moss. In fact I was so well paid that I earned more than the assistant warden [Dick Squires]at that time! I went on to have my own job creation team employing 24 folk from various back grounds - ex criminals [no game keepers!], long term unemployed and people interested in natural history. They learnt many skills with some going onto real jobs even in conservation. I even had a paid teacher to do my school work. With so many young people unemployed it is a 'no brainer' that organisations should be pushing any government for such schemes.

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  14. It seems that there is no shortage of youngens interested in a variety of conservation jobs and careers. This untapped talent is barely noticed let alone adequately funded or by this lame government. Thirty years ago I started my first (admittedly not well paid) job building paths and bridges on a local nature reserve in Winchester, part of the MSC scheme. I still consider it a good introduction into the practical side of conservation uniting one of my passions with a living wage, albeit for one calendar year.

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