We need to talk about conservation

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched several spectacular conservationists have their shine dulled by the agony which is job hunting. I have been writing this blog on-and-off for years, but watching their experiences—so similar to my own—has stoked the embers of my ire.

Ecosystems are collapsing across the globe. We are in the middle of a mass extinction event. People are losing their homes and lives as a direct result of climate change. Our planet is slowly dying. Simply existing during this period of time is pretty bloody terrifying; each day brings news of further environmental decline. It is a near universally acknowledged truth that we need to do something before it’s too late.

Thankfully, we have an army of young people ready to take the helm—armed with the experience and knowledge needed to nurse nature back to life. Sadly, that’s all they are: ready. On a planet in as dire a state as ours, you’d think conservation jobs would be as plentiful as Himalayan balsam on a poorly managed riverbank. On the contrary, they’re more like the giant panda; finicky, elusive, dwindling in number.

Graduates should expect to compete for entry-level roles with a huge number of other conservationists, all looking to break into the sector. Of course, the pandemic has exacerbated this—but there are far more talented environmentalists than there are entry level jobs for them to occupy.  A lot of the time, we’re not just competing against one another; at least that would be a fair fight. Jobs in conservation are so painfully rare that candidates in the later stages of their career are often compelled to apply to entry level roles.

I attended one interview where I made it to the last two candidates. In my rejection call, they told me that the only reason I didn’t get the job was that the other candidate had more experience than me. I later found out that the other candidate was 15 years my senior. How can University leavers possibly hope to compete against people with experience spanning over half their lifetime?

The problem isn’t just with the number of jobs, either. Entry level seems to have a totally alien meaning in conservation.

Redefining ‘entry level’

In most sectors, entry level graduate jobs require one thing, as the name suggests: a degree. In conservation, expectations are vastly inflated—while the salaries fall far below average graduate earnings. Having a degree—or even two degrees—is not enough. Often times, nor is having a range of practical voluntary experience. Nor is having a life-stage-appropriate amount of relevant work experience. Nor is ample evidence of personal development. Nor is…

Nobody goes into conservation in pursuit of wealth. When we choose this path, we acknowledge that we are never going to be able to match the spending habits of our corporate friends—and that’s okay. We do it because we adore the planet we live on. We don’t expect huge salaries, company cars, or even flexible working hours. Our only wish is to leave this planet a better place than we found it. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be treated fairly.

Although I’m sure this isn’t true of everyone, many established conservationists treat the idea that work should be compensated with disdain. Expressing dissatisfaction with the conservation sector seems verboten; if we’re really in it because we love nature, shouldn’t we be happy with any opportunities we get? This seems to be fairly unique to the sector; nobody is telling English students to volunteer in lieu of a full-time job, or expecting Business graduates to offer up their knowledge for free to prove that they’re serious about the industry.

Even writing these words, I feel like an ungrateful child. I feel silly for complaining—as if I should be indebted to those who give me even the most taxing unpaid opportunities. Repeat after me: it is not unreasonable to want to be fairly compensated and respected for your skills. It is not unreasonable to expect that three to four years of intense study will result in a job. It is not unreasonable to be unable, or even unwilling, to volunteer full time.

During my Master’s degree, an ecologist came to speak to us about the industry. Knowing that graduate positions in ecology are few and far between, we asked her how she broke in. She answered that she had spent a full year volunteering full-time before being offered a position in an ecological consultancy. For the majority of young people, spending a whole year volunteering is not feasible. How do you pay for rent? For your bills? For food? The implication that young people must be prepared to work for free, regardless of their qualifications, is abhorrent.

You might argue that we should stay living with our parents to save on expenses, and build up voluntary experience that way. However, in many cases, UK-based volunteering is no longer enough. I have noticed a startling trend of organisations now expecting overseas conservation experience for entry level positions.

For someone new to the sector, the only feasible way to get this is to volunteer. I completely understand how working overseas could help you to develop a unique skillset—and I would love to do it myself—but just how feasible is it for the majority of budding conservationists? I have spent many an evening scrolling through glossy websites, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at photos of young people trekking through the rainforest, or perched atop a catamaran while surveying cetaceans.

There are a huge number of organisations capitalising on this; offering research experience abroad in exchange for a hefty fee. I completely understand the valuable role these organisations play—but even as a white woman, hailing from a middle-class family, the expeditions they offer have always been a distant dream. I have bills to pay: a full-time job is non-negotiable. As a result, these overseas research trips—often requiring a month’s stay minimum—will remain a wistful thought, somewhere in the shrivelled, optimistic part of my brain.

‘We Need To Do Something!’

I know this piece may come across very ‘woe is me’—but what I’m trying to convey is that this is the reality for the vast majority of young people trying to get into conservation. If it’s like this for me—a woman with two First Class degrees, ample work experience, and a list of voluntary roles longer than my arm—how can we ever hope to correct the industry’s embarrassing lack of diversity? How can we possibly hope to rebuild nature if the people with the knowledge and motivation to do so are turned away at the door?

Take my friend, for example. She is the most talented, intelligent person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting—the kind of person you feel better just for knowing. I remember sitting dumbfounded in seminars, listening as she explained the most complicated scientific concepts in a way that suddenly made sense—as if it was second nature to her.

After a gruelling job search, she finally found a job carrying out research for an international conservation organisation. Recently, she was told that they would not be renewing her contract. No offer of further opportunities, no extensions, nothing. I know what some of you are thinking: “that’s life”. But how can a huge, international organisation profit from the work of a dedicated young scientist who has finally clawed her way into the sector (a huge achievement—particularly for a woman of colour), then throw her out into the void in the middle of a global pandemic? Something about that just does not sit right with me. It’s symptomatic of a sector which simply does not see the value in nurturing young conservationists.

So here she is, a year on, in the same position she was last year. This time, she has a year’s professional experience under her belt—but so far, it hasn’t seemed to make much difference.

We are bombarded with messages about the state of our planet from every angle. Every news report, every social influencer, every radio show tells us that We Need To Do Something! But we are trying. Inside an organisation, a motivated conservationist can make a world of difference—but they can’t even make it through the door.

Signed,

A sincerely pissed off conservationist.

 

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