Are Internships Skewed Away From The Poor?

You care about the environment, are utterly infatuated with natural history and decide you wish to work in the conservation sector. What next? You leave school, hopefully in possession of good grades, graduate university and are then faced with the harsh reality of just how competitive the sector really is. You work out that the only way to get ‘ahead of the competition’ so to speak, is to gain experience through volunteer work. Volunteer work that often requires commitment for long periods of time in order to gain the experience required to further your career aspirations. So, you set your sights on a volunteer internship, residential placement or similar scheme, one that would almost certainly lead to better things in the future. The only problem is, you cannot afford to sustain yourself for such a period of time absent an income. What do you do next? Well, some are then able to acquire the necessary funds from family members and thus everything remains hunky dory. For many however, this is not an option. Many cannot afford to dedicate their time for periods of four, six or eight months absent an income. When this happens, many fall into an all too familiar trap. A merry-go-round of applications and rejections citing a “lack of applicable experience“.

The above scenario is one I fear is all too familiar to young people seeking a career in the environmental field and is certainly one that resonates with me. Volunteer work is perhaps the only sure fire way to achieve a career in conservation, and rightfully so. It highlights the dedication, passion and  the willingness to work of the person in question and has the potential to greatly bolster that individuals professional skill-set. More often than not, short-term volunteer placements do not offer the necessary level of work experience and thus people are forced to look for longer internships only to realise they cannot afford them. This alone is often enough to dissuade many people from following their dreams and I know too people people stuck in the ‘inexperience rut’ due to financial restraints. These people are no less passionate than those who have made the cut, they simply come from working-class background and cannot afford to live absent an income for long periods of time. This is a topic that, as a working-class conservationist, greatly interests me. It has lead some, including Oliver Simms (@OSimmsBirding) to question the current mentality and call for NGO’s to make such placements available to everyone, not just those from upper and middle-class backgrounds. An excellent blog by Oliver on the subject can be found here, on Mark Avery’s ‘Standing Up for Nature’ site.

Before proceeding, I feel I should give a little background on myself in this regard. As I mentioned before, I do not come from a wealthy background. This has never bothered me per say but it has meant that my family cannot afford to sustain me on my career quest. I jumped through all the hoops, good grades at school, a degree in a relevant field and small stints of volunteer work here and there. Upon graduating, I found myself presented with the aforementioned scenario, lacking the “one years work experience” requested in many job applications and thus opted to save up and delve into a volunteer internship. I was, later, lucky enough to be selected for a lengthy volunteer position with a renowned NGO and stand thoroughly grateful for the opportunity. Midway through said placement however, with a glaring student overdraft and money disappearing much faster than expected, it suddenly dawned on me that I could no longer afford to live without an income. As such, I decided to leave my ranger role and moved back home. This did not go down overly well with my “employers” who had suggested I take a weekend or evening job to sustain myself for the remaining months – something that while volunteering full time, five days a week (often including weekends), in a remote area, seemed wholly unfeasible. I would like to think opting leave early did cause others to question my dedication but I fear it did. Something that I understand but equally disagree with.

Fast forward a little over a year and things are looking brighter, I have landed my first ‘real’ job within the sector and things are certainly looking up. My situation, and the experiences of many others, have however caused me to ponder the topic in greater depth. Are careers in conservation tailored towards the wealthy? – At present I stand on the middle ground, understanding the  importance of voluntary experience and its wider benefits but slowly edging towards a resounding yes.

Please do not mistake this post for a general attack on volunteer positions – I understand how important they are. As I stated previously, they are a sure fire way to “cut your teeth” in conservation, providing you with many useful skills and working wonders for networking. Dedicating prolonged periods of time, absent pay, to any job is certainly a great way to demonstrate your dedication to the cause. Likewise, I understand that conservation bodies, most of whom rely on the good will of their members, cannot afford to offer a wage to all volunteers. I am very much of the mindset that even if you come from a low-income background, like I did, if you want something badly, you will work to get it. This explains my previous comment regarding occupying “the middle ground“. This said, it would not hurt for the playing field to be leveled somewhat and I do begrudge the fact that poorer individuals must work twice as hard to achieve their goals than those who can simply ‘buy their way into conservation’.

In his blog, Oliver calls for conservation NGO’s to offer bursaries to individuals from less privileged backgrounds, awarded once the applicant has achieved the position in question. This is something I fully agree with and I would personally like to see certain organisations, particularly those with large memberships and a lot of money, step up the the plate. Equally I would be happy if a student loan style scheme was set up by the powers that be to boost peoples career prospects though, given the nature of our government, I would have more luck extracting water from fragment of volcanic rock. Some may claim, that by offering bursaries based on income, conservation bodies would only be increasing the divide between classes but to me, it seems like a jolly good idea.

One of the other things I have seen touched upon, both by Oliver and others elsewhere, is the lack of attention centered on this issue. You would think that with many people likely missing out due to a lack of funds, more of a clamor would have been raised but alas, tumbleweed. After all, conservation and raising a fuss more often than not come hand in hand, it’s practically in the job description. The only reason I can think of for this is that those who have already made it and those with the financial stability not to worry about such things simply do not care. In the future I would love to see high profile members of our community taking this on board and making a difference and likewise, would like to those involved in the ‘youth conservation movement’ speaking out a lot more. Many, it seems, are vocal in private but fall silent when the issue is raised mainstream. This has to change, only with numerous voices calling for change will the issue be heard.

Of course, there is one glaring question associated with such change. Why would NGO’s bother to splash out funding poor individuals while wealthier people are tripping over themselves to fill the gaps? Well, Oliver again pretty much hits the nail on the head in the previously mentioned blog post. Not only would it increase equality within the workforce, it would allow more overtly passionate young people to contribute to the ‘good causes’ championed by such organisations. These people are equally capable, equally dedicated and who knows, if given the chance could develop into the next ‘big names’ speaking out to protect our wildlife. A win win situation if ever there was one is it not?


  1. Chris Knight (@xopher78) says:

    This resonates with me, James, though I’m not sure I was ever in the position that you are, knowing that I wanted a career in conservation at university age. I did well at school and was coerced into doing subjects that led to opportunity and well-paid jobs and I fear I got caught up in the gravy-train, having spent the last 15 years working in finance and telecoms. In hindsight my only real desire was to work in the environment sector but those hopes were washed out of me by convention, pressure and maybe greed.

    As I approach 40 now, I’m resigned to the fact that I will probably live my career in reverse; earning money, raising a family and getting comfortable first before being able to back myself financially into getting the career I always wanted (but failed to acknowledge when it mattered). Even now, the obstacles to that happening are very real, with 3 mouths to feed and a standard of living to maintain. This realisation has not been a happy time for me and has left me bitter that such choices were not laid out for me when I was younger. Now, I face just being another 40+ white male that dominates the scene.

    But from what I’ve read and seen, you should be optimistic. I would encourage you that you are doing all the right things and making all the right noises. Your liberal approach to conservation and to what many see as the antithesis of conservation (land-owners, shooting and game) will serve you well, I’m sure of it. Good luck and treasure your enthusiasm; in my experience, attitude is what sets people apart in any sector.

    Kind regards, Chris

    1. James Common says:

      Many thanks Chris! Both for the comment and the kind wordss. I’d like to think I am on the right track but alas, only time will tell. I cannot helping that conservation is skewed entirely towards a certain demographic. This needs to change and fast. – As does the non-pragmatic of many “conservationists” though that is another subject entirely 😉

  2. amythebirder says:

    I am coming round to your & Ollie’s way of thinking more & more, as although I probably could be fortunate enough to get some help from family members, these unpaid internships are an issue. Like you, I do understand the value of volunteering etc, but in many ways disagree with a lecturer who said that unpaid internships were “paid”, as they are giving up time. I can see exactly what they mean, but being unpaid for a year (especially if its a full time position) isn’t great! Here’s hoping the system will change as those few funded traineeships are fantastic so more of those would be great.

    1. James Common says:

      Like you Amy I totally see the benefit of them! Perhaps not as “against” them as Ollie is but quickly coming out. It was the fact they refused to reference me after I left due to money problems that really riled me – shouldn’t say that I am any less committed than others, just poor! Hopefully something will come about that makes conservation accessible to all. 🙂

      1. amythebirder says:

        Completely understand that (your thinking, not theirs). It’s a shame they didn’t appear to be very understanding, as you do work hard from what Twitter suggests! Good luck with trying to get a job in conservation – I’m sure all this hard work will pay off, hopefully sooner rather than later 🙂

  3. Great article James and I’m sure it will resonate with many young people trying to get into the sector. I should say however that there is money available for projects if you construct your application in the correct way. As part of my course at the RAU, Cirencester I do a unit called ‘Farming and Integrated Environment Local Delivery’ in which we are taught how to come up with our own environmental projects, find a project host (usually a charity) and critically find funding. It’s an alternative way of getting into the sector and relies on self employment and all the uncertainties that brings with it but it can provide you with an exciting challenge and a means of gaining experience whilst also employing yourself.

    1. James Common says:

      That sounds wonderful! And definitely provides a lot of useful life skills absent from other courses. I know my degree provided me with very little in the way of actual transferable skills i.e finding funding. More a broad knowledge of things I am never likely to use. It is good to know that there ways of getting around the issue! 🙂

  4. Emily says:

    Interesting blog James – and definitely a true reflection of the challenges faced in 21st century conservation. However, I think you hit the nail on the head with “I am very much of the mindset that even if you come from a low-income background, like I did, if you want something badly, you will work to get it.”

    I sometimes wonder if this situation, as exists in many other saturated job markets (media, showbusiness, many arts fields) is a type of natural selection – i.e. those who want to make it, and are GOOD enough, will make it. I appreciate the playing field isn’t level – far from it – but, like you, I’m from a “normal” English, working class background – but have been employed consistently in conservation since graduation. How? Well, I volunteered (strategically) throughout my degree and worked 2 jobs in term time to save up the funds to do internships in those long summer breaks (and got a first).

    Now I’m in that position of having “made it”, with (relative) financial stability, far from not caring I am consistently impressed by those who have also made it happen for themselves. Yes, there is the elitism to contend with; but even a bursary scheme isn’t going to make that go away (though yes, it would help alleviate the bias). I think cost is but one barrier – and one we should all seek to correct – but I see it as a speed bump, not a road block.

    In a field of 100 applications per job, are we just going to make it even more competitive – and falsely raise trainee expectations – by increasing that candidate pool? Is there a better way to encourage the talent in this field…?

    Emily, 25

    1. James Common says:

      Hi Emily – Thanks for commenting. Very much agree with you. It is indeed possible to make it happen for yourself, I’m about to start my second season as a field assistant in the highlands and it feels like a start. I volunteer where I can but do find raising money to commit to longer placements very difficult. Do think a bursary scheme would help but like you say, it may well just be a speed bump. Those who are truly committed to conservation will work towards their goals, whatever the cost. Sorting the wheat from the chaff and all that. James.

  5. I really like your article, James, and I think that you are right that it is easier for volunteers who can be financially supported by family. I can’t help but have a little voice in my head telling me that if people want it badly enough, they can find a way.

    Having been through the whole volunteering myself (I volunteered for the RSPB from 1999 until 2004 when I finally managed to secure a part time job with them – I had to work to support myself, so I worked 5 days a week and volunteered on weekends – cycling 5 miles each way to my voluntary job. I knew that I needed the experience so I just simply did what had to be done to get to my goal, and that was that.)

    Now that I’m on the other side of that fence, and I take on work placements and work with volunteers myself, and I have noticed that there is a huge difference between some of the volunteers. For example, I have two volunteers, both men in their early twenties, both at the same level of education, and both wanting careers in conservation.

    However there’s a huge difference between them – the first can only come to surveys and activities very occasionally, because he has to work ‘full time’, while the other ALSO works full time, finishes work, dashes home, gets changed and drives out to meet me on site after work to set trailcams, etc. The first has been to a handful of weekend surveys over the last few years, whereas the second has been to several already this year and it’s barely February. Guess which one gets references from me?

    I can’t help but think that there is a sense of entitlement that some young conservationists have; that some feel that they are ‘owed’ a chance at a career simply because they have an interest in natural history / conservation.

    I wasn’t raised like that, myself. I just think that effort is what opens doors for you – everything isn’t going to fall in your lap – you really have to make that extra effort to better yourself, build your skills, give, give and give again, and then one day it’s 20 years later and you are the one working with volunteers – and it is the ones that have that extra work ethic that get the references, recommendations and opportunities.

    In a perfect world, none of this would matter, and everyone would have an opportunity, however in THIS world, those obstacles are an opportunity for people to set themselves apart from the crowd.

    What do you think?

    1. James Common says:

      Hi Morgan,

      I totally agree! I felt that I had tried to be balanced when writing this – I understand the value of volunteering and the fact that it highlights the drive of the individual. I have certainly never felt entitled to anything and have done what I can, where I can to try and better myself. I will continue to do this whatever happens. Very much agree that if you want something, you work to make it happen. There are plenty of people out there (like yourself) that show that this works.

      I do however feel that most of the long-term placements courtesy of big NGO’s are tailored more towards wealthier individuals. Yes, poorer folk can save up, work two jobs, do what they can, and one day be able to afford such things. I can’t help feeling that this sets them behind others, especially if those taken on for long-term placements are kept on by those employers therefore taking the “good jobs” on offer. I don’t agree with handing things to people on a plate, if bursaries were ever offered I would say offer them after those people earned the position on their own merit.

      I hope I did not sound bitter writing this! That was not the intent at all – I am very happy with the volunteer work I have done. Just feel there is always room for change. James.

  6. Weirdly, I find that there is a persistent tendency of NGOs to only hire their own volunteers. It’s generally accepted that if you want to work for, say, Bumblebee Conservation, that you stand a MUCH greater chance of being successful in interview if you are already volunteering for them. Which is sort of fair, and sort of unfair. I’m torn on the matter, really. I benefited from it when I was an RSPB volunteer and landed my first job with them, but I’ve also failed at a few NGO job interviews in which there was an internal (albeit voluntary) candidate.

    But either way, the whole industry’s source for staff is the volunteer pool, and I agree that it is certainly easier to get the required experience if you can afford to not work.

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