Are you looking to move into the environment sector from another industry? Volunteering is a good route for career-swappers that can demonstrate transferable skills coupled with a genuine enthusiasm. If you’re a recent graduate, you’ll need an appropriate degree and can upskill on the job.
Ecologists and those with environmental degrees can enter the sector on a competitive footing where over half of candidates have a relevant degree. Over half a million entrants are predicted to be required in environment and sustainability by 2020, demonstrating that those with the appropriate skill set can do well in a sector that promises variety, compassion for its causes and a common interest in the great outdoors.
What are the most useful transferable skills for environmental employers?
Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor for IEMA, the international membership organisation, committed to global sustainability, says leadership is key: “The ability to drive change in an organisation continues to be really important.”
Communication is a huge skill set too and those that work in the sector need to be confident in conversing with a range of stakeholders. This goes hand in hand with having superior emotional intelligence: “You need to see things from multiple perspectives. This allows you to re-frame problems”, says Baxter.
Charles Oliver, who worked at Essex Wildlife Trust for the past seven years in communications, latterly as their media and marketing manager, says knowledge and understanding is often vital: “A number of people in our conservation team have ecology degrees and many of those in the trust have a great passion for and knowledge of wildlife”. Oliver adds that an enthusiasm for the environment and the great outdoors is a shared belief amongst those who work there. Oliver, who is a keen birdwatcher, says that ‘like-minded’ beliefs gives those that work in the sector a reference point.
Professionals in HR, finance or support services need appropriate qualifications but not necessarily environmental related ones. However, Oliver advises that having an interest in the purposes of the organisation helps because there are times when everyone must get involved. “For example, you might be working in HR, but you then need to go and help with car parking duty at an event or to unload a delivery of wildlife magazines”.
Jane Grant, the UK head of learning and development at WSP, a business providing management and consultancy services to the built and natural environment, says that a great transferable skill is evidence of work in client organisations and local authorities where environmental considerations have been a specialism: “These are especially valuable because they give strong client insights and also, at least in a business context, experience in change management and influencing skills, as well as technical, scientific experience”.
Which jobs are particularly in demand in the sector?
Baxter says it is difficult to get technical experts in subject areas: “It can be hard to find people with five years’ plus experience and then of course you have to keep them.” Infrastructure projects including High Speed 2 and the third runway for Heathrow create demand for multi-disciplinary skills and very specialist, practical ones.
Austerity measures does sometimes mean environmental experts are cut but equally when external drivers demand, it creates openings. “With the incoming ban on the sale of diesel cars there has been an investment in environment related product development replacements such as electric vehicles,” explains Baxter.
The sector is driven by external changes and there is demand for those with skills in renewable energy, contaminated land and flood risk management. Climate change is another key issue and those that are skilled in monitoring and providing expertise in this area are sought after.
Soil management, crop production and knowledge of agricultural regulations are also valued, as well as landscape architecture and land-based engineering.
Digital skills are also key. Oliver says it is evident at the trust where recently two new staff were taken on in social media and communications roles. “They are both in their 20s and have excellent skills in these areas. There are also plans to train staff in media related work, such as how to manage a radio interview or speak to camera.” Oliver says it is a sign of the direction that the trust is going in with media positions being given more of a centre stage.
There are also the roles which are practical. This is evident at Essex Wildlife Trust where positions include conservation wardens, who may need to train for a licence to ride a quad bike or to use a brush cutter. With specialist skills prevalent, the trust has taken on a health and safety advisor to oversee the wellbeing of its employees.
Grant says there are several specialisms within environmental consultancy and those skills and experience which are in most demand include ecology, air quality landscape architecture, environmental impact assessment and town planning.
“Beyond the technical environmental skills, our sustainability team continues to grow – helping our clients develop long term, future ready, strategies. Here our teams specialise in a rare combination of both deep technical expertise and strong management consultancy – combining both the what and the how in our strategies. Expert staff with these wider range of skills are quite unique and always in strong demand”, says Grant.
Do you need professional qualifications?
Professional qualifications do count in the environment sector. Baxter says: “At Network Rail, for example, they need professional qualified people to manage projects.” Those with geology, biology, ecology, zoology, botany and geography degrees continue to be attractive to employers in the sector.
Baxter suggests two routes in: environmental and sustainability degrees or post-degree qualifications including masters and doctorates. “Half of those in the sector have these.”
Networking can help. IEMA has local groups that meet where you can speak to those already working in the sector. There are also opportunities for internships which Baxter says does show a level of commitment and demonstrates a personal drive. “Experience will set you apart from those with just pure qualifications,” he adds. It’s a point that Oliver agrees with: “Two employees Essex Wildlife Trust took on recently, one into the marketing team and another into the Trust’s ecology consultancy, had volunteered for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Norfolk. When I have interviewed people we always ask them about their experiences and their interest in the sector.”
Baxter adds that pure experience and qualifications are still not enough, however: “You are recruiting not just a qualification but the person,” he says, so those that do well have to fit in with the team.”
Career swappers can also succeed. Oliver, himself a former sports journalist, says: “Two colleagues were previously a musician and a graphic designer respectively. Another, who manages projects, worked in the motor industry and has brought a host of organisation and processing skills. It’s great having ideas from those who have worked in different sectors.”
What can candidates expect from the environment sector?
Baxter says that it is extremely fast moving: “Public challenges are coming to the fore with issues including plastics and air quality.” He adds that some candidates can be put off because they think the environment is very technical with all the legislation.
There are development opportunities to be had too that do help employees navigate the demands of external pressures. At WSP they have a wide range of development and learning opportunities for all employees including a three-year graduate development course focusing on both business, personal and technical skills.
There is also an apprentice and undergraduate training scheme which has seen the business become the main authors of the new environmental professional apprentice standard which is currently with the government for approval. In addition to this there is a number of in-house open courses, health and safety, well-being, client care and project management training.
Oliver says the trust also delivers several development programmes, including a stress management course. It also works with like-minded organisations, inviting volunteers, perhaps recovering from injury or an addiction, to enjoy the great health and well-being benefits of working outside and close to nature.
For those looking to shape the future of the environment and conserve national heritage, the sector offers a career with like-minded professionals who are both highly qualified and passionate. Start your search at ENDSjobsearch - the specialist job site for environment and sustainability professionals.