My views on unpaid, long-term conservation internships undulate substantially. On one hand, and from firsthand experience, I know the benefits such placements bring; in terms of the acquisition of skills, networking opportunities, personal development and, of course, contribution to the great work of our NGOs. I also, however, and again from my own experience, see such positions as exploitative, exclusive and rather detrimental to the sector as a whole. Believing wholeheartedly that volunteer culture decreases diversity in conservation by favouring those with money to flaunt and thus, time to spare.
I am aware that not all agree with my views on internships and that many actively support them, though the topic is one of great interest to me. So interesting, in fact, that a few days past, I put a simple question to a number of young naturalists on social media: what are your personal views on unpaid internships. A question asked absent any mention of my own personal views on the matter and intended to provide a general insight into popular opinion. The topic broached in coorindination with a rather interesting poll I am currently running from New Nature.
I can understand why some internships are unpaid – the field has limited funding, we all want more money to go into conserving habitats/wildlife than overhead costs – but it is unfair for fresh graduates trying to find work, especially if one has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in relevant fields. Many jobs require at least one, usually five years of experience, but it seems impossible to get any experience without having to pay for it. The salary of higher executives in large NGOs can be quite high, and for interns to be expected to work for free is a discrepancy that blocks the younger generation from entering the field. This trend also disadvantages those of lower socio-economic classes who are not privileged enough to be able to afford to work for no/little money, and limits the diversity of conservationists. If organisations genuinely cannot afford to pay, there should at least be tangible beneficial outcomes for interns such as making an effort to find a job for them subsequently or putting them in touch with other organisations. Unpaid conservation internships exploit the ready supply of fresh graduates who want to do good but seem to be here to stay.
Spending time getting practical conservation experience can be great, especially when you’re young and have time away from education to volunteer. However, I think that the feasibility for these unpaid internships, especially ones that require a lot of time and effort, rapidly drops away as soon as your financial responsibilities become a priority. Doing work for free that you know you should be getting paid to do isn’t a luxury that everyone has, and will leave many interested and qualified people unable to apply for these positions. That’s not a sign of a candidate’s commitment to conservation or lack thereof, it’s simply a matter of time requirements and financial burdens. This only makes it infinitely more frustrating when you find that the requirements of some internships are aimed specifically at graduates that will be looking to support themselves fresh out of university. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go for unpaid internships if they have the resources to do so, but employers should think carefully before offering them and consider that applications for unpaid internships won’t be from the most suitable or worthy candidates, but will be from those that are lucky enough to have the time and money to spare.
I’ve done two unpaid internships and the experiences couldn’t have been more different. The first was a year at two nature reserves with a major NGO. It provided some good experience but was poorly organised at times and even though some individual staff members were great with career advice it had an overall feeling of a conveyer belt. The second was a short-term placement with a major conservation project and everything was fantastic, the staff went out of their way to provide experience of all aspects of the project and it was a huge boost to my career skills. So overall, I would say that short-term volunteer placements or internships in conservation are acceptable, especially if they allow you to explore a role that in the paid ranks would be well above your current experience level. They are also probably easier for people to commit to with time and money.
With the full year unpaid internship I think the charities running them need a major reality check. I was lucky to be able to fund mine through a previous paid job but they wouldn’t be a viable option for many people for a whole range of justified reasons. We already know that conservation fails to attract people from a diverse range of backgrounds – so do they want to provide funds to create a dynamic and vibrant future staff base or for fancy visitor centres and “rebranding”? Another point to make is the job market – once you have finished the year options are limited – all these warden type internships do is to reduce the number of paid opportunities available once you have finished. It’s time they were consigned to the dark ages and people should be more vocal about it. How can you be expected to work for long periods of time for free to come out into a limited job market and then fund your personal long term security? Common sense suggests that this is totally unrealistic, especially when the organisations doing so pay some people as much as the prime minister!
Background: went to university; joined conservation society (hedge planting, scrub clearance etc.); got hooked; graduated; moved home; volunteered some more; landed twelve month traineeship with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust; twelve months chasing a fantastically knowledgeable man around Yorkshire; bow saws, chainsaws, pesticides, spades, rakes, rain, sunshine, wind, rain (yep, rain again), pond nets, training courses, physical exertion, laughter. There were three main positives for me: -I had a fantastic time -I learnt a lot, about the practical work I wanted to do, in a short space of time -The cliché of ‘networking’ (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, any jobs going?) I wouldn’t say there were any negatives, but just some things to think about: -I was lucky. I could afford it; my parents (and a pub job filling in all the gaps in my diary) supported me. I don’t think it’s possible to go unpaid if you haven’t got someone backing you up -Doing an internship doesn’t guarantee you a job straight away. It took me six more months of volunteering after my internship to get a job in the sector. And that wasn’t a permanent one. I certainly don’t regret it; best time of my life.
I’m of the opinion that unpaid internships are around for a reason; they exist because there is a need for them! Habitat management requires specialist skills and knowledge, which unfortunately for some people, cannot be gained from a degree. At school we’re told to go to uni and get a degree to get a job but are not told what working in conservation actually involves. Graduates start applying for jobs but have no experience of using a chainsaw or spending all day in the pouring rain battling through chalk to install a fence post. Most conservation work is done by NGO’s who struggle for money and they just cannot afford to employ someone who doesn’t have the skills to look after a reserve. Unpaid internships are a way for people to gain this valuable experience and often expensive qualifications to land themselves a job. Maybe if we had better careers advice at school for people who wanted to work in conservation, so they did practical courses and gained skills that could get them a job, rather than spending three years in a lecture theatre, unpaid internships wouldn’t need to exist. Sadly that isn’t the case and if we want our nature reserves to be looked after by competent people then we need them!
I couldn’t afford to do one. I needed paid work during all the holidays and breaks of my undergraduate degree so I could pay my rent. Not only could I not afford to not work for free, I could also not afford to travel elsewhere to do an internship. Would have loved to do one later but with a young family it was doubly impossible! If I could do it again I would have spent a few years working/saving and volunteering in cycles – but how much longer would that delay starting a career? Long, full-time unpaid internships are discriminatory.