Conservation Jobs and COVID-19 | Start of the Green Recovery?
As conservation career opportunities rebound, conservationists and organisations who understand their ‘niche’, innovate and adapt can survive – or even thrive.
In March 2020 the global COVID-19 pandemic froze international travel, halted recruitment and sent the conservation industry into a sudden standstill.
In April 2020, a survey of 330 conservationists by Conservation Careers showed that 80% had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, while nine in 10 conservation employers were affected.
Four months later, conservation career opportunities worldwide have doubled, and a new survey of 206 conservationists and 58 conservation employers shows that – while the majority are still struggling – some are coping, or even thriving in uncertainty.
Find out why conservationists with a ‘niche’ stand a better chance of career success and how organisations and employees alike can innovate to enhance their careers – and wildlife.
Conservation career opportunities rebound
Four months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020 and conservation job opportunities plummeted by an estimated 50%, new job, internship and volunteering opportunities have rebounded to roughly 130-240 per day worldwide.
“We scour global job markets each day to find the best opportunities to share on Conservation Careers,” said Dr. Nick Askew, Director of Conservation Careers. “In April 2020 we were struggling to find 50-75 per week, but now we’re back to sharing 30-35 each day.”
At the end of July 2020, OpenChannels, a community hub for sustainable ocean management and conservation, published a newsletter titled ‘Job openings are picking up!’, listing 27 new ocean, coastal and marine opportunities on their job board.
Of 58 employers who closed their doors to new staff during the pandemic – collectively operating in Africa, Asia, Europe, Pacific and the Americas – nearly 40% said they have restarted recruitment. “Initially we slowed down hiring, but now have onboarded several employees and approved two new positions to onboard as well,” said one USA-based employer.
Some organisations and governments have even created new positions due to COVID-19, or to support a green recovery. “We have engaged extra people as part of [a COVID] initiative,” said one government Director in Australia, while an employee at another organisation commented, “I have got a promotion at work to support the green recovery.”
Competition intensifies for entry level roles
Of 206 conservationists surveyed worldwide, 82% say they have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 to date. Fewer than 4% have been positively impacted and nearly 15% haven’t been impacted or aren’t sure yet.
According to these conservationists, COVID-19 has exacerbated a classic challenge in conservation: a bottleneck of recent graduates – and career switchers – seeking to break into a competitive sector at the entry level.
“A single temporary (1 year) assistant conservation officer job I failed to gain [an] interview for, I was told received 303 applications,” reported one applicant.
“The UK-based jobs that are coming up at the moment seem to be mainly more senior roles needing a number of years of experience, and early years or graduate level roles don’t seem to be coming up much at all,” observed Sam Greenhill, an early career conservationist in Bournemouth, UK.
Employers have also noticed high-than-ever competition for junior roles, as well as challenges recruiting for more senior positions.
“We now receive insane volumes of applications, which really highlights the problems in the sector. Especially many graduates looking for a career start currently,” commented Martijn Antheunisse, CEO of Wessex Rivers Trust in Wessex, UK.
Another UK-based ecological consultancy observed, “Recruitment to senior posts is almost impossible due to uncertainty in the market and potential loss of job security, so [there are] very few qualified candidates available.”
Of the 58 conservation employers surveyed, 87.7% said that COVID-19 has impacted their recruitment or staffing, for example by laying off staff, reducing hours and/or delaying recruiting. Many charities, universities, government agencies, businesses and social enterprises alike are now struggling to fund their work.
Career Switchers weigh up higher risks
Career switchers, who enter the conservation sector in greater numbers each year, say they are struggling more than ever to find a route into conservation.
“There’s already a shortage of jobs in the conservation field,” said Taryn Curry, an independent contractor in New Jersey, USA, who hopes to switch careers into wildlife conservation. “But for people like me who are pretty much starting over in their career, it’s even harder. I have no education or experience in the field and the only thing really being offered are senior level jobs or internships. I wish there were more options for those looking to switch careers and have no experience at all.”
A few career switchers have even abandoned conservation – temporarily or permanently – due to financial challenges and high risk. “After the pandemic, I had to put [my] conservation MPhil on hold and my startup too, to concentrate on my day job as my partner’s job is affected,” explained one career switcher. I was self funding my career (startup and my study) but no longer can.”
“I had left a stable, non conservation-related job to pursue a career in conservation having finally been offered a role in Costa Rica,” said Emily, an aspiring conservationist from the UK. “My previous role would have been secure throughout the pandemic so it has highlighted the risk of working in this sector; there is little job security and wages are low.”
International internships and volunteering are less accessible
Compared to most employment sectors, international volunteering, internships and ecotourism play a pivotal role in conservation careers – and conservation impact.
These experiences are crucial sources of support and funding for conservation projects – particularly in the Global South where human-wildlife conflict is intense and donor funding isn’t enough to keep projects running 365 days a year.
Recent COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented many organisations from carrying out vital work on the ground, and left conservationists who specialise in these jobs temporarily unemployed.
“I’m a marine conservationist who works with NGOs that rely on volunteers for funding,” explained Lisbeth Damsgaard, who worked in Mozambique before returning to Copenhagen, Denmark. “I’ve previously worked as lead marine biologist / volunteer coordinator / site manager. Without volunteers travelling to work with NGO there is no funding for staff roles, so no one is hiring for the roles I am qualified for.”
Volunteering and interning are also often crucial sources of real-life, career-relevant experience and training for recent graduates and career switchers, filling key qualification gaps and acting as stepping stones into professional conservation careers.
Of the over 300 professional conservationists interviewed on Conservation Careers to date, the vast majority credit volunteering or interning early in their careers as a key factor in their career success.
Many aspiring conservationists seeking to gain the experience to become employable feel held back by travel restrictions and/or increased financial insecurities.
“…I’m stuck in a loop of not having enough experience for a job but can’t go out to gain more experience because volunteering is on hold,” said one graduate. “I’m currently an unemployed graduate with few jobs available to me. It’s starting to really impact my mental health as I thought I would have had a good chance of securing a job after graduating.”
“I have a MSc in zoo conservation biology yet cannot even volunteer to gain experience at any local zoo because of the pandemic, so am stuck in low paid retail part time jobs with tens of thousands of pounds of debt,” said another graduate.
“[COVID] caused my conservation internship with Crees in Peru to be terminated 3 months early,” said aspiring conservationist Kailey Pritzl. “This has impacted my job outlook with an incomplete internship and quarantine restrictions. Now I have to apply to jobs sooner than anticipated with no real plan.”
At Conservation Careers 574 participants signed up for the webinar ‘Conservation internships & Volunteering that won’t break the bank’ – over double the usual registration rate – showing just how big a challenge finding and funding volunteer and internship experiences is for conservationists.
Conservation employers innovate
As a relatively young industry that’s constantly evolving to meet the next challenge, conservation may be hit hard, but it’s highly resilient.
Many conservation organisations have successfully pivoted from in-person volunteer, internship or training models to online options – offering them at lower cost and reaching far more people.
Examples include Ecology Training UK’s online ecology courses, Ecoteer’s virtual field trips, as well as new courses developed by MAD Travel (Philippines), Wild Otters Research (India) and Wildlife ACT (South Africa).
Of the 58 employers Conservation Careers surveyed, over 70% currently already have a policy in place for remote working.
Remote work may not be able to replace all surveys, ecotours or workshops, and can be challenging for employees with small children or unsuitable workspaces, but it can offer opportunities for greater flexibility, efficiency and cost-savings.
“It’s likely this will change the way we work moving forwards as we focus on the positive advancements being made in technology and digital innovation,” said Ryan Lewis, Technical Advisor – Ecotourism Business Development and Marketing with Blue Ventures in Bristol, UK. “We’re already seeing greater mobility in how we support our work internationally, bringing teams closer together and developing new ways of empowering the communities we work with.”
“It’s working well and we anticipate doing more of it even after the pandemic, though probably not exclusively,” said Sheri Cardo, Communications Director with Sonoma Land Trust in California, USA. “As time goes on, we’re finding that our staff really misses seeing each other. But productivity has remained high and more remote working could allow us to lease a smaller office in the future.”
“We are teaching online at great savings to our budget and reaching a larger audience,” said the President of a conservation organisation in the USA.
“… Our research was mainly funded through volunteers, so we have not been able to do a lot of our field monitoring,” said Kathryn Strang [Madagascar]. “However, some positive news is that our local staff have been able to take the lead and continue with some field work themselves. They have also carried out capacity building sessions with other local guides on data collection and equipment use such as GPSs.”
“COVID-19 has highlighted our ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances (such as holding virtual meetings and events, and how this has enabled us to reach new audiences) and the necessity to think out the box and be proactive,” said Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa. “It is pleasing to see how well BirdLife South Africa has done during this time and how our organisation will, I believe, weather the storm and continue to be successful post-COVID-19.”
Find your niche and skip the competition
If there’s a message that every aspiring conservationist hears before setting foot (or fin) in the sector, it’s that it’s going to be tough. And for many it has become even tougher with increased competition for entry-level jobs, travel restrictions and financial strains from COVID-19.
How, then, can conservationists compete? The answer is – surprisingly – to compete less.
“Conservationists are an incredibly unique group of people – each with different strengths, passions and skills,” said Dr Nick Askew. “When you understand yourself and you understand just how many different job types and opportunities exist in conservation, you can create your own niche, one that suits you to a tee.”
In other words, it’s not about competing with hundreds of people, submitting hundreds of job applications or spending thousands of hours (or pounds/dollars) volunteering or interning. It’s about finding your own niche so you can proactively target the right opportunities for you.
Learn to thrive in uncertainty
It’s easy to feel frustrated by a sector that doesn’t provide as many clear paths or opportunities as other industries do.
But rather than waiting on a chronically under-resourced sector to advertise the right job, internship or volunteer opportunities, applicants can be proactive and create them.
By focusing on what the conservation sector needs – whether that’s finding funding, lowering research costs, driving behaviour change or creating new business cases for conservation – early career conservationists and switchers can create opportunities that help solve chronic problems.
“…there’s a real need for non-marine science skill sets within the industry, especially when we’re trying to push behaviour change…” explained Samantha Craven, Programmes Manager with The Reef-World Foundation.
Aspiring conservationists who are proactive and innovative are likely to have an advantage over those who follow more traditional paths or rely on existing systems.
“Initially [COVID-19} brought a halt to the research I was conducting,” said Michael Traurig, a Researcher PHD Student at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. “But ultimately it provided me an opportunity to reassess my priorities and I have since made genuine progress on a side project and am now in the process of beginning a PhD. So in a sense I [used] the gift of time to my advantage.”
Has COVID-19 impacted your conservation job search or career?
“Thanks to online learning I was able to take up a conservation job and combine both university and job,” said Filip Jarzyński, who supported bird ringing, biometric measurements and more as a Field Assistant for a PhD project with Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland from May to July 2020.
“I am leaving my existing career in aerospace engineering to start a new career in conservation,” commented Rob Jones of Sheffield, UK, who recently left his job at Rolls-Royce plc after 23 years in the industry.
Our flagship online course, the Conservation Career Kick-Starter received record numbers of student sign ups in early June 2020. We also launched a pilot programme for master’s programme leaders to enrol their students in the Kick-Starter course and had 40 universities worldwide sign up between April and May 2020.
Maximise transferable skills
Many conservationists surveyed reported feeling ‘underemployed’ – being qualified at the Bachelor’s, master’s or even PhD level but still unable to secure conservation work.
If you’re worried that taking an unrelated job to pay the bills will set back your conservation career, you might be surprised to learn that many conservation leaders pivoted into conservation from seemingly ‘unrelated’ jobs or careers.
“If you take other jobs and really show how you’ve managed projects, how you’ve managed customers… as long as you can demonstrate that you’ve stayed in tune with the industry but you’ve been developing these other skills [you can make a switch without spending lots of money],” said Samantha Craven of the Reef-World Foundation.
Be realistic and idealistic at the same time by exploring a conservation-related passion or project in your spare time. Whether it’s part-time training, volunteering or a ‘side hustle’, it will help you stay engaged and relevant. Most of all, keep a positive mindset that’s focussed on opportunities rather than barriers. You might just help the conservation sector rebound stronger than ever and carve yourself a new career niche in the process.
If you’re struggling during COVID want to learn more about finding your niche, check out Conservation Careers’ free video training series How to Get a Conservation Job, or our Conservation Career Kick-Starter course, available online and in-person.
Main image credit: Paul Wager for the Elephant Conservation Centre.