Calling all aspiring conservationists! An interview with environmental recruiter Paul Gosling

“Some of the choices that you make are conscious and pre-planned. Very often, they’re by happenstance, and it’s taking advantage of those opportunities when they come through.”

Paul Gosling is a specialist environment and sustainability recruiter with over 25 years of experience. He currently works as the National Director for Sustainability at Hays recruitment company, making his conservation impact by helping other people make theirs.

Paul’s journey in conservation

“People very often go into a job in conservation because they want to make an impact, and it’s a great way of doing that. But it’s not the only way.”

Paul told me that his desire to make an impact in conservation was born from his love of the outdoors.

“I spent a lot of time growing up doing things that were outdoorsy. I was quite a keen birdwatcher, in my youth; I used to do a lot of things that essentially got me outside.”

This inspired Paul to undertake a degree in Environmental Science, graduating in 1991 from the University of Plymouth. He describes his degree as “a great qualification to teach you lots of things about lots of different things”, but explained that it didn’t provide him with specific ecological skills.

“I came out of that degree with a broad desire to do something in practical conservation. My
intention was to develop a career in practical conservation work, so I took on some volunteering work for what was then called the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.”

With the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, now called The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), Paul volunteered in the Lake District, learning to do lots of different practical conservation tasks. He discovered, however, that hedge-laying, drystone walling and tree planting were not as rewarding as he’d perhaps envisioned, and that this wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“In the middle of winter, in the middle of the Pennines, it loses some of its appeal to say the least!”

Not making the difference that he’d hoped and expected to make as a conservationist, Paul left the bleak wilderness of northern England and went travelling for a couple of years.

He returned to England in the mid-1990s and resumed his search for an environmental job without success. The specialist recruiter he spoke to was unable to find him a job either, but suggested that he might like to consider being a recruiter himself.

It turned out to be a really good mixture of interested people interested in business, so for the last thirty years or so, Paul has worked as an environment and sustainability recruiter. He spent 21 years at a small specialist firm, before setting up his own independent environmental recruitment firm and then joining a big international firm, Hays, in 2021. As of 2023, he’s their National Director for Sustainability.

“I’ve sort of found my way into an environmental/sustainability/conservation-type career on a bit of a tangent. Rather than being directly involved with it, I’ve got involved as a supplier, as somebody who supports individuals and organisations looking to strike for their environmental and sustainability credentials.”

“It’s definitely been a good move for me, but somewhat different from what I had envisaged doing when I started out.”

Do you feel that you’re making the same level of impact as a recruiter, rather than a hands-on conservationist?

“That’s a really interesting question, and one I’ve asked myself numerous times over the last 30 years, because it is very different from what I had originally intended to do In some ways, I think I’m making even more impact than I would do otherwise.”

Although less impactful from a practical, day-to-day perspective, Paul’s work is vital, because in the conservation sector, it is crucial that the right people are able to do the right things in the right place.

That is where Paul comes in as a recruiter.

He put it to me like this: when you’re developing a career, there are lots of itches that you need to scratch. There needs to be a purpose, a side where you’re helping people and doing good, a financial side and so on. There’s also an ambition and a desire to achieve as much as you can.

“I found fairly quickly that it’s the people interaction bit that I like. So for me, if I had been doing those sorts of [practical conservation] roles, I think I would have missed that sense of talking to and helping people.”

“There are all sorts of different niches that are for different people, and for me, it [recruiting] is a good combination of the different things that motivate me.”

The ins and outs of a job in environmental recruiting

“Without a doubt, it [conservation and sustainability] is a very gratifying, rewarding career.”

As an ecological recruiter, Paul matches individuals with organisations, building relationships with ecologists and companies. He cites transferable skills such as communication as being the most important for a recruiter.

There are lots of different sorts of communication, and Paul believes that adjusting what you’re saying and how you’re saying it to have the desired impact is quite a skill – being able to communicate empathetically, and in a way that supports somebody else’s understanding.

“It’s a lot about communicating, talking to people, and understanding.”

His role is now a little more strategic as he manages his own team of recruiters, meaning project management is also of the utmost importance.

“Project management is a really good skill, being able to understand the different phases that a project goes through and bring it together. And I think you need to have, more or less in any walk of life, some level of commercial understanding.”

“Understanding where things fit together is really important.”

Paul feels a great sense of satisfaction in helping people, and he loves that he gets to speak to lots of people and find out about them and their lives and what they’ve done. He describes himself as basically nosy!

“Helping an organisation find the right person for a role, and finding somebody that meets their criteria is a very satisfying process, as is finding a job for somebody. It’s a real sense of supporting somebody in their career, and in their objectives. Placing people in jobs that make a definite difference to the world and the sustainability agenda adds to the sense of satisfaction as well.”

“The worst bit is probably the opposite of that, though, when they don’t get the job or when the client decides to do something different, or they pull another requirement for no apparent reason.”

Paul’s advice for budding ecologists 

“The more you put yourself out there, put yourself in slightly uncomfortable positions, the more comfortable and familiar you get with them.”

As for advice for anyone wanting to work in conservation, Paul told me that experience trumps qualifications, broadly speaking.

(PS: At Conservation Careers we’ve summarised the requirements for the 11 Key Conservation Roles, which also suggest that experience trumps qualifications!)

For students, he says that getting experience while studying for your qualification will set you up well. Identify organisations of interest and look for opportunities to work for them.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out – people are really friendly, and they’re much more willing to help than you might think!

“Even if it’s just a summer job, working in an environmental consultancy, supporting them, and making contact with people who can help you understand what the world of work is all about, that really helps.”

“Don’t necessarily look for the ideal job as your first job, recognise that you need to move into that.”

Think flexibly about how you can make an impact, and make sure you’re clear what your passions are. Not all conservation careers require the same skills: “If you’re looking to be an ecologist, for example, any opportunity to get identification skills is a first port of call. There is a lot of interest in people with protected species licences.”

Regardless of where your interests lie, Paul recommends persistence and patience: “There are roles out there, but you can’t expect to just apply for jobs and get a role. It’s about getting out there, talking to people, understanding where those jobs are, what you want to do.”

“It won’t be the first or the 10th, or maybe not even the hundredth application – but eventually there will be a role that will be right for you.”

Looking to the future

“We need people who have got a good, positive, but also pragmatic approach to driving change forward.”

Finally, I asked Paul about his hopes for the future of the environment and conservation.

A self-professed optimist, Paul believes there’s a general recognition that change is necessary, and people are moving in the right direction – they just need to do so more quickly! He’s witnessed the issue of biodiversity become increasingly important to the conservation movement, joining carbon and climate change as a hot topic of conservation today.

According to Paul, conservation in recent years has become less fuzzy and woolly, and more
pragmatic, hard-headed and commercial. This, he believes, is a very encouraging sign that things will change and move forward.


Author Profile | Jasmine Santilhano

Jasmine Santilhano is an Ecology student at the University of York, UK, and a volunteer Conservation Careers Blogger. She plans to work in wildlife conservation after she graduates.