Want to work in conservation? There is no better job interview than to volunteer

It is no secret that starting a career in the conservation industry is difficult. It is a hugely competitive environment and, for you to stand any chance of succeeding, evidence of your determination is essential to put you ahead of the crowd.

So, where to start? How do you stand out among hundreds of other candidates? For many hirers, volunteering experience is an essential pre-requirement. Without this, chances are, you will be overlooked. Particularly if you are applying to work for a volunteering organisation.

“There is no better job interview than coming and volunteering. It shows who you are and what you have to offer,” Global Vision International (GVI) Limpopo’s base manager Leah Brown told Conservation Careers.

“You have to be prepared to sacrifice time – it is so competitive, if you are not willing to go the extra yard and prove yourself first, then you are really going to struggle to get in.”

To put it into perspective, at the GVI Limpopo base in South Africa, every single staff member – bar one, who is a South African resident – has been hired from the GVI volunteer pool.

And, Brown practiced what she preaches. In 2015, she quit her job as an animal technician at a research facility in Australia. She packed her bags and headed to South Africa, where she took part in GVI’s six-month conservation internship.

She hasn’t looked back since. By the end of her placement and following a further two-month unpaid role, she was offered the job as Assistant Base Manger. Eight months ago, she was then promoted to Base Manager.

“To get here I had to do my field guide training (FGASA), but the biggest advantage I had was six months of proving myself, proving my ability and being the right personality for the field. It is crazy that one volunteer placement has led to where I am now.” she said.

Even if doors don’t open up for you at where you volunteer, the placement will do wonders for your CV. Brown knows of several ex-volunteers who have since got into university when they were previously rejected, or who have got another internship which they haven’t had to pay for.

By volunteering in your own time, you are showing the company you will go a step beyond someone who is sitting in at home. Furthermore, it shows a willingness to explore the world. It is not just about learning about conservation and research, it also broadens your life experience and perception – attractive qualities for prospective employers.

Short and sweet

Now in charge of the hiring process in Limpopo, Brown said the sheer volume of applicants for a vacancy means a CV must grab attention. But, keep it short and to the point. Recruiters’ time is limited, and ploughing through multiple pages of information is a real turn-off.

“Don’t worry about listing intimate details on every university course, or what your previous job entailed in a supermarket. Cut out what’s not appropriate, have bullet points on what you think is relevant to the position you are applying for,” Brown advised.

A recent job vacancy at Limpopo resulted in close to 400 applications. In a bid to decide who would make it to the interview stage, Brown had a clear idea of what information the CV should contain.

A BSC was a must. As was previous experience in Africa. If neither of these featured then they were unsuccessful.

“If you are going to be working on the continent and you haven’t even been there, then you don’t really have a step-up on someone else,” she said.

To filter further, Brown looked for a field guide qualification. In South Africa, the FGASA is the basic qualification to guide safely in the bush, alongside providing a base understanding of the African bush and its flora and fauna.

There are several programmes in South Africa, such as Bushwise – a partner of GVI – which provide courses on FGASA. Alternatively, you can self-study.

To get ahead further, make sure your cover letter is not a generic one-size fit all. Employers can see if effort has not been made to tailor it to the specific position – even simple things such as stating the role you are applying for can give your application further gravitas.

“I understand the application process is time consuming, but you will stand out. Surprisingly a lot of people don’t do this. Or, if they do, you can see it has not been tailored to the position and it is just another click and send,” said Brown.


Personality key, but do your homework

Working for a volunteer placement is not a 9-5 position, nor is it a “typical” working environment. You live and work alongside your colleagues and the volunteers. It is therefore essential the staff connect and that relationships with volunteers remain friendly yet professional.

Showing you have the right personality for this is vital.

“Of course, you look for qualifications, you need to start with something, but this work environment is different to most. So, first and foremost, is personality –  it is so important to have a good gel and mesh for the team, then everything else flows with it. The longer I am here, the more I see how important it is that we work as a unit and the more I realise the importance of personality,” Brown said.

If you have already volunteered for the company you want to work for, chances are you will have been able to prove your worth.  While face-to-face interviews go some way to providing an insight into a potential candidate, living and working alongside the team allows prospective job hirers the chance to strip off the veneer.

“It is really hard to judge a book by its cover over a skype call, or even a face-to-face meeting, as they are just going to be putting on their best side. Meeting someone for an hour and working with someone for three months as a volunteer is entirely different. People change. Some get lazy, or angry, or unhappy – you see every facet of that person,” said Brown.

It also gives you the chance to prove your worth. The staff can see first-hand the effort you are making, and when positions become available, you are more likely to be considered.

Once you are through to the interview stage, then do your homework first. It sounds obvious, but Brown said she has been surprised by how many people have failed to do even basic research.

“At the very least I would expect you to have done some research on GVI as a company. That is the one thing I will always ask – have they looked at the website? I will ask what their understanding is about the programme and, if they can give a good example, then they are already on to a strong start,” she said.

“If you also have ideas on what you can contribute to the base after what you have seen online or by volunteering, then that will impress me even more. Just do your homework!” she added.

No regrets

Brown has no regrets about her career path and said the position is hard work but rewarding. Working for GVI in the Limpopo region of South Africa has meant she wakes up on a big five reserve and has access to incredible wildlife – something she never dreamed was possible when she was living in Australia.

Alongside hands-on research and animal encounters, the job means she also gets to meet different people from all walks of life.

“My favourite part is being able to show people this incredible place and seeing how excited they get about South African wildlife. We give them that connection, we give that education, it is incredible,” Brown enthused.

She is hugely passionate about conservation and is confident that volunteer placements make a notable contribution to this.

“What we do here on the ground is applied science – using information and data to help make reserve management decisions. The spin-off from this is that it helps the animals and so helps with conservation. It is small steps, but together organisations such as ours are making a big difference,” she enthused.

Follow in Leah’s footsteps!

Would you like to work with Leah, study wildlife conservation, and gain work experience as an Intern on a game reserve in south Africa? Register through Conservation Careers here and get a FREE 12 months membership with Conservation Careers.

Conservation Careers has teamed up with Bushwise to provide professional Field Guide Training in South Africa. 95% of Bushwise students are being offered permanent positions within a month of graduation. If you’re interested in a career working as a field guide, field research and eco-tourism sector then read on and register your interest here.

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