Young, wild and very free

I wrote this article a while back but wasn’t sure whether to post it or not. In light of some recent posts I thought I would share it.


Many people reading this article have degrees in environmental disciplines and have probably seen the wide variety of jobs on offer. Once you eliminate the ones that require significant experience, remembering that even graduate jobs require 1-2 years of experience nowadays, you are left with relatively few. Still, better than none you would think.

However the problem at this point is that a great many conservation “jobs” are unpaid. These are not temporary posts, these are 6-18 month-long vacancies which are unpaid yet we are asked to do them in order to gain this elusive “experience” so that we can eventually get a job that pays. Can you imagine putting a job advert out for a soldier or a doctor saying “Could you just work for us for 18 months full time for nothing?” Any prospective candidate would be off like a shot. Such actions may have taken place in the past in some industries but most responded to criticism and started to pay their employees. Not the wildlife industry though.
Two conservationists, Fournier and Bond, recently wrote a piece in the Wildlife Society Bulletin entitled “Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology”. Fournier is a PhD student and Bond is a Senior Conservation Scientist for the RSPB. This article was looking mainly at wildlife technicians, people that help with lab and fieldwork, rather than jobs like rangering but the situation is at least the same, possibly even worse for those.

They point out that the people who do take unpaid roles are normally the “privileged few” who can afford to live a serious amount of time without payment. Often job adverts claim they are looking for highly dedicated people, i.e. willing to put up with a lot. It is all very well asking people to be dedicated but if they are not willing to support the person then why should that individual show such dedication? Why would they put extreme amounts of effort into their work when they equate to slave labour in the eyes of their employer? As Fournier and Bond put it:

“Not paying technicians for their work undermines their professionalism as well as professionalism in science as a whole”

The whole notion of doing what you love, finding something you enjoy doing and other assorted clichés is great, but no one can live on nothing. 38% of the jobs sampled in the above study were either unpaid, or involved the candidate paying the employer in order to work for them. I don’t know the people who came up with the notion of someone paying an employer in order to work for them but I suspect those people retired to their beach houses a long time ago still looking at each other in disbelief that they got away with such an outrageous notion.

Crucially, wealth bears no relationship to skill. We may be getting people who are not skilled or dedicated in environmental positions just because they have more money and can work for nothing. We question why the environment is going downhill and this is one possible reason why. The best people are not necessarily being employed, only the best of the people who can afford the job. It is strange that as the level of student debt has risen so has the number of unpaid internships on offer.

“But that is how it is nowadays”, people say as if that makes it alright. As our experts put it, “We realise money is tight and there is a long tradition of unpaid work, but these are not valid rationalizations for continuing the practise.”

Quite so.

The serious problem with all this is that it limits the number of people in the field. If we need experience and 38% of jobs offering experience are unpaid then huge numbers of prospective ecologists and conservationists are being driven away, probably being swooped up by graduate schemes promising the world. Worse still is that only one third of unpaid interns actually get paid job offers at the end of their internship. Most people in this line are pretty realistic, we realise that jobs often require working in the middle of nowhere or at unsociable hours for low pay. We know that we aren’t likely to be millionaires but ideally we would like to afford things like food. When you think about it, it’s not even realism we have, it’s more like very low standards. These jobs are not easy and often involve being isolated and giving up a lot of home comforts. If anything such jobs should be paying more to compensate for these hardships but instead they are asking us to not be paid at all. Where is the sense? How can you attract people to work if you are not willing to invest in them? As Fournier and Bond argue:

“Unpaid technicians are bad for science and the conservation of the natural world. We cannot afford not to pay our technicians”.

They explain that the notion of unpaid positions being detrimental was pointed out at least 12 years ago, but little has changed. It may well have become worse as the difficulties in getting a job means that employers can quite easily take advantage of graduates by not paying them money but offering “experience” like some kind of mystical prize.

I am not against volunteering. I actually do volunteer work myself. Wanting to give up your time to help a cause is fine but my objection is when you are not choosing to do this but are actually “working” for nothing other than the promise of experience. I have done an internship in a lab and was paid £180 a week for it, something that my tutor at the time scoffed at, claiming it was far too little to be paying an intern. I can’t imagine how she would react at being asked to work for free. It is interesting that academics and scientists such as Fournier and Bond, who no doubt rely on unpaid help, are highly critical of not paying someone for long term work even though it may cost their organisations more. This article circulated on social media and got a lot of “likes” from my graduate friends and also the Dean of Science at my university, so clearly many acknowledge the problem. It’s a very flawed system that prevents people from actually getting a job in the area they have studied. The bottom line seems to be it is easier to get hired if you are have money. As Fournier and Bond put it:

“The system is clearly broken. When we create unpaid positions we exclude the very people we are trying to attract into science”

There is an interesting exchange regarding an unpaid internship with the National Trust in a link here, in which they were seeking an unpaid intern whose jobs it was to recruit more unpaid interns. As you can see they weren’t particularly forthcoming when questioned on their scheme. At present the National Trust has 5,899 staff with interns reportedly making up almost half of the staff which is pretty shocking when you think about it. It is also pretty shameful that the interns don’t even get a mention on the National Trust’s annual report. Not one word in 123 tedious pages. The question is, would this organisation run without the unpaid interns? If not then they should be paid as they are vital to the company.

Just to prove that these still exist here is job description of a current internship. I chose this example from America just to show that this is a industry wide phenomenon, not just something that happens in the UK.

Note that they refer to it as a job and list some tasks which look suspiciously like things people are usually paid to do. In summary they want someone with qualifications to work 40+ hours a week, perform rigorous outdoor work in all weathers, do heavy lifting, feed, clean and administer medication to the animals. Why is it they can get away with asking for people to do so much but not pay them a living wage?

Legally, “intern” is a vague term. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills “an intern is entitled to at least the national minimum wage if they qualify as a worker, which is someone who works for set hours – whether they want to or not – and is to all intents and purposes performing a job that a worker would be paid for”. That definition suggests a number of unpaid internships are illegal. The issue is very cloudy though, worsened by the fact that a great many politicians have unpaid interns working for them. Presumably it is just happy coincidence that the people writing the law managed to benefit from it on an individual level.

There are countless unpaid internship examples and some even want you to have experience beforehand. If someone had experience then they surely wouldn’t be looking to do an unpaid internship? Contributing to the problem is the fact that most of us leave university without gaining enough practical experience and thus we require further training. This situation enables some organisations to take advantage of us and ask us to work for free. As we know, an unpaid internship is an amazing educational experience in which your bosses learn they can get someone to do the job without paying them.


As Don Marquis put it “When a man says he got rich by hard work, ask him “Who’s work?”.

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Scott Thomson

Scott Thomson

Scott Thomson

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5 Responses

  1. I agree Scott that volunteer work, while beneficial and rewarding, should be something people can choose to do in addition to their paid work and not instead of paid work. If conservation groups can’t pay a wage, they could offer basic food and accommodation for positions that require temporary re-location. I believe that some do at least offer accommodation.

    Alongside writing about wildlife and the environment, I run a café for the time being. I’ve had young people ask if they can work unpaid to gain experience. My view is that if I need extra staff then I’ll pay them for that work, even though I could benefit from cutting our wage costs. In addition, if I’m going to invest time in training someone, I want that person to be the right fit for my business. I tell them to apply when a vacancy arises, and if they are suitable, I’ll pay them and train them where necessary.

    I realize that conservation is different with so much competition for too few opportunities, but it is so much more important to society than hospitality. We need to make sure the best people are involved, and not just the best of those who can afford the volunteer positions. We need to make sure unpaid positions, especially those asking for existing fieldwork skills, are affordable and directly beneficial to a volunteer’s conservation career. Otherwise we’ll have a glut of disillusioned graduate conservationists whose skills go to waste.

  2. Rhian Rhian says:

    A great article Scott. I’ve been thinking of how best to articulate this issue and you’ve hit the nail on the head! As we know many conservation organisations are charities but people (especially young graduates as you mention) are being taken advantage of. I’m sure it happens in other professions too, but that is no excuse. As you’ve touched on, not paying people to do a job undervalues the very work they’re doing. How can large conservation organisations make the point to governments that our environment is worth investing in, when they themselves don’t even pay the people working for them?

  3. Avatar lou says:

    i particularly agree with the experience required to do the unpaid intern part, having 6 months of ranger experience under my belt which i only managed to get in the first place due to months of weekly work parties done for the local wildlife trust. i am either still flat out rejected for this summers internships because even that isnt enough or invited to interviews only to be grilled on what experience i have and what i can do to benefit them like actual paid jobs would require rather than what they can offer me in return for working for free for them. they also will require full working weeks with evenings and weekends with no travel costs and you have to use your own car to travel between their sites if doing fieldwork. it annoys me mostly because i need experience to get unpaid experience and i cant get that experience without experience which keeps me forced into a rut i cant get out of. for example one internship required a protected species licence from a student and other skills that are picked up from actually working in the business which shows how many places view volunteers jobs as a hidden way to get the highest qualified person to work for free labour for months rather than learning opportunities for the next generation

  4. Avatar Ben says:

    Great article which highlights the reasons why I, like many others, have not been able to get into the conservation sector after completing a degree. Exactly as you put it, I would be happy to volunteer part time while working but asking me to work for free for 12 months I feel is insulting, especially as a “mature” graduate who had already worked for 5 years before going to university. It is a shame as many of my classmates feel the same and will probably never embark on a career in conservation.

  5. If anyone is interested in reading Alex and I’s piece a copy can be found here.

    Thanks Scott for continuing this important conversation!

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