By Lucas A. Ruzo (5min read) (First published 2016)

Recently I received an email alert highlighting a new job opportunity for grads, this time from environmentaljobs.com.

Exciting new intern position at ZSL with the IUCN Pangolin Specialist group”.

The current situation for many young grads means that they spend most of their time looking for entry level graduate conservation jobs around the country, but often in London as the capital has the highest concentration of NGOs drawing on the intellect and talents of the best and most ambitious.

I opened the link to read about the position and it was then that I began to feel a renewed sense of frustration at yet another unreasonable job offer for young people.

We are offering an exciting opportunity for a volunteer to assist the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group with co-ordinating the implementation of the global pangolin conservation action plan ‘Scaling up pangolin conservation”.

My feelings toward this particular job post reminded me of an interesting article I read by George Monbiot of the Guardian. He wrote about how young graduates are lured into the corporate sector by enticing salaries and job packages, leaving the future prospects of conservation diminished. Talent he argued, is being bought by those who can pay for it.

Candidate requirements –

Seeking volunteer intern

Must preferably hold graduate degree

Must work 3 days/week in central London – preferably more

Must work for 6 months

Is it really suitable to advertise this as an unpaid job offer? Perhaps I am incredibly naïve, but how could anyone be expected to be able to do this without parental support, a large trust-fund or loads of savings? They are asking someone to work full-time, for free, in central London, one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

In my case, I spent the better part of my teens before my undergraduate degree volunteering for environmental positions, positions that I was told would benefit my CV and give me much valued experience in my field of interest. In 2010 I began my undergraduate degree in Zoology to much the same advice – must volunteer, must get experience, must gain skills and knowledge outside of your degree. So I did, I spent my spare time working at a hotel during the week and volunteering at Edinburgh Zoo during the weekends as Public Engagement Officer for 3 years. Then in 2014 I started my graduate degree at Imperial College studying Conservation Science, again being told how little money is available within conservation, and how important and valuable volunteering experiences are for myself as an individual. I continued to volunteer part time for a small NGO I helped establish and did work for the RSPB when time allowed for it.

This is all fine and fair, years of working for free they argue, will surely help anyone land themselves a good job, particularly after the’ve been properly educated. It would appear however that even after having gone through a good education, many young people are still expected to work for free before they are offered a real job with a potential employer, and in most cases, it seems that this is the route most young graduates must take at the start of their careers.

There was a time when…”, as Pamela Abbot, CEO of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust put it during a recent workshop I attended on encouraging Woman in Conservation Leadership – “…that such jobs were offered as paid roles to young aspiring graduates, given to those people in junior positions who were well educated and filled with ambition and ideas on how to save species from extinction. Those days are long gone” (paraphrased). Gone she said, or allowed to go I wondered?

Some NGOs do decide to pay their interns; WWF, WCMC and Save the Rhino to name three different examples (and of course Citizen Zoo). So is this really a question about a lack of funding, or more about the individual management choices made by those running the show? Some would consider these types of opportunities to amount to nothing more than exploitation, masked by the promise of “experience”. It is insulting to the integrity of aspiring young practitioners in the field that they are implied to be the ones gaining from these positions, while the organisation offering the internship is doing it for the sake of providing them experience.

Many conservation charities also use the excuse of tight budgets to neglect their staff, and the young are often those hit hardest. Citizen Zoo, as a small start-up is testament to what can be achieved on shoe-string incomes. We pay all people a living wage, and one that offers everyone a strong sense of integrity, so if we can do it, then so can the big-guns out there.

The shame of course is that good candidates will inevitably apply and work hard to do an excellent jobs with these types of offers, candidates who are desperate to progress in their careers. In the end the circumstances of such positions will mean that only those who can afford to pay for these types of jobs will apply, denying the opportunity to those who don’t come from rich families, who may be more qualified for the position than others, to get a foot on the ladder.

Perpetuating the negative intern-loop

This cycle should be of serious concern to everyone in the sector, because it perpetuates the negative feedback loop that starts from unpaid-internships. Because these positions inherently select for people who can pay, rather than individuals who may be better qualified, it allows for mediocracy to enter the workforce, and in the business to saving species from extinction, we simple cannot afford that. Overtime, people tend to select people like themselves, so what starts at the unpaid internship level, will over time place people at the very top who may never really have been suited for the job in the first place, and who may not be the best at preventing species’ extinctions. This is a classic case of the further development of chumocracies in our sector, which broadly seem so pervasive in the United Kingdom.

I suppose we can all continue to wallow in self-pity or instead attempt to succeed in spite of these conditions. However, what will the consequences of this continued approach be for the future of nature itself?

Only time will tell.

UPDATE: since the publication of this article, the IUCN Pangolin Specialist group have started offering positions that provide the London living hourly wage.