Our Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders are helping to Bridge the Gap

Sam, a young person on our Tomorrow's Natural Leader programme, describes their work detailing the barriers that many young people face when trying to start a career in the conservation sector.

The environmental sector is both a rewarding but challenging sector for young people to enter. The sector also lags behind many others in terms of (especially ethnic) diversity. This is an unfortunate state of affairs given the vital importance of fostering new generations of environmentalists in a world increasingly ravaged by biodiversity loss and climate change. As young people on Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Tomorrow’s Natural Leaders (TNL) programme, we took it upon ourselves to support the sector’s efforts in addressing these issues.

Background

During the final year of the programme (2019/20), in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we decided to organise a survey and online youth conference to address the barriers faced by young people and those from minority backgrounds wanting to enter the environmental sector, and discuss some possible solutions.

We sent an online survey to environmental sector organisations (ESOs) in summer 2020, asking a series of questions about the representation of young and/or Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees in their organisation, and the opportunities and barriers for these groups. We also organised and delivered a virtual conference, called Bridging the Gap, on International Youth Day 2020 (12 August), bringing together young people interested in entering the environmental sector and ESO representatives. The conference included discussions in breakout rooms along with presentations from two inspiring young environmentalists, Mya-Rose Craig (a.k.a. Birdgirl) and Joshua Styles, as well as Stephanie Lynch of Groundwork UK.

Survey results

Fifty-five different ESOs responded to our survey. We found many of the results interesting and not necessarily what we would have expected. The main results are summarised below.

1. Young and BAME employees The representation of young people in ESOs was often high, although BAME and young BAME representation was generally poor.
2. The value of young people ESOs overwhelmingly valued young people in their organisations, especially for their fresh ideas and perspectives.
3. Experience required for entry-level jobs Most ESOs required entry-level job applicants to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, although the majority required no previous volunteering/work experience.
4. Soft skills required for entry-level jobs Self-motivation/initiative and communication skills were noted as being the most frequently lacking soft skills in entry-level applicants.

5. Knowledge required for entry-level jobs For most entry-level jobs, a general knowledge of, and interest in, the environment/wildlife/natural history was sufficient. An enthusiasm for the subject was often noted.

6. ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ Most ESOs agreed that young people increasingly had a lack of knowledge of UK wildlife and ecology, although this was usually not a problem for ESOs as learning could take place on the job.

7. Partnerships Work experience/placements and volunteering were the other opportunities most commonly offered by ESOs. Most ESOs had a partnership with an educational institution such as a university, college or school.
8. Barriers for young people ESOs felt strongly about the barriers facing young people entering the environmental sector. Many different barriers and solutions were identified, with the responsibility for overcoming barriers.

 

The responses to our question about barriers facing young people entering the environmental sector were remarkable – they were often lengthy, impassioned, detailed, eloquent and inspiring. We got the sense that ESOs cared strongly about the problems young people face, valued young people in the sector and were keen to remedy the situation.

Creating solutions - Bridging the Gap cards

ESOs’ comments on barriers and solutions were incorporated into our Bridging the Gap cards, aimed at ESOs and young people, containing summaries of problems and ideas for overcoming them. These cards are provided as individual documents separate from the main report - you can download them below.

Bridging the Gap conference

At the Bridging the Gap conference, which received enthusiastically positive feedback from attendees, issues of diversity within the environmental sector were discussed along with general barriers and solutions for young people entering the sector. Points from these discussions were recorded on Trello boards during the conference and subsequently incorporated into the Bridging the Gap cards. A recording of the conference (minus breakout room discussions) is available to view.

View the recording

Recommendations

Our main recommendations arising from the ESO survey and conference are for ESOs to continue striving to increase the (especially ethnic) diversity of their workforce, and to recognise the value that young people can bring to their organisation as an incentive to provide more opportunities for them to get a foothold in the environmental sector. Other recommendations, including campaign ideas and advice for young people, can be found in the Bridging the Gap cards.

We plan to re-survey ESOs in the future to assess whether longer-term impacts have been achieved; we hope to see rises in the number of opportunities for young people, increases in young and BAME employees, and more partnerships with educational institutions.

Summary

The Bridging the Gap project has been a brilliant demonstration of young people working together to bring about positive change. We think that a young voice is an essential component of any organisation. This is why opportunities such as the TNL programme – which gives 16-24 year olds hands-on conservation experience and the chance to design and lead projects to inspire other young people about conservation – are so important in the environmental sector. We are hugely grateful to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust for supporting us during the programme and hope that the Trust continues to foster a strong youth voice as it faces the challenges of the future.