Outward bound

Does the thought of being cooped up in an office all day fill you with dread? If so, a career relating to either the built or natural enviromnent could be your ticket to a life in the great outdoors

It might be the feel of the wind on your face and the earth beneath your feet, the sense of being close to nature and in touch with the seasons or the invigoration of a more physical and organic existence. The attractions of working outdoors might seem timeless but the way we see the great outdoors and the job opportunities it presents are changing.

Just five years ago the future of the world seemed to lie in the hands of software engineers. But when the technology bubble burst, many people realised they wanted a real world as well as a virtual one, an organic life alongside the synthetic, and to be something more than a part of a matrix through which money and information flow.

“From my perspective in the construction industry, there does seem to have been a change in attitude,” says Julian Humphries, the business manager of construction industry training body CITB.

“The collapse of the dotcom boom might have something to do with it but people today seem much more interested in getting involved with the real world.

“They are more switched on to the ways the built environment affects us and more aware of what the construction industry has to offer as a career, in terms of doing something real with their lives.”

This desire to get closer to the external environment, to work with your hands and to contribute to something other than creating yet more files of information sometimes manifests as a drive towards a less money-orientated existence – a drive which is sometimes related to broader environmental concerns.

However, although this might be based on a desire to lead a simpler life, work outdoors is no less complex than office-bound endeavours.

“Our understanding of the natural environment is gradually improving so the breadth of skills required is much wider than it was 20 years ago,” says Gwyn Williams, the head of countryside conservation at the RSPB.

“Just creating a reserve requires not only people who are prepared to get their hands dirty – wardens and manual labour, whether salaried or volunteers – but also the expertise of hydrologists, avian experts, plant biologists and people who understand the agri-environment.”

But whether your interest is in construction or conservation, in working with bricks or in mud, most outdoor roles have three attributes in common.

1. Dealing with being unsupervised

There is no manager in a glass box at the end of a line of cubicles, so most people working outdoors will need to develop the ability to manage themselves for part of all of their time.

Often a large part of the attraction of working outdoors is the level of self-determination it offers. However, there are downsides. While some jobs such as site work can be very social, others such as farming and conservation can require you to spend a lot of time in your own company and not everyone thrives in this situation.

Equally, while a lack of immediate supervision can bring a new sense of personal responsibility, it can sometimes mean there is no one to turn to when things go wrong or there is no defined career path to follow.

2. Dealing with the unseen

The second thing you need to be is flexible. Rain, snow, temperature, livestock, insects and ground conditions are all unpredictable and anyone working outdoors quickly learns how schedules can be subject to the whim of nature. People who like to control their environment and time are less likely to thrive in the open air.

3. Dealing with the unknown

Part of the attraction of working outdoors is to live in a less controlled and predictable environment. This necessarily means that you will be entailing more risk. There is considerable variation across industries. Large-scale construction is now very risk-aware, while smaller owner-managed businesses sometimes cut corners and expose their workforces to situations that are only rarely tolerated indoors.

The secret of building a successful career in any environment is to catch a growing rather than a fading wave, and outdoor jobs are as much at the mercy of economic conditions as any other type of work.

The number of jobs in agriculture has been declining for decades, indeed centuries. But, as Robin Tapper, the head of food and farming at the National Farmers Union, explains, the industry is going to change enormously over the next few years and this means new opportunities.

“The biggest change affecting the countryside at the moment is the reform of the common agricultural policy,” says Tapper.

“In the UK, this reform is going to change the whole culture of the countryside as it will separate food production from subsidy. These have been linked since the second world war but over the next decade subsidies are going to become associated exclusively with land management and environmental objectives.

“The changeover is scheduled to take place between 2005 and 2012 and its effect on agricultural practices should be profound.

“Farmers will begin to see themselves as food producers at one end of a supply chain that links them to consumers. This has always been the case to some extent but farming has been so tied up with CAP subsidies and notions of custodianship that it has not always been self-evident.

“Reform means the emphasis is going to move towards supply-chain concerns, which could include everything from quality issues to efficiency savings, or the development of unique selling propositions.”

Business-minded people will have more opportunities to move into farming, particularly in the area of niche production.

On the environmental side of countryside work, there are not just opportunities but clear skill shortages. Environmental organisations have a much broader range of concerns than many people realise.

Where once they would have been pressure groups involved in drawing public and government attention to a problem, they are now much more concerned with advising and providing solutions.

This means they no longer require people who are merely concerned about an issue. Now they need staff who are concerned but also have the skills to act on it.

“Along with many organisations in our field we are now noticing shortfalls in terms of people with the right scientific and environmental qualifications,” says Williams.

“There are not enough people coming through from universities and at least one top environment department closed recently. So it is becoming more of a challenge to get good people, particularly as we are in competition with the commercial consultancies that advise organisations on their environmental commitments.”

There are already more than 2 million people employed in maintaining and developing the built environment. However, there is still a skills shortfall and the construction industry calculates it is going to need an additional 83,000 people a year over the next five years.

“There is a skills shortage across the board in construction, from civil engineers at one end to the follow-on trades such as electricians and plasterers at the other,” says Jon Pritchard, the director of membership at the Institution of Civil Engineers.

“The price of labour in the UK has doubled in the past five years, the starting salary for civil engineers has risen steadily and graduates are being tempted with golden hellos and sponsorship deals. The skill shortage is particularly noticeable in the south of England but it extends throughout the UK.”

He continues: “One of the few areas where opportunities have declined is in the local and regional authorities. These organisations used to employ more engineers and surveyors but many roles were lost during the Thatcherite outsourcing period.

“However, the work they did has not gone away. As is evident in the railways, there is a backlog of maintenance work required on the UK’s existing infrastructure and it is something that must be addressed in the next 10 years.”

Anyone deciding today to train in constructions or engineering is likely to have their investment rewarded.

Another advantage of working in construction is that it is very easy to find small firms who might be prepared to train you up or to set up on your own as start up costs are very low.

Over 97% of the construction industry workforce is employed in companies that have fewer than 50 employees and there are more than 60,000 sole traders.

Over the longer term, climate change is likely to create opportunities for people who are prepared to invest in more interdisciplinary careers.

“One trend over the long term may be in the impact of global warming,” says Pritchard. “Climate change may force groups that have previously been very separate to work more closely together.

“For example, if coastal and river flooding increases as expected, this would bring farmers, environmental groups, countryside charities, infrastructure engineers and local and national government together in a way that is only just starting to happen now.”

Success stories

Alistair Nash, 32, did a degree in forestry at Bangor University. From there he went on to lead the Forest of Leeds project and is now a senior woodland officer for the Woodland Trust in North Yorkshire.

“I have a fantastic job – out in the open air, in charge of myself, with the dog in tow. But, even as a woodland officer, I still have to make sure I get the balance right.

“There is lots of administration – forward planning for tree harvesting and new woodland planting up to a year in advance, and dealing with contractors on a day-to-day basis – and I find I can spend more time than many might think at my desk. So I always try to make sure that I spend two days a week out in the woods.

“I can’t imagine any other life. I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales and in my summer holidays, while at school and university, I worked as a general forest worker on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Bolton Abbey. I also spent a year working for the Forestry Commission in mid-Wales.

“This gave me a thorough understanding of a forester’s job from the ground up and this enabled me to move into management as soon as I had completed my degree.

“I spent my first three years after graduating working as project officer for the Forest of Leeds. This was the first time the 3,000 acres of woodland in and around the city had been brought together into one system so I had to start from scratch. It was the ideal introduction to forest management.

“A lot of people don’t realise how much travelling is involved. You can imagine in Leeds how little pockets of woodland were spread out over a very wide area.

“Now for the Woodland Trust I am managing an area with as much a 150 miles between woods, so there is a lot of driving involved. One day I can be in Ingleton in the west, the next day at Whitby on the east coast and then the North Yorkshire Moors.

“This is what I like about the job: the variety and the freedom. Nobody is looking over my shoulder and I am responsible for my own time.

“That means it is the type of job where you need to be self-disciplined and self-directed and most foresters do tend to be quite self-contained because, although there is contact with other people, it tends to be irregular. Of course, this means there is no office politics.”

Alex Wenham, 26, and studied modern languages at Cambridge. Like many Cambridge graduates, he ended up working in the City but, in his case, it was as a stonemason at St Paul’s Cathedral.

“I think I have a dream job. I admit that being a stonemason might not seem the most obvious career choice for a modern languages graduate but it actually felt quite organic from the inside.

“I had always been into making things with my hands and working outdoors. I had been involved in the arts scene at university and, at the same time, had worked on building sites and for the city council, cutting grass during the summer vacations.

“So it seemed quite natural to think about doing a craft job and not going into deskwork.

“Stonemasonry brought a lot of things together that I enjoyed. It wasn’t particularly a way to become a sculptor, although that was something I had been interested in and some of the carving work is done by eye and is pretty close to sculpture.

“But stonemasonry also has another side that is more architectural – things such as making fireplaces or the capitals of columns – where the work is more like a trade because you are following someone else’s pattern. I enjoy both aspects.

“I found it difficult to get an apprenticeship. I think the firms I applied to were not convinced I would have the staying power. So I did an NVQ and a City and Guilds qualification at college and went on to work for Stonewest, one of the big three or four stonemasonry companies doing restoration work in places such as the House of Commons.

“About a year ago I started being asked to do private jobs and I began to build up my own self-employment business, while continuing to do contract work for Stonewest.

“I’m not sure whether my university friends think I have a dream job or not. Some of them went into the City, and they are sometimes mirthful about my career choice, but I think underneath it all they are also a little envious.

“They work so hard they hardly see the light of day but I enjoy my existence at work. I get eight hours of work, eight hours of play and eight hours of rest out of my 24.”

Becky Floate, 23, has a degree in environmental studies from the University of Aberystwyth and a diploma in wildlife management from the University of Reading.

However, since completing her studies she has returned to her first love – livestock farming – and ir beginning to build up one of the UK’s few herds of veal calves. She is the NFU’s Regional young farmer of the year.

“Although I had always loved helping people out on farms, when I came to deciding on a university course, I chose environmental studies instead of agriculture because I didn’t think there was a future for me in farming.

“I did the degree and even went on to do a wildlife management diploma before I realised the environmental route to working in the countryside wasn’t for me. It is a different mindset and I liked working closely with livestock.

“While in Aberystwyth I had supported myself working on sheep farms. In Reading I had worked at the Centre for Dairy Research so, I thought, why not create for myself the career I enjoy?

“My parents have a non-commercial smallholding of three-and-a-half acres so I began to look into keeping calves for veal. A lot of the veal that is eaten in the UK comes from abroad, the calves are shipped to and fro in crates, with detrimental effects on their welfare. So I thought why not try and produce veal here.

“Luckily, there are a lot of quality restaurants in my area; I rang a few and found they would be interested in a more natural, locally produced product.

“I now have 13 calves, a good base of regular customers, and I am looking to expand the herd and the acreage in the next couple of years.

“At the moment, I am still working part-time in a local estate agency but I am glad I made the choice. The only downside is the hours. I often work very physical 12-hour days, and I do get very tired, although it has never stopped me going out in the evening.

“My one piece of advice to anyone interested in working with livestock is to get experience with someone else’s stock before taking the plunge. When you are trying to keep a sick calf alive, it really is a job where experience matters.”

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