We are regularly approached by students and recent graduates keen to understand the skills they need to pursue a career in consultancy work.
The following short article summarises, from our perspective, areas in which some basic experience is likely to be advantageous in securing an ecologist (entry-level) position.
Ecological consultancies vary in the way in which they are structured. BSG employs a high proportion of senior staff, and there is little variation in our workforce over the year. Staff co-ordinate survey work, build survey teams (often including experienced sub-contractors), and are responsible for client liaison and written outputs.
It follows that we tend not to take on large numbers of ecologist-grade staff. Typically, however, we do recruit a small number of ecologists each year, and look to integrate them into our team so that they can rapidly start to contribute to the delivery of basic project work.
What are we looking for?
There are few pre-requisites for an ecologist-grade recruit other than a good, relevant first degree and (preferably) a Masters degree, a clear interest in his or her subject, some broad-brush field skills (or an emerging relevant technical specialism) and an ability to communicate well. We are not looking for the finished article, but we are looking for someone who has an aptitude for problem solving, is likely to develop quickly (given training and mentoring), and will fit into our team.
While our expectations are not prohibitive, there are lots of enthusiastic, well-qualified ecologists looking for a career in consultancy: job advertisements tend to elicit a very large response. It follows that to set themselves apart, candidates need to find ways to stand out from their peers. The best candidates tend to start thinking about positioning themselves for consultancy work during their academic studies, and many degree courses have evolved to help meet their needs.
Phase 1 Survey
The staple survey technique for many ecological consultancies is the ‘extended Phase 1.’ The Phase 1 is typically the first survey undertaken on a site, and provides the foundation (along with desk study) for determining the scope of ecological survey work that is recommended.
A Phase 1 survey involves broadly classifying habitats based on their dominant and abundant plant species and communities. The survey is ‘extended’ to assess the potential of these habitats to support protected species (and invasive plants), a consultancy industry bolt-on to the original method which only concerned habitat mapping.
There are many things that can be done in preparation for, during and after an extended Phase 1 survey to ensure the results are accurate and robust (often in the company of more experienced colleagues): aerial photographs can be studied to assess site character and context and to identify potential features for study in the field; biological data can be secured from records centres and other sources; photographs can be taken; and results can be confirmed and more detailed species lists compiled during additional site visits (to complete National Vegetation Classification or protected species work). Standard proformas help ensure, for example, that assessing the bat roost potential of trees is completed in a consistent manner. Notwithstanding these checks, however, an initial accurate assessment of habitat type and quality is extremely important.
It follows that an awareness of the Phase 1 survey method, and more importantly an ability to identify common plants and understand the typical habitat types they occur in, suggests that an incoming ecologist can be entrusted with Phase 1 surveys of some sites with appropriate training and within a reasonable timeframe. Basic botanical skills are therefore very attractive in a potential recruit.
Much commercial consultancy work is driven by the legal and policy protection afforded to a relatively limited number of fairly widespread species / species groups. These include species protected under European law, such as hazel dormouse, great crested newt, otter and bats, and species subject to domestic protection including badger, common reptiles and water vole.
Graduates who are familiar with aspects of the ecology of these species, have experience surveying for them, and in the case of bats the use of data analysis software, have an advantage over their peers. Demonstrable experience can be gained through the selection of applicable research projects during academic studies, membership of mammal, bat or other special interest groups (which actively undertake field recording), and through completing seasonal work at consultancy companies. Some applicants for ecologist roles have already secured European Protected Species survey licenses: to have done so is a clear advantage, albeit some licenses are more difficult to secure than others.
Other particularly useful experience is in the sampling and identification of freshwater invertebrates, as changes in invertebrate communities during the development process provide an indication of changes in water quality.
Experience with more regionally restricted and/or habitat-specific protected species, such as red squirrel, sand lizard, pine marten, white-clawed crayfish or marsh fritillary will be valued differently by different practices depending on the nature of their work and the areas of the country they are most active in. For us, experience of these species would be considered useful, but usually of secondary importance to equivalent experience of more widespread protected fauna.
The ability to identify birds by sight and sound is very useful in an ecologist grade recruit, as an element of bird survey work is typically required to inform all large-scale developments. The most detailed and long-running (onshore) bird survey work is usually conducted to inform wind farm applications, or developments that require significant land take such as major residential projects or new power plants. Survey work tends to be most detailed where these large schemes could impact upon statutory designated sites, particularly (in the case of birds) Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
At present, despite the fact that they are very useful, ornithological field skills are probably less advantageous in a potential recruit than an equivalent level of proficiency in botanical or protected species survey. This reflects a number of factors: the onshore wind industry is in decline due to unfavourable renewables policy; there are numerous regionally-based ornithological contractors with a high level of expertise and local knowledge; the locations of jobs requiring significant ornithological work in relation to office locations are inherently unpredictable; and, consultancy work is highly competitive, with price typically being the most important consideration in contract award.
As a practice we need to keep abreast of available technology and apply it sensibly to the work we do for numerous reasons, not least of which are commercial considerations. Our clients expect us to collect robust data, and to limit their commercial risk.
The use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has taken a while to filter into Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). However, GIS allows straightforward transfer of georeferenced data within EIA teams, and is very useful in multi-disciplinary constraints mapping. GIS is also extremely useful for analysing and presenting large ecological data sets, and the field data for many of our larger sites is now input directly into GIS using tablets (preventing double-handling). It follows that a good understanding of GIS, and some experience using commonly-used programmes is advantageous. Familiarity with GIS also allows ecologists to alleviate pressure on GIS technicians, who can delegate basic work to them during busy periods.
The way in which we capture data on nocturnal and unobtrusive species is also changing. As a practice we are making far greater use of high-specification thermal imaging equipment, infra-red and motion-activated cameras, and are now considering how to use drones to facilitate some aspects of survey work. Application of these technologies has resulted, in some cases, in more accuracy and confidence in our conclusions. For example: we have filmed the way in which commuting bats respond to breaks in cover; the numbers of bats emerging from boxes; how golden plover behave at night around wind farms; and have recorded evidence of whether great crested newts and other amphibians are using purpose-built culverts under new roads for dispersal. Experience in the design and implementation of survey and monitoring using one or more of these technologies is therefore very useful in a graduate.
Field survey is only part of the work of a consultant ecologist. Most consultancies are heavily reliant on repeat work, which in turn requires effective verbal communication and positive relationships with clients and consultees, proactive project management and delivery of a final product (usually a report of one type or another) that is of a high standard.
Obviously the main function of a CV is to present relevant experience, while an accompanying covering letter should establish why the candidate feels they are suitable for the post advertised and what they would bring to it. From our perspective, however, in combination they provide very useful initial insight into both the written capability of the candidate and their attention to detail.
While it is reasonable to expect that the interview process (which may incorporate a written exercise) is the best test of communication skills, in a highly competitive job market, spending time refining a CV and covering letter is time well invested.
It is unrealistic to think that any graduate will be proficient in all of the subject areas identified in this article prior to beginning a career in consultancy. This article simply aims to set out a few key areas in which developing experience is a distinct advantage when it comes to competing with peers for a consultancy position.
It is also worth reiterating that different consultancies may have slightly different priorities based on the nature of their core work, and the areas in which their offices are located, and this article does not therefore profess to present an industry standpoint. However, demonstrable experience of botanical and protected species survey in a UK context is always likely to be advantageous, ornithological field skills useful, and additional experience of GIS and the application of emerging survey techniques may prove the difference (at least in getting to interview) in a highly competitive job market.
Finally, while field skills and a drive to learn are extremely important, it needs to be understood that commercial consultancies provide a service. To develop as an all-round consultant, the ability to communicate effectively in writing, as well as verbally, is equally critical.