Growing our Skillsbase – Dr Liz Barron Majerik MBE MICFor

Dr ​Liz Barron‑Majerik MBE MICFor, Director of Lantra in Scotland shares her top tips for engaging with the next generation of ecology and environmental professionals. A critical topic as we look to address a national skills and labour shortage in the forestry and land based careers sector. 

Liz will be presenting at CIEEM’s upcoming Scottish Conference: The Role of Trees in a Sustainable Future

Its not about you, it’s all about them

Recently, I have been applying particular focus to what influences career choice. Okay, this has always been an interest of mine, but recently I have been forced to re-examine some of my assumptions and have realised that when I moved away from the classroom and lecture hall, I forgot some of the basics. So, in case others have done the same, here’s a quick reminder!

Influence the influencers

Careers leads and guidance teachers are influential, but can’t know everything. You can connect with them though, through DYW (Developing the Young Workforce Scotland) events, careers fairs and by speaking to the local school directly. And rest assured, they are interested!  Lantra can help you connect, please just get in touch.

Although it is important for your audience to know that there are good jobs available in your sector, that is now true of almost everywhere. It’s better to share with the influencers what the jobs are really like, who they would suit in terms of interests, character and qualifications, and what the benefits and challenges are. Perhaps every day is different, or you get to travel, or you excelled despite not getting great grades at school. Share your story, because good stories stick in people’s minds.

Unfortunately, so do the bad ones – so you might have to challenge some misconceptions. “You have to be born into it”, “you have to be rich” or “it’s what you do if you can’t do anything else” are all things you might have to counter at some point!

Peers are influencers too of course, which is why we have to promote the sector to the whole class, not just to the ones that might want to work there. If one of their friends later mentions that they are thinking about working in forestry, for example, and they remember it as being interesting, they are much more likely to be supportive.

Don’t ask THAT question

If you ask a young person at a careers fair “What do you want to do when you finish school” it might seem a good start, but it was described to me as “the worst exam question ever”. If they know, they will tell you, but if they don’t, they will feel they have to come up with a reply just to say something. If the answer they give you is not entirely true, they will immediately start to withdraw from the conversation as it started with an untruth.

“So what class are you missing today?” is a good start if it’s a career fair. This way you can find out their favourite subject and determine if working in your sector is of interest. “What’s your favourite subject?” (or even least favourite) is also a useful option. They always know that!

An alternative approach is to ask “Have you ever heard of *insert complicated job title here*?”. If they say no, you have an opening and can explain it to them.

Don’t start with need

“I want to work in a sector that contributes a million pounds to the Scottish Economy” said no-one.  Ever. Labour demand and macroeconomics probably mean nothing to most young people.

If anything, the knowledge that there is a national shortage of workers in that sector suggests to them that:

  • It can’t be that great a job if they can’t get staff.
  • The people who do it must be really overworked.

It is good to talk about opportunities though. I once taught a Higher Chemistry class and 60% of them wanted to be radiologists because their school guidance teacher had told them they would be guaranteed work. This was actually true[1], and made a nice change from people applying for forensic science courses.  The latter being proof that job vacancies are not the key driver when it comes to university applications…but more on that later.

Hinting to the young person that the only people who should apply are those who are really suited to the role in question (like they are), can give a helpful hint of exclusivity and a head start. Or emphasising that most people aren’t aware of the sector and of all the fun things you get to do in the job.

Make it memorable

Hands-on activities allowing the pupils to try something new or develop a new skill is always, always, going to engage them more than a PowerPoint presentation. Health and safety can seem like an insurmountable barrier, but speak to the organiser of the event or the class teacher to find out if you can use the school grounds, a local park, or bring in some specimens.  Think outside the classroom…

If it must be a presentation, make sure you throw in some surprising stats. At a recent Lantra event, a speaker said that a penny decrease in milk prices cut farm income by £60K overnight. When the pupils were later asked what they remembered from the event, many recalled that exact statistic. It got them thinking, which is brilliant, regardless of whether they want to work in the sector or not. (To be fair, talking about the effects of a penny increase in price would probably have been better…).

Be visible

There are some courses that will always get lots of applications, thanks to their portrayal in TV dramas (I’m looking at you, Forensics). But hairdressing and beauty are also up there too.  The importance society places on appearance explains some of this interest, but it’s also because young people regularly see those who do these jobs, and they look and sound just like them. It is no wonder that this comes to mind when they’re asked, ‘What do you want to do when you finish school?’.

School visits and career fairs are important, but so are “take your child to work” days. If your workplace doesn’t offer this, perhaps suggest they consider it.

But the best thing you can do is talk about your work and share how rewarding it is with others.

[1] And at least one of them is still a radiologist at the local hospital.

About the Author

Dr ​Liz Barron‑Majerik MBE MICFor, is Director of Lantra in Scotland, an organisation committed to the development and support of skills in Scotland’s land-based, aquaculture and environmental conservation sectors. Lantra is also heavily involved in the promotion of these sectors as positive and rewarding career options. Liz is a STEM Ambassador and a Chartered Forester. She also co-chaired the Commission for the Land Based Learning Review.

Liz will be speaking at our upcoming Scottish Conference: The Role of Trees in a Sustainable Future

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