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A Career in the Outdoors

by Nigel Williams

As I enter retirement I can look back on a fulfilling career in the outdoors, ranging from the military to local authority outdoor provision with Fife Council, to Head of Training at the Scottish National Mountain Training Centre Glenmore Lodge, and more recently as a freelance instructor. Not something when I left school in the 1970s to join the Army that I ever thought possible. If I had I suspect my dad would have told me to get a proper job.

The situation is very different today! People with relatively low-level qualifications that would only have been used in a voluntary capacity 35 years ago can now earn sufficient income to make a living. Governance and professionalisation of the sector are among many factors that have driven this change, yet there is actually no legal requirement in the UK to hold an outdoor qualification. However, without them a career is a non-starter.

The rapidly growing outdoor and adventure activities sector finds itself relevant in the wider field of education, tourism and health (physical and mental). The sector also spreads into environmental education, wildlife and countryside ranger work and rope access work.

There are effectively three pathways into an outdoor career; gaining recognised National Governing Body (NGB) outdoor qualifications, educational, through college or University, and apprenticeship through trainee positions at outdoor centres. The three routes complement each other, and most in the industry have experienced a mix of these approaches. A degree on its own will not get one a job, it is the NGB qualifications that do that as the activities are practical and require experience for the safety, risk management and leadership elements.

Weighing up the costs of university fees against the costs of gaining outdoor qualifications is a key decision. A quick calculation of the cost of all the outdoor qualification courses I have attended at today's prices comes to around £25k spread over my first 15 years in the business. It compares very well with the cost of university course fees in England and Wales. However, that is simplistic. There are also costs to gaining a lot of outdoor experience, but universities usually have very active and subsidised climbing, biking and kayaking clubs.

Long term, many in the outdoors can start to suffer with joint issues - knees, backs, hips etc. 10 - 15 years before reaching retirement age. In most sports people give up participating in the activity when they are in their 40s and take up coaching from the side of the pitch, court, pool etc. You can't do that working in the outdoors. A degree can help support a long-term career in the sector, widen job security, employability and possible management roles. One can also more easily change careers if life circumstances change.

The academic outdoor education courses start with college Certificate and Diploma levels and go on to Degree, Masters and even PhD. Many of the degree level academic courses also provide some of the lower level NGB awards, something that anyone looking at an academic route should be seeking. It is worth mentioning that many who attend these courses are not academic people, and there is a surprisingly high number of dyslexics and strangely, left handers!

Traineeships at outdoor centres are highly sought after as they offer both the experience of working with groups as well as gaining experience and training for the qualifications. They often involve free training and NGB courses and board and lodging, but minimal pay.

There are literally dozens of outdoor qualifications to work through across a multitude of outdoor activities from walking and climbing, kayaking canoeing, sailing, mountain biking and snowsports etc. Then there are more niche activities such as diving, orienteering and archery, plus useful add ons for employment such as the National Navigation Award Scheme Tutor and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award supervisor, and assessor accreditation.

There are usually a range of qualification pathways to choose from, such as coaching for competition or leading/instructing for recreation, and even an adaptive pathway for working with disability groups. The vast majority are for use in the UK, although there are a few higher end qualifications recognised abroad. Expedition work is an area of opportunity. Only a small handful of countries actually regulate outdoor instruction, which leaves most of the world open to UK outdoor instructors provided they are working within the technical skills remit of their qualification. Companies like World Challenge for instance will use a UK summer Mountain Leader award, along with some experience of the country to be visited, as sufficient qualification for trekking.

Virtually all the UK outdoor qualifications work on a distance learning basis. First gather some experience of the activity and then attend a short training course (generally ranging from a weekend to a week). That is followed by gaining more experience of the activity over months or years until one feels ready for the weekend or week assessment course. A first Aid certificate is also usually required at the time of the assessment.

This is an important point. One can become highly qualified by simply using weekends and holidays from the real job or University study. I have had many a discussion with people wanting to give up their regular employment and seek a career in the outdoors. My advice is always don't give up the day job and a steady income until you have a few qualifications under your belt. There are often work opportunities on weekends and holiday times so you can also start to get a foot in the door with one or two local activity providers prior to the career change.

The summer Mountain Leader (ML) award is the general outdoor sector bench mark and will open doors into the sector. Achieving the ML requires about 60 days of experience with a week of training and week of assessment. Each of those courses is around £500 and there is no time restriction between them.

Freelance seems to be the most common form of employment these days, as many traditional outdoor centres have been closed. You won't get rich working in the outdoors, but the reward for many comes in the form of variety, health benefits, being in nature and working with people. The more qualified and the more diverse your qualifications the more opportunities and variety comes your way, and the higher qualifications generally attract higher pay. If you have a business mind then you can set up as an activity provider and employ others to help you bring in and manage more business and income.

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