Working with Rivers Training Placement Scheme - Evaluation
- All 20 participants (19 FTE) completed their Working with Rivers Training Placements between the start of March and the end of June 2022.
- They were employed by 14 different bodies, primarily Rivers Trusts and Fisheries Trusts, operating from Caithness in the north to Galloway in the south and from Wester Ross to the River Forth. A University, a private estate and a Common Grazings Committee were among the hosting employers.
- Of the 20 participants, 14 were unemployed at the beginning of the placement, 3 were self-employed including one person who worked occasionally within the sector, but was keen to improve skills in order to transition to more regular work in nature-based sectors. 3 were employed, of whom two, based in Skye, shared the 1FTE training placement, while continuing with their other p/t employment. Average age of participants was 35, with the range running from 25 to 58 years of age.
- 11 of the participants have taken up employment in the sector, 8 of these remaining with the employer who hosted the training placement. One further participant was offered a post, but chose employment elsewhere and at least one participant will work in this, and other nature-based sectors on a self-employed basis, following the placement.
“A very worthwhile experience from which I learned a great deal, and would recommend to anyone to take part. Gained lots of new skills and experience as well as networking - it's definitely a 'foot in the door' to getting future employment in the sector.”
“We found the Working with Rivers Training Placement Scheme an incredibly valuable tool for the teaching of practical river restoration techniques. Both the Trust and the Trainee gained much from the scheme and our Trainee has continued working with the Trust, gaining more skills and training and fulfilling a variety of roles and services.”
- 100% of participants responding to the survey (14) would recommend this approach to skills development to others.
- In a survey of the employers, 100% of respondents (11) felt this was a useful mechanism for supporting the development of new skills and would recommend this approach to others.
- The total cost of the Working with Rivers Training Placement Scheme was £142,250. In addition to the funding the placements, this figure includes the cost of additional training courses provided by an external training provider.
Outcomes sought from Working with Rivers
Training Placement Scheme
Outcomes resulting from the scheme in 2022
20 individuals with significantly increased skills and employability able to access new job opportunities
20 participants completed the training. 11 have gained employment in the sector. One further participant was offered employment but chose to go elsewhere. One will offer services to the sector on a self-employed basis.
An increase in the available workforce and capacity within a nature-based net zero sector
Workforce capacity in the sector increased by 20 people.
Learning to potentially extend such a scheme in subsequent years
Evaluation provides information to help shape any future scheme.
Increased delivery of river restoration projects with benefits for climate change and the resilience of nature and people
Significantly increased delivery of projects in river restoration by host organisations due to increased workforce during the period of the training scheme.
The Working with Rivers Training Placement Scheme was majority-funded through the National Transition Training Fund (NTTF), via Skills Development Scotland. It was managed by NatureScot, who provided the remainder of the finance.
The scheme offered funding to organisations working in river restoration, for the purposes of providing 20 paid placements of 12 weeks in duration.
The placements were intended to allow individuals to gain skills and access on-the-job experience in working with rivers – particularly in river restoration, natural flood management, control of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) and riparian woodland creation. The placements were also intended to increase capacity to deliver river restoration projects, and increase the available, skilled workforce within this nature-based sector.
All training participants were required to meet the following NTTF eligibility criteria: -
- Resident in Scotland,
- At least 25 years old,
- If in work, then workers transitioning to net zero sectors, or at risk of redundancy; or have been made redundant
A webpage outlining the scheme was created on NatureScot’s website, a press release was published and information sent to various riparian organisations and networks with which NatureScot is connected. An online Q & A session was run for interested parties.
Potential host organisations were invited to apply for funding, up to a maximum of £7500 per placement. Trainees were to be paid a minimum of £1711 (gross) per month for a full-time role. Part-time placements could be considered, if they met the other criteria for the scheme.
Applicant organisations were requested to outline the range of skills and experiences that would be available to the trainee during the placement, as well as any additional training that the trainee may be able to access, whether within or outwith the host organisation.
NatureScot funded additional online courses delivered by the River Restoration Centre. These focused on
- Developing a Catchment-wide river restoration plan
- Introduction to Hydromorphology
The requirements of the funding meant that the placements had to run in the period from the beginning of March to the end of June 2022.
The project was managed by a member of NatureScot staff. Oversight was provided by a steering group made up of Skills Development Scotland and NatureScot staff.
Nature-based solutions, including natural flood management and river restoration, are essential in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. These are growth area as we transition to net zero and address the biodiversity crisis and will require a range of new and enhanced skills.
In 2021, the Scottish Government announced funding of £55Million over 4 years for the Nature Restoration Fund (NRF) which supports projects which restore wildlife and habitats on land and sea and address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Riparian and freshwater stakeholders are key to the delivery of many of the aims of the NRF, as they have been instrumental in the delivery of many projects funded by the preceding Biodiversity Challenge Fund.
The Action Plan for Nature-based Jobs and Skills, published by NatureScot in August 2021 highlighted the need for pathways into nature-based sectors as a key objective.
In-depth sectoral research with riparian stakeholders carried out as part of the background research for the Action Plan, highlighted several skills gaps and shortages in the river restoration and natural flood management sectors.
Many nature-based sectors struggle to recruit staff with a sufficient combination of knowledge and experience. Many organisations involved in river restoration are small and limited in their capacity to finance skills development and training at their own hand, in spite of having wide-ranging skills and knowledge to share with those wishing to engage in riparian management and restoration. Prior to Working with Rivers, there was no obvious pathway to assist with the development of the mixture of skills required in the sector.
4. Analysis of survey responses
In line with the Evaluation Plan developed by Skills Development Scotland, participants and their training providers/employers were surveyed at the completion of the placements. Surveys were conducting using Microsoft Forms and Survey Monkey and were anonymous. Employers were invited to give any additional feedback they wished on email.
Overview from participants
In the majority of cases this was a very successful and effective scheme, with all feeling that they had gained new and useful skills and all respondents indicating that they would recommend this approach to skills development to others.
A wide range of technical skills and experience gained were highlighted, including
- Project management, including engagement with landowners/stakeholders and dealing with contractors, implementation of a woodland design plan, assessing catchments for improvements/restoration required.
- Survey skills – habitat, river catchment, breeding bird, hydrology and INNS surveys and invertebrate sampling
- Practical skills including tree-planting, fish-tagging, electro-fishing, INNS control, safe use of pesticides and fish identification, fisheries protection.
- Wider transferable skills, including report writing and liaising with the media.
In addition, the placements have given participants a broader contextual understanding of river restoration, the principal threats to riparian environments, fisheries conservation and the role of Rivers Trusts and Fisheries Boards in particular in addressing environmental challenges.
For 9 of the fourteen respondents to the survey (64%), the Working with Rivers Training Placement scheme either met or exceeded their expectations.
For 2 of the fourteen respondents, there was some disappointment that the placement had not lived up to their expectations. In at least one case, the trainee had felt the training plan had not been adhered to and they had been seen more as an extra pair of hands.
3 of the respondents had not known what to expect, so were unable to comment.
Most enjoyable aspects
There were some very positive comments in the responses to the most enjoyable aspect of the scheme. These ranged from the very general ‘enjoyed it all from start to finish’ to the pleasure (expressed by many) at working outdoors, in the landscape and feeling they were making a positive contribution. For a number, the positive working relationship with their line manager and the chance to learn from them were very important aspects, while the feeling of gaining skills for future employability was significant for others.
In assessing the most challenging aspects of the scheme for participants, it’s possible to identify a couple of themes:
- Lack of familiarity with IT, online and technical applications
- Time constraints, both in terms of a busy workload and the relatively short duration of the placement.
Other issues raised include the physicality of the job in some instances; the link between university-gained knowledge and practical use; maintaining motivation in the situation where they were involved in a repetitive task, and the seasonal timing of the placement, which might have been easier had it been able to run during core summer months.
Inspiration and employability
12 of the 14 respondents indicated that the placement had inspired them to work in, or seek to work in river restoration. Employability in this and any sector was enhanced by the scheme for 11 of the 14 respondents.
Support for this approach to skills development
Respondents were asked for their reasons why they would (or wouldn’t) recommend this approach to others. All responded that they would recommend the approach.
Reasons given for recommending the approach included
- The importance of gaining practical experience and the effect the skills and experience gained had on their employability. One respondent highlighted the opportunities the scheme had opened up for them, after a year of looking for employment.
- A good starting point for a career in the sector, allowing participants to apply skills and knowledge and prove their abilities. One respondent commented that this was a great way to get involved in conservation.
- The value of contacts within the sector and access to networks.
- The effectiveness of learning on the job and being able to assess whether this is an area of work which is of interest to you.
- One respondent suggested that the short duration of the training scheme meant its impact on skills development and employability was not as great as it could have been. Another highlighted that the time of the year was a potential challenge as the employing organisation was very busy.
Participants were asked for their general feedback on the scheme.
A number of participants would have appreciated an opportunity to meet more of the other trainees, and share learning and experiences. (This was attempted, with Forth Rivers Trust willing to host, but distance and timescales meant this didn’t go ahead.) The value of the online training delivered by an external provider was highlighted by a number of participants, who felt they would have liked a few more sessions to back up the practical skills and experience.
One participant, who undertook fisheries protection / bailiff work had an enjoyable experience, learnt useful skills and would recommend to others, but feels there are not enough opportunities in that specific area of work to try and pursue a career in that line.
Two respondents didn’t feel that the host organisation/employer had fully delivered the training they had outlined, and in one of these cases there would appear to have been HR issues which were not properly addressed. These participants were, nonetheless, enthusiastic about the potential of this scheme.
The majority of the feedback however, was hugely positive. ‘Excellent’, ‘very helpful’, ‘worthwhile’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘a great opportunity’ were all used to describe participants overall view of the scheme. The value of learning new skills, gaining access to a sector and improving opportunities for employment were all highlighted.
Overview from employers
The 11 employers who responded were likewise very enthusiastic about the scheme, with comments including ‘very useful’, ‘successful’, ‘very valuable’ and an ‘excellent initiative’.
A useful mechanism for skills transfer?
All agreed that the scheme was a useful mechanism for skills development. There was a view from many of the respondents that a 6-month placement would have allowed for a greater range of skills to be developed, including in certain areas of work which are highly seasonal. Some respondents felt that core skills had to be covered quite quickly. Another employer mentioned that the trainees were encouraged to lead their own learning through writing their own training plan, for review with their manager, to ensure they got what they wanted to learn from the training placement.
In follow-up comments, one respondent highlighted an issue with accessing funding for river restoration generally and difficulty in securing career progression within the sector as having an impact on skills development.
Benefits of the scheme
Benefits to the employers often related to the increased capacity to deliver projects that was made possible by additional staff resource in a small organisation. The ease of access of the scheme and the flexibility to recruit locally were both highlighted as positive aspects of the scheme. The focus of the scheme in developing hands-on practical skills in conservation was appreciated as a benefit of the scheme.
The fact that 8 of the trainees are being kept on by the same employer suggests that the scheme has provided a degree of comfort in terms of recruiting known, trusted people with developing skills to work alongside the existing team.
The focus on people aged 25+ was highlighted by one respondent as being useful. He commented that older learners may struggle to find training and employment opportunities and this approach was useful in helping to address that.
Challenges of the scheme
Challenges for the employers primarily related to the very tight timescale for application, recruitment and commencement of the project, which was an issue identified in the risk register initially. Mitigating this risk as far as possible within the time frame of the funding meant that we supported the recruitment as much as we possibly could via NatureScot and SDS networks and significant amounts of Comms activity.
The relatively short period for which the training placements ran was mentioned as a challenge for employers. The lack of a training budget held by the employer to support particular courses was highlighted as a challenge, although the training courses that were provided through the scheme were appreciated by participants. One employer felt there would be value in having training budget available for use once the participant was established in the training placement, had understood the range of work and was able to follow their own interest.
Weather provided some challenges given that all of the placements started in March when there were still regular wintry days. This was dealt with ensuring a variety of work was available, so that there were tasks to be done even when the weather was inclement.
Working with Rivers was favourably regarded by employers, whose overall perceptions were that it was of benefit to all parties. It provided a valuable way to develop skills in riparian sectors, increase capacity and deliver conservation projects.
There was encouragement to run similar training in the future, with all indicating that they would be keen in participate in any future placement scheme.
5. Project manager reflections on the Working with Rivers scheme
The small size and generally limited finances of the organisations working with river restoration and riparian habitat enhancement mean that capacity for supporting training is fairly limited. However, measures to address climate and nature crises will require a greater number of people with skills in riparian habitat enhancement and river restoration.
In most instances Working with Rivers Training Placement Scheme would appear to have been regarded as a useful approach for skills development in this developing sector.
In main part, this was due to the willingness of river restoration organisations to engage with the process and provide good quality learning experiences, and the enthusiasm of the participants for this hands-on training approach.
The availability of a salary made the scheme attractive to participants who were generally older than standard learners in many training schemes and the extent to which the placements have helped overcome barriers to employment is evidenced by the high proportion taking up employment opportunities at the end of the scheme
Training and skills share
There was an attempt to bring trainees together for a shared learning day, but distance and the relatively short duration of the placements meant this did not come to fruition. There were however, a number of instances where trainees spent time with neighbouring trusts in order to learn specific skills and found this generally valuable.
The availability of a specific budget for formal training courses would have been welcomed by a number of participants and employers. In some cases, the employer was in a position to cover the costs of this additional training themselves, particularly where it was a requirement for use of a specified piece of equipment or for completion of a task. The online training provided to all participants was well-attended and feedback was positive.
There was a reasonable balance between male and female participants in the scheme – 7 female and 13 male. There were no applicants to any of the placements from anyone from an ethnic minority background, reflecting a wider issue about the lack of ethnic diversity across the board in environmental sectors. This was in spite of promoting the training placements via CEMVO Scotland networks.
For reasons outwith our control, the timescales were challenging in the set-up phase of the scheme.
Deadline for applications was 7th January, with decisions around funding awards notified in the w/b 17th January, allowing recruitment to the placements to begin immediately thereafter. 12 of the 19 placements went to open recruitment, with the remainder being offered to candidates known locally. Applications for the placements varied in number from 3 at lower end to 16 at the upper end.
The tight timescales, due to requirements of the funding, meant the initial application period and recruitment phase felt rather rushed, and this was reflected in some of the employer feedback. Several organisations that had initially expressed interest in being part of the scheme were not able to meet the tight timescale over the Christmas and New Year break. However, mitigation measures in the shape of significant support for recruitment in January and February via networks and comms activity and the good local networks of the host organisations meant that all training posts had sufficient applicants to allow a choice of the most suitable candidate(s).
There was significant mention of the duration of the scheme, particularly from employers, who felt that a longer placement (6 months) would have been beneficial in order to share a wider range of skills including those which are highly seasonal.
Career progression and sector visibility
As with many nature-based sectors, the availability of employment opportunities is not widely understood and a career pathway into this sector is not particularly clear. The Working with Rivers training placement scheme provided a first step into the sector for many of the participants. It is worth considering what further approaches would be useful in broadening understanding of the range of work and skills required in the future. Approaches which assist in the development of a skills pathway into this sector may also be considered. Follow-up comms activity and sharing of case-studies of Working with Rivers participants would be helpful in raising the profile of this sector.
Recommendations for any future similar scheme
- Training placements of longer duration would allow for further development of skills and address a wider range of seasonal skills. That said, the proportion of participants moving into the sector might suggest that a shorter placement provides a sufficient introduction to the sector to overcome the initial barriers to employment caused by lack of hands-on experience.
- Time should be made for a formal mid-placement review by the scheme manager. This would help to address any issues relating to the range and quality of training and/or any HR concerns.
- In terms of governance, it might be useful to set up formal a network for hosting organisations and another for trainees to share experiences, opportunities and learning.
- Additional opportunities to bring trainees together would be valuable and should potentially have been programmed in at the start of the placements.
- A small budget for formal training (including travel costs) identified as the placement progresses would have been beneficial in helping to develop skills required for career development.
The applicability of this type of training approach is something we will consider more widely in NatureScot, particularly in relation to some of the areas where skills gaps are most significant. Further skills development support for the river restoration sector should be considered as part of this assessment.
The effective and straightforward assistance from Skills Development Scotland made this a relatively simple process to manage. Many thanks