Personality and life experience are the key ingredients for landing your dream outdoor job, discovers Josh Gale
While New Zealand’s office workers sit stationary in front of computer screens for most of the day, the nation’s outdoor instructors get to do what most of us only do on a dream holiday.
As we tap away on our keyboards, they might be paddling into an amazing fiord, scaling a rock face or taking in a stunning view from a ridge top
They have jobs that truly give them better work stories.
Which begs the question, why don’t more of us chuck in our office jobs for a career outdoors?
According to the 2006 Census, only 1740 people work in guiding or instruction, roughly .039 per cent of New Zealand’s population. By comparison, there were 30,000 accountants.
Training organisation Skills Active Aotearoa’s marketing and communications advisor Lance Tomuri says the real number of people working in outdoor recreation is probably a bit higher.
Skills Active is a government funded training organisation for the recreation, sport and fitness industries. Its role is to develop and facilitate world-class, nationally recognised qualifications that meet the needs of business.
Research it carried out in 2005 indicated 2500 people were working as guides and instructors, while between 3200 and 4500 people worked in the outdoor recreation sector as a whole. These higher estimates include support staff and seasonal workers.
New Zealand Outdoor Industry Association (NZOIA) chief executive Matt Cant is straight up about the downsides of outdoor recreation.
He says in many cases it’s a lot of hard work for little remuneration.
A 2010 Outdoors New Zealand and Skills Active Aotearoa survey found, for example, that 43 per cent of outdoor recreation sector workers earn between $26,000 and $30,000 per annum, compared to New Zealand’s average income of $48,600.
Hard work, low pay, seasonality and young workers (the average age is between 21 and 25) all add up to an industry that has a high level of staff turnover. Half of all instructors move on within two years.
So why bother doing it?
Talk to any passionate outdoor instructor and they’ll tell you it has to be for the love of it.
If money is your objective, go study accounting. But if you love people and want adventure, read on.
Being an outdoor instructor for Outward Bound “is the best job in the world” reckons training manager Job Lasenby.
“It’s not just a good job, it’s an amazing job,” he says. “I did it 10 years ago and it’s probably the best job I ever expect to have.”
He says the centre, located in Marlborough Sounds, has strong demand for generalist instructors as do other centres around the country. “If you’ve got generalist skills or skills in two or three activities, I think you’re more marketable,” he says. “There is a bunch of multi-activity programmes around the country that require staff to be multi-skilled.”
While formal outdoor qualifications go a long way to landing your dream job in the outdoors, Lasenby says they’re not everything. Life experience is just as important, he says.
The majority of Outward Bound courses run for 21 days and are designed for adults who want to have a life changing experience.
He looks for people who’ve “been around the block” and can relate to people of all ages and all walks of life – an ability only life experience usually provides.
“We don’t need people to be qualified as outdoor professionals, though we certainly like it,” Lasenby says. “We do a bunch of in-house training anyway and we want to leave the door open for career changers.
“Some of our finest instructors have been people who’ve worked previously as teachers or occupational therapists.”
Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre’s (OPC) Tongariro manager Janet Prier agrees someone who has “been around the block” is more attractive as a possible employee. She says OPC instructors teach young people life skills through the outdoors and that’s easier to do if an instructor has lived a bit.
Before moving from the UK to join OPC in early 2012, Prier had worked in outdoor education for 26 years, most recently as the manager of an outdoor education centre in north-west England. She was surprised by the level of staff turnover in New Zealand.
“I was really surprised because people seem to drift off into other careers and I had never seen that,” she says. “I think part of the reason that didn’t happen as much in the UK is because you could see a clear career pathway.
“A lot of the outdoor education centres there were run by educational authorities so if you were a qualified teacher you were treated as a teacher, paid as a teacher, and you could see a pathway that might mean one day you could become a deputy head or a manager.”
NZOIA’s Matt Cant backs this up by saying the most sustainable outdoor job in New Zealand is being an outdoor education teacher at a high school. The hours are fixed, the pay is better, the work is more varied and there’s a long term career pathway.
Prier says it’s important people considering a career in outdoor education are fully aware of the realities.
“This job isn’t really about being in the outdoors,” she says. “When you add up how much time you spend loading and unloading trailers, seeing whether peoples’ boots fit, showing them how to put their packs on, then you realise it isn’t a glamorous job.
“You need to come into it knowing you’re not necessarily going to be out there every day teaching skills to a high level.
“A lot of it is about working with people and if you don’t like working with people it’s the wrong job for you. I would rather take on someone who was a little bit less experienced and qualified, but who works within their own limitations. We don’t want to work with gung ho people.”
Like Lasenby, Prier looks for attitude and personality in a potential employee.
Their words echo comments made by other outdoor recreation employers. They all say the same thing: outdoor recreation diplomas and degrees are great, but personality is more important.
Abel Tasman Kayak’s Jack Kelly says he looks for recruits who are “comfortable in their own skin” and who have an ease with other people. He looks more closely at applicants with outdoor qualifications, but soft skills count as much as the hard.
“If you’ve got eight clients in front of you and if the dynamic is a little bit strange, it’s never because of the clients,” he says. “It’s normally because the guide is feeling uneasy.”
Kelly says the most challenging part of being a sea kayak guide is mental rather than physical.
It’s having the ability to stay upbeat and passionate when the weather has gone south or a difficult client is whingeing and moaning. Every season a guide meets eight clients every day on the job and Kelly says guides must maintain a desire to get to know each and every one of them.
Director of Walking Legends guided hiking company Rob Franklin says this can be hard to maintain season after season and as soon as a guide loses the passion for people, then it’s time to find a new job.
“The guide has to realise they are in charge of morale,” he says.” They are the person who is going to make the trip either fun or crap – it’s completely in their hands.
“If they get to the hut, throw out dinner and then go off and huddle on their bunk reading a book, then they’re just leaving the rest of the group high and dry.
“It’s up to the guide to get the trip happening, to get a game of cards going, to help clients laugh off the bad weather, to convince them it’s a worthy experience even though everything is going wrong.
“By the end of the trip, a guide should have a close relationship with each client [otherwise] they’ve failed.”
The ability to connect with clients, to manage a group even when circumstances are difficult, is the crucial attribute every outdoor instructor must have.
Tourism Industry Association advocate Evan Freshwater says while formal qualifications are becoming increasingly important, people wanting to work in the outdoors are more likely to land their dream job by visiting employers in person, pressing the flesh and offering to learn the ropes for a couple of weeks as a volunteer or an intern.
Like Outward Bound, Freshwater says many companies have their own in-house training programmes that reflect NZOIA qualifications. After learning the hard skills on the job, someone aspiring to become qualified can sit NZOIA’s assessments.
When Rob Franklin started his business, only a couple of his guides had outdoor recreation diplomas. Initially, he didn’t take polytechnic graduates very seriously, but that’s changed.
“I’ve had some guides come through with outdoor qualifications in the last five years who have been awesome,” he says. “They came to the job knowing their stuff, ready to go.
“Now I do look more closely at people who’ve got those qualifications, but at the end of the day attitude and personality is everything.”
Sea kayak guide
Brad Smith wants to continue working as a sea kayak guide for as long as he possibly can. He takes clients on tours of Milford, Doubtful and Dusky Sounds for anywhere from one to five days. “I work in an amazing place and every now and again you get a group of clients that really clicks and then it’s not like you’re working, it’s like you’re one of the group, just embracing it all,” Smith, 23, says. “On the longer multiday trips I really get to know people and it can be quite sad at the end of the trip.
“You meet people from all around the world so if you want to make connections for travelling, it’s great.”
Smith graduated from Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in 2010 with a Diploma in Adventure Tourism. He’d landed a job before he’d even finished the course thanks to the programme’s work experience component which requires students to work in the industry for at least 30 days before they graduate. “You’re learning from the people actually doing it and you run the trips for them over the last couple of weeks you’re there,” Smith says. “It gives you a massive head start.”
To land a job as sea kayak guide, Smith says soft skills like communication and risk management are just as important as hard skills like paddling ability and fitness.
“Outdoor qualifications certainly help, but if you can show you’re a solid kayaker and have the people skills, most companies will certainly have a look you.”
Smith says NZOIA’s sea-kayaking proficiency award, a first aid certificate, Maritime VHF Operator Certificate and the NZ Day Skipper Certificate certainly help. He gained all of these as part of his NMIT diploma. The pros of the job are being in the outdoors, doing what he loves and meeting heaps of cool people. There’s also plenty of demand for sea kayak guides in New Zealand thanks to its extensive coastline.
On the downside, the job is weather dependent and if he’s not working, Smith doesn’t get paid. It’s also seasonal and isn’t a get rich quick plan.
And, while meeting new people everyday can be inspiring, it can also be draining, Smith says.
Outdoor education teacher
After graduating from Tai Poutini Polytechnic, Llewellyn Murdoch, 22, landed a job as a tutor at Mt Aspiring College in Wanaka.
The experience of working with teachers and students had made him want to become a secondary high school teacher. He plans to study teaching next year after he returns from a trip to Argentina’s Patagonia region.
“Being able to have a positive influence on young people, being able to show them some great sports, but also showing them the natural environment, the pristine wilderness we have in New Zealand and to get them to appreciate that and want to protect it, is the biggest draw of the job to me,” Murdoch says.
“The other benefit is being able to have students for a whole year and see them progress and have a great time at the same time.”
A downside of the job, Murdoch admits, is spending a lot of time away from home, a common challenge with most outdoor jobs. Managing a group of grumpy kids on a trip encountering bad weather can also be tough. “You have to come to work every day and be able to take 15 to 20 kids on an outdoor session and run that safely and calmly,” Murdoch says. “You’ve got to have your role model hat on all day every day.”
To get a job as an outdoor education teacher, Murdoch says you need to have NZOIA qualifications for the disciplines you’ll be instructing students in. While studying at Tai Pountini, Murdoch gained an NZOIA outdoor leader qualification. After graduating he then built up his experience in the outdoors and then eventually sat NZOIA assessments in various disciplines.
Before working as a hiking guide for Walking Legends, Sam Roil, 28, completed a degree in outdoor education at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT), graduating in 2008.
At CPIT he chose to do an elective paper that lasted the duration of the three-year course that focused entirely on running expeditions. “By the end of the course I was writing programmes around tramping expeditions,” Roil says. “The course taught me all about group management, decision making, risk management and adventure racing.
“It set me up for this job.”
Prior to Roil joining the team, Walking Legends owners Rob Franklin and Hilary Sheaff didn’t give much weight to polytechnic qualifications. But that soon changed. “We were professional and ready to work from day one,” Roil says.
Aside from his degree, the only other qualifications Roil needed for the job was a class 2 drivers license, a passenger license and the NZ Day Skippers Certificate so he could ferry clients around Lake Waikaremoana.
“It’s just really cool hanging out somewhere like that for your job,” Roil says.
The upside to the job, he says, is there’s not much pressure or stress because the risks for hiking guiding are low compared to some other outdoor jobs. Roil was given plenty of freedom to run the trips how he wanted, just as long as the clients had the time of their lives. The mentally challenging part of the job was organising logistics – food, gear, health issues for clients and transportation. Working out how far a client can be pushed is an important skill for the job.
A major downside is spending four days away from home every week. “My girlfriend didn’t like it as much as I did,” he says. “You come back for your three days off and try to fit in girlfriend time and play time before going away again which is a bit tough.”
The job is also seasonal, so Roil had to find something else to do in the off-season. “Sometimes it can also feel a bit like Groundhog Day; you do the same trip every week, Roil says. “You have to make sure you keep it exciting.”
PIX: Sam Roil: After completing his tertiary training Sam Roil was work-ready from day one in his job as a hiking guide
Anne Bilton graduated from AUT University with an outdoor recreation diploma in 2012 and walked straight into a job as an outdoor instructor at Christian Camping which has 75 sites across New Zealand.
She teaches a variety of disciplines, but mainly abseiling, kayaking and rock climbing. Because it’s an organisation based on Christian values, instructors use outdoor pursuits as a means to teach leadership skills from a Biblical perspective.
Aside from her diploma, Bilton, 25, doesn’t have any formal outdoor skill qualifications, but plans to sit the rock and kayak 1 assessments with NZOIA this summer. She says her diploma was enough to convince Christian Camping she had the base skills and that they could train her up from there.
“When I came in I didn’t have much caving experience, but through work I’ve built up more,” she says. “working here has also developed my organisational skills because we have to plan all the programmes we run.”
Variety is what Bilton most enjoys about her job. “We work with a lot of different client groups and on a lot of different programs so one week I might be in Auckland working with intermediate school kids and the next week I might be away for 10 days working with high risk college kids and the week after that I might do day programmes with mums for a week,” Bilton says. “It’s really varied and has taught me a lot of different skills like how to manage different groups.”
The flip side of this, however, is it means she leads a busy life, is away from home a lot, and doesn’t have much of a social life. Looking after a group of at-risk kids on a 10 day trip can also be mentally draining, she says. “There might be kids with behavioural issues, but you have to deal with everything,” Bilton says. “There’s no space to sit down and have some time to yourself.
“You’re the parent, you’re the guide, you’re everything.”
Christian Camping has partner organisations in the US, Canada and the UK so staff in New Zealand have the opportunity to work abroad, which is something Bilton plans to one day take advantage of.
If you want a fun-filled job brimming with adrenalin, then 2011 Tai Poutini Polytechnic graduate Grace Fleming, 21, says being a white water rafting guide could be for you. “It’s a very exciting, adrenalin-filled job that keeps you fit, keeps you on the game and teaches you how to deal with full-on situations in a calm way,” Fleming says. “The river might be grade three or four for a few weeks and then it will rain and the flow will increase to grade five and you’ve got to do your best to keep the raft the right way up.
“People do get thrown out and take some big swims, the raft might flip and you’ll have seven clients in the water and you have to get them all back in the boat somehow.
“You can’t show fear and have to have confidence in yourself so you instil that in your clients.
“They have to trust you.”
Fleming graduated from TPP with a certificate in outdoor leadership and guiding, but received most of her rafting training on the job with her employer. This included a two-day course on swift water rescue training and a first aid certificate in pre-hospital emergency care.
The job is physically demanding which guarantees raft guides get fit and strong, and fast.
Raft guides can either work as day guides or multiday guides. Fleming says day guiding can become a bit factory-like. “You get all the names of the group, say hi, entertain them, show them a good time, say goodbye, have lunch and do it all over again afterwards,” she says. “On multiday trips you really get to know your clients and have some great interactions.”
Another challenge of being a raft guide is the seasonal nature of the work and, sometimes, during peak season, it’s also on-call. Fleming had to work part-time as a waitress to have enough money for all her overheads.
Last summer, she also worked as an outdoor instructor for Mt Aspiring College’s hostel programme on Sundays as well as doing fill-in work and teaching kayaking for Wakatipu College.
“If you want a fun job you sometimes have to put up with not having as much work as you’d like,” she says.