From intern to specialist – how careers can be made at SEPA

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Matthew ConnacherWith applications open for our 2017 graduate trainee scheme, we touch base with Matthew Connacher, who started work with us as an intern. Four years on, we find out what he’s doing now and get his advice on what to do if  you want a career with SEPA.

Young people are vital to protecting our environment and improving it. We have some of the smartest people working for our cause, but who do you pass that knowledge on to? We have to retain the skills base we have, but we also have to challenge each other with fresh ideas and approaches. That is the only way to progress.

Universities and colleges are teaching courses related to our work in more and more detail every day, and SEPA should be the first to capitalise on the pool of knowledge you can find in students and graduates.

I think that one of the hallmarks of a leading environment protection agency is that it can be innovative and adapt to the changing needs of our environment and its inhabitants. And how better to do that than to ensure we have input and buy-in from people of all ages?

I studied a Masters in Environment and Climate Change Law at the University of Edinburgh after realising I wasn’t particularly enthused by the prospects my undergraduate degree offered me. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to be working but I knew that I was very interested in the content of the course, and an environmental degree would probably be important in accessing the job market.

I came across SEPA in my studies and had interacted with it professionally when working at Perth and Kinross Council. I knew SEPA was the principal environmental regulator but I had no idea about the range of career opportunities it had to offer.

Matthew Connacher 3I knew that SEPA was the chief environmental regulator in Scotland so I had been keeping tabs on the organisation for a while. I read some of the staff profiles online, and spoke to as many members of staff that would accept a random LinkedIn request. I heard nothing but good things and the more I learned about the variety of work SEPA does the more I was attracted to working here.

I struggled to get my foot in the door at first, having been knocked back on a few applications for vacancies. The most valuable thing I did was harass the recruiting managers for feedback until they gave in. I also spoke to people who seemed receptive on LinkedIn.

My first role was as an Intern in Business Strategy – a post I found out about through the government’s AdoptanIntern programme. Although the post was temporary and very much a ‘foot in the door’ style opportunity, I learned a lot with the team. I worked on performance reporting so I was able to get an oversight into all areas of the organisation. I was lucky to have a supportive manager who helped me to identify opportunities and make the most of having access to internal vacancies. 

MatthewAfter my internship I knew that I wanted to stay at SEPA, so I applied for several posts, and was lucky enough to interview successfully for an Assistant Environment Protection Officer role in the Falkirk, Alloa and Stirling Operations Team. My most consistent responsibilities were assessing applications and monitoring regulated sites, but the best thing about my work was that every day was different. I never knew exactly what I’d be doing, and that was great for getting lots of varied regulatory experience.

In June 2014, I was successful for the post of Environment Protection Officer in the same team, which primarily focussed on regulating the waste industry. As my responsibilities expanded, I was able to lead on the regulation of high profile sites and undertaking enforcement work regularly. I learned something new every day from the people I worked with in the team, and I would say that the unpredictable world of regional operations is as good a learning experience as you could have if you’re fairly new to environmental regulation.

On 1 April 2015 I joined a new team set up to work with Revenue Scotland in managing the newly devolved Scottish Landfill Tax. SEPA was asked to take on this work due to our knowledge and experience of the waste industry, and we are already seeing huge benefits to this partnership. The team’s work is playing a part in Scotland’s drive towards zero waste status and a circular economy where waste can become a resource instead of being disposed to landfill – a vital part of our ambitions for Scotland’s environment.

I joined the team as an officer and have since been promoted to a Specialist post. My added responsibilities include being a key point of contact on the Scottish Landfill Tax regime across the agency, handling our more complex cases and investigations, and carrying out delegated managerial duties when required. Working in the team has felt like a natural progression for someone who has worked in waste regulation, and gaining more responsibility in the team has given me lots of development opportunities.

Matthew Connacher 1When I started at SEPA I envisaged myself developing my career here for a few years and then evaluating my options. With four years gone I have no intention of leaving, because I feel like I’m contributing to important work in a great team of talented people. You can never say for sure what you’ll be doing in 5-10 years’ time, but I wouldn’t rule out being at SEPA – if I’m still wanted!

My hope is that Scotland’s environment is prioritised by decision makers at the highest level. This means ensuring SEPA and our partners have the resources and tools we need to protect and enhance the environment we live in. As long as this is the case we have a good chance of achieving all of our goals.

It’s also important that people can see and feel their environment improve. To some that may mean something personal and specific like fewer nuisances from local regulated industry, or it may mean less fly-tipping, or improved air quality. In any case, it’s important that people can recognise that their environment has improved.

If you’re interested in working for SEPA I would say get researching about all the different departments in SEPA and think about how your education lends itself to the work we do. If you haven’t completed your education, have a think about anything you can do through university to tailor your learning to environmental issues. This includes looking for summer work or internships – these days you have to be prepared to work for little or nothing to begin with, to build up a bit of experience. Of course, if you’re a graduate make sure you look out for openings in our graduate scheme!

Lastly, and probably most importantly, demand feedback on all your applications and ask lots of questions. Use tools like LinkedIn and social media to build your contacts and use your network as a resource. Ask questions and request help, because if you don’t, others will.

Further information about our graduate trainee scheme can be found on our website. The closing date for applications is Friday 24 March 2017 at midday.

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