There is no denying that the outdoor industry is expensive. With freelancers and those qualified in the lower qualifications often having to accept barely legal wages or even free work as they are being "paid in experience" it is no wonder that most workers soon develop a rather non-negotiable approach on wages. Countless arguments on the go-to social networking platform later and it is clear that there are four types of workers in the outdoors.
- Career instructors
- Full time freelancers
- Seasonal workers
- Occasional freelancers
In terms of the pay the career instructors are the ones truly making a living from a stable job in the industry. Often employed by big outdoor centers or running their own successful companies they not only get their fill of the outdoors through their work, they know how much and when they get paid. Full time freelancers on the other hand work from job to job, albeit often with returning clients, and make ends meet somehow. These are the true victims of the wage wars and the ones most vocal about the discrepancies in the cost of becoming an instructor and making ends meet later. The seasonal workers are lucky in that for at least part of their season they have a stable income and for the rest of the season can often take things more leisurely and find other work. Within the occasional freelancers lies the biggest danger to the livelihoods of the full timers though. Often working stable jobs in other industries these workers, myself included, see being paid to go outdoors more as a paid hobby than a job. Personally I don't undercut the standard going rates for freelancers as I am aware of the problem, but considering others do by sometimes over 50% it soon becomes clear why there is a war raging on wages.
Consider for a moment that for me to complete my summer Mountain Leader I spent the best part of £4000 on training, gear, trips, memberships, assessments and other bits. At that point all I have got is a certificate but am still not able to freelance just like that. Many freelancers are required to provide their own equipment within reason, group shelters, first aid kits and spare clothing. Add to that the need to own a car for most of the work going, simply to meet with the groups you are leading and £125 for a day's work suddenly doesn't seem that great. Deduct from this National Insurance, Tax, Mileage costs and sustenance and suddenly there is not much left. But us freelancers don't just hold one qualification usually - holding between 2 and 6 qualifications is by no means out of the ordinary in order to cover a broad portfolio ultimately costing us a lot more to obtain. Each of these qualifications usually brings with it a distinctive set of equipment for personal and professional use. In climbing webbing and ropes are usually replaced after 3 years, metal gear after 10 to ensure safety protocols are adhered to and the insurances are kept happy. Skills have to be kept up-to-date with CPD events having to be attended and the first aid ticket renewed every 3 years. Professional liability insurance although not always necessary adds a further lump sum onto the budding freelancer's annual cheque. My own annual bill for equipment, memberships, insurances and training is scarily close to my earnings within the industry, meaning my full-time income currently subsidises my outdoor career.
I frequently get into this argument with people who don't know and understand the industry and to whom the outdoor industry is not a "real" career. To them instructors are people who just don't want to do a real job and instead want to go for a walk and get paid for it. But as any instructor will be able to tell you the industry is fiercely competitive, requires high levels of skill and, if you manage to pull it off, provides comfortable living for families. I therefore cringe when I see charities advertising positions at events for qualified members of staff and offer nothing in return other than the occasional mileage rate and a coffee in the morning. Every charity going wants to facilitate an abseil off some structure, a challenge walk at night up Snowdon or a swim through random open waters. Without qualified and experienced members of staff they wouldn't be able to do it. Where the lawyers and accountants who deal with the charity day-to-day are being paid fairly the expectation often is that the instructors do the job "for the experience". Don't get me wrong, if you volunteer for a charity or organisation regularly then this is a choice you are making and I commend you for it. Charity work is great and so is volunteering, but a charity advertising a post for an experienced instructor at an event they have already planned and signed off expecting them to work for free or little more than that is simply outrageous, wrong and damaging to everybody.
So next time you cringe at a quote given by an instructor or are thinking of providing a quote, be fair to yourself and to the industry and don't enhance the problem. As a rule of thumb any daily rate under £100 is most likely not suitable and damaging to the industry overall. Ultimately the industry needs to start shaping up and making the issue of pay more public. A company using freelancers should be confident enough in their rates of pay to make them public and freelancers should be comfortable enough publishing their asking prices. Over time these will become more standardised and transparent which in turn will eradicate the black sheep among us.