Guest authored by Craig Saffoe, Curator (Large Carnivores) Smithsonian’s National Zoo & AMZAP Steering Committee Member
While increasing the number of paid internships in the zoo and aquarium industry would be beneficial to increase opportunities for a whole class of people rather than specifically targeting race and ethnicity, there are several considerations of note:
They open the door for more people to gain opportunities that they cannot afford to take without compensation however, simply relying on paid internships won’t fully address the issue of racial and ethnic representation in our field.
It’s vitally important for people thinking of entering the field to be able to see people who look and sound like them filling the positions they dream of holding. We can take active steps to create new role models currently in the field with whom aspiring professionals can identify and connect.
Instead of academic internships, can facilities offer apprenticeships that focus on “in the field” learning opportunities to allow organizations to cast a broader net for candidates?
Consider connecting an apprenticeship program with paid front-of-house positions to allow individuals to have both a paid position and gain animal care experience.
While internships for academically-based positions cannot be replaced by apprenticeships, consider adjusting the academic requirements for entry level positions which may increase the number of minority candidates competing for zoo and aquarium positions.
Diversity in zoos and aquariums is a hot topic right now. Over the past few years, the zoo and aquarium community has been paying much more attention to the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our field, which is fantastic. A commonly discussed solution to increase minority representation in the field is to offer more paid internships. I agree wholeheartedly that increasing the number of paid internships in our facilities would be great for our field and would open the door for more people to gain opportunities that they cannot afford to take without compensation. These experiences would likely help people of all races and ethnicities to gain experience and get their foot in the door of the field which is inarguably a good idea and needed.
Increasing paid internship experiences helps to address the socioeconomic status of a potential candidate. And socioeconomic status is not solely a racial or ethnic issue. There are multiple reasons why there aren’t as many people of color in the field as there are white people, and to imply that the only reason minorities aren’t here is because they can’t financially afford it is a bit misleading. Simply relying on paid internships won’t fully address the issue of racial and ethnic representation in our field. A very wise person said to me recently, “I fear that in some people’s minds, poor equals brown.” And that is just not always the case. There are certainly affluent black, Asian, Hispanic, and other minority students who could also be supported by their families while working an unpaid internship. But I’ve said frequently that as a hiring official at my zoo, currently we aren’t even getting the rich black folks to apply for our positions in high enough numbers. Why are these job seekers gravitating to other industries like law, business, construction, military, law enforcement, and human medicine? Why aren’t they thinking about or trying to enter the zoo and aquarium field? They may not see this field as a viable career option or one in which they belong.
So, how do we attract more minorities in the field beyond paid internships?
If they can see us, they can be us!
Representation in the field matters! We’ve heard from several Association of Minority Zoo & Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP) members from different backgrounds that their family didn’t originally approve of or understand their desired career. Some family members believed that their culture “didn’t do that kind of work”, while others thought there wasn’t enough prestige or pushed their children to become veterinarians or pursue human medicine.
Similarly, many people currently in the field grew up watching and reading about conservationists like Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler, Jane Goodall, Steve Irwin, and David Attenborough. These folks are all great role models and inspired many of us to work with animals—but they’re all white. While it’s necessary for aspiring professionals in our field to learn from all possible sources no matter what race, ethnicity, or gender identification—it’s vitally important for people thinking of entering the field to be able to see people who look and sound like them filling the positions they dream of holding. This will allow them to see themselves in these roles and makes the dream attainable.
As current professionals in the zoo and aquarium field, we can take active steps to create new role models currently in the field with whom aspiring professionals can identify and connect. Highlight our current professionals of color and tell their stories in public manner on social media or even on your zoo or aquarium’s public website. Additionally, this is a great way of recognizing and supporting your current minority staff. You can also encourage aspiring professionals of color to investigate AMZAP network. There’s a website full of minority professionals from over 100 zoos and aquariums across 31 states (plus Canada and Washington D.C.) who want to be role models for their respective racial and ethnic communities.
Getting a foot in the door. Can we create a wider range of opportunities for gaining relevant experience? Internships…or…Apprenticeships?
Internships are great, but is an internship the best option for gaining experience in every discipline in our field? Internships are based in academia and therefore may not be attainable if a person isn’t currently in school, whether they’ve already graduated or have never pursued a college degree.
Instead of academic internships, can facilities offer programs that focus on “in the field” learning opportunities? I view most animal keeper positions as those where the employee will learn most of their skills on the job. Skills like safety, animal handling, breeding, and more are difficult to impossible to gain from a textbook. I think about other highly skilled jobs that are considered trades, like electricians, welders, and carpenters. How are those trades successful in bringing on people who want to learn how to do the work from professionals who are currently in the field? They don’t offer internships—they offer apprenticeships.
An apprenticeship would focus strictly on learning the trade of an animal keeper without focusing on the academic component. This type of opportunity would have more exposure than a volunteer program for many facilities and would allow an interested person to gain real experiences and skills. An apprenticeship would allow organizations to cast a broader net for candidates without assuming that the bulk of minorities who are not applying for the job are in a low socioeconomic bracket.
Apprenticeship programs could be tailored to fit the specific facility and the individual candidate without having the burden of university requirements. You could also consider connecting an apprenticeship program with paid front-of-house positions at your institution. This could be a creative way of allowing individuals to have a paid position and gain animal care experience. For example, a gift shop cashier could spend time before or after a shift shadowing an animal keeper, an education specialist, or a researcher. These opportunities may be more flexible than a full-time internship and allow more options for a zoo or aquarium as well.
Internships for academically-based positions cannot be replaced by apprenticeships. However, thinking critically and creatively about how people can gain experience in the zoo and aquarium field can help us expand our efforts to attract more and more diverse candidates. We can consider part-time and full-time positions, various education requirements, and different goals for a program. Reframing these programs as apprenticeships can help clarify the difference between academically-based and experience-based opportunities.
So you want to be a zoo keeper. Can we remove barriers to entering the field? Academic requirements—necessary…or…arbitrary?
In some cases, zoos and aquariums may be able to reconsider the academic requirements for various job openings. One of the first requirements that jumps out on a job post is the academic requirement. In the case of most animal keeper positions I have seen lately, descriptions state that a four-year degree is required or at least preferred.
Earlier this year, I heard an NPR feature, which reported that arbitrarily requiring a four-year degree for a position automatically eliminates as many as 70 to 80% of minority candidates. Adjusting the academic requirements for entry level positions may increase the number of minority candidates competing for zoo and aquarium positions. If the number of minority candidates increases, then it should follow suit that the number of minorities entering the field would also increase.
While certain positions in our field obviously require candidates to have specific academic credentials, does an entry level animal keeper position always need to include a requirement for a four-year college degree? Hiring officials should consider writing position descriptions that place an equal or higher value on relevant skills and animal experience as they do on academic achievement and make that point clear to the potential applicants in plain language.
Paid internship/apprentice opportunities are definitely needed in our field. However, it’s debatable how much of an effect these paid opportunities may have on minority representation in zoos and aquariums. Socioeconomic status is not exclusively a minority issue. So, opening the door to people of varying economic means would likely increase opportunities for a whole class of people rather than specifically targeting race and ethnicity.
To increase minority representation in zoos and aquariums, we must focus on increasing the number of minorities coming into the field and foster the growth and development of minorities currently in the field. Paid internships are just part of the solution. We can look at different ways to provide experience to those that want to enter the field, while giving them new role models through our current amazing minority employees.
I know that every facility wants to increase their individual minority numbers, but it’s important to remember that the big picture of diversity is about the industrywide issue. Increasing the number of trained minorities ready to compete for paid positions is the goal, whether they’re applying for the position in a geographic area known for its diversity or lack of diversity. The end game is to train applicants who can successfully compete for positions anywhere.
If you have thoughts or questions about this article, or if you like what you’re hearing, we hope you’ll learn more about AMZAP and possibly consider joining. We have a variety of resources for professionals in the field and aspiring professionals, and membership is open to anyone regardless of race or ethnicity. For more information, visit www.amzap.org, write us at email@example.com, or check us out on Facebook or Instagram.
 Carapezza, Kirk. “No College, No Problem. Some Employers Drop Degree Requirements to Diversify Staffs.” NPR. April 29, 2001.