What do you actually do!? Episode 34: Tom Pagett, Project Manager at the Environment Agency

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Tom has worked at the Environment Agency for the last 10 years, in a range of roles from planning to environmental regulation, flood risk, and biodiversity. He is currently managing the largest river restoration project in the North, creating new habitat and re-naturalising the River Derwent, one of the most important lowland rivers in Europe.

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Kate  0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do podcast. Each week, we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or an encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. 


Hello, and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in the environmental sector. Today we’re joined by Tom Pagett, who’s a project manager for the Environment Agency. So Tom, what do you actually do?

Tom 0:29  

That’s a very good question, Kate. Thanks for having me here this morning. So I work for the Environment Agency, I manage the doing more for the Derwent project which is one of the largest river restoration projects in the north, and we’re looking to re-naturalize the River Derwent between Malton down towards Barmby, which is near Selby. As you said it’s a really big project, looking at changing some of the big historic impoundments to make life easy for fish trying to migrate upstream, tackling sediment issues and working with landowners to stop runoff getting into water in the first place, and working really on habitat improvement and habitat creation. So it’s really important. It’s a European protected site. It’s one of the most important lowland rivers in Europe. There’s lots of really crucial biodiversity interest there and it’s a really good project to be involved in.


Why is it so important? Is it because of the biodiversity or the other reason?


It is because the biodiversity and because of the form of the river, when it was made in the post-glacial period, so it’s got a number of really heavily protected species there, lamprey and otter as well as a range of protected plant species.


So what are the key elements of your role then doing that? You say you are project managing – what does that really involve?


It’s probably not a project management role in the traditional sense. It’s more of a small program. So I work very closely with lots of different teams internally and lots of partners externally to try and move things forward. The geography is very complicated. A lot of the issues there are very complicated and we need to work together with local communities and with partner organizations. So most of my job, I would say is probably around building & maintaining relationships and kind of looking for where we can get wins for multiple organizations. It’s less the detail of project management and more about sort of bringing people together and on board towards a common goal.


So are you kind of on site in waders by the river or are you going more to meetings with these different organisations?


Sadly, not as much time by the river in waders as I’d like. I think I learned fairly early on in my career that I really enjoy field ecology roles. But there’s a lot of people out there who are a lot better than me at that. And my skill set is probably more working with people to bring them along. So yeah, most of my time is probably spent, sort of talking to, meeting with partners, with local communities, bits and pieces of media work, and recording the occasional podcast!


Got to be the highlight?




So what does a typical day look like for you then? Are you on call? Are you getting up at the crack of dawn? Do you work in the same place every day? How does it all start?


I generally work between two or three different offices depending on who I need to speak to internally – that is either in York or Leeds or we’ve got a small office in Beverly. It is either that or going to different organisations to their office to meet with them. Days generally are pretty different, there’s not one consistent bit of work and it depends entirely on where we are in the financial year and in the year in terms of delivery, because trying to do habitat works out on site, it’s very seasonal. So you spend a lot of time sort of in the offseason planning and working with contractors to find the best way of doing things. And then obviously around this time of year, you’re busy spending your time trying to secure funding internally for works for the next year.


So what was your starting point then? Where did your interest in working in the environmental sector come from? You got your degree in biology?


Yes. So I have always been interested in ecology & wildlife since a very young age. I think when it came to A-Levels, I pretty much decided I wanted to go and do a biology degree. I thought it gave me a better chance of getting a job rather than doing straight zoology. Not sure in hindsight. So I did my undergrad at York, which was great. Really good department, I learned a lot, probably learned slightly more if I’d had fewer nights out – but these are the things we learn! Then, after that, I thought, to be honest, it’d be really easy to get a job. And then there was a realization that life isn’t quite that simple. I worked a few temporary part time jobs, time in insurance. And then a friend of mine actually told me about an opportunity at the Environment Agency, which was just a temporary admin role. And I applied for and was successful in getting that, it became permanent and I managed to just work my way up there. I think that’s kind of one of the benefits sometimes of big organizations. I know in a smaller organization, it’s very generalized, but in a small organization, you might have more opportunity to move around and get involved in different things very early on. In big organizations, while there isn’t necessarily that level of flexibility, there are a range of roles. And I think that’s something that’s really important to remember is that when it comes to recruitment in organizations, a lot of the time, roles are just advertise internally first, so if you can get a foot in the door it puts you at a real advantage in the future. So I think, for me, that would be some advice I would give and I’ve given repeatedly over the years is if there’s an organization you want to work in, just think laterally.


And I imagine then the temporary admin work that you did, whilst you were sort of trying to get something more professional, actually helped you get that foot in the door job in the first place?


Absolutely. Because I was able to then get another job internally. I was already well known, you know, you’re starting from an advantage there. And I think I was really fortunate as well. In the first role I had there, the team that I worked in, I’d always thought before I went into work that the most important thing was the job, pushing forward with a career at the expense of everything else. And I think I quickly realized that probably one of the most important things to think about at work is the people. So I was really fortunate that I moved into a team there who were basically just like a big family. Wide range of people, experiences, ages, but we all got along and it’s really cheesy, but you didn’t wake up and dread going to work. I think there can be a lot of roles out there which are very fulfilling in other ways, but if the people aren’t right then it’s a big disadvantage.


You’ve progressed your career from that temporary admin job within the Environment Agency, up to now, a big project management role that’s sort of a European funded project, etc. How have you progressed within the organization? You said, you sort of built relationships and credibility. What sort of different roles did you do to get to where you are today?


I went through a very circuitous route. But I think more and more, that’s what I’m seeing from people I work with. I worked for some time in the planning department, and that gave me a really good grounding in a lot of regulation. And a lot of the regulatory framework which I now use in my current role, one of the real benefits working for a bigger organization is they’re very keen on developing staff. So I did get a fully funded part time masters in planning, which was great over two years, you know, that really helped my career move forward. From that role I moved across and did some more environmental regulation. And then finally I managed to get a job in the conservation team, biodiversity team, which was really useful. I got to work in some smaller projects and meet lots of people working around your roles. There, I led that team for about a year which was really good, experienced team leading and managing, which gave me something I use now. Then, following the floods that we had in York in 2015, I moved across to work as the engagement lead in the aftermath of that, so that was very different work, again dealing with a lot of people on a day to day basis, a lot of different organizations and some quite challenging situations. But that, again, gave me a different skill set, which helps me now.


Did you have a kind of grand plan of aiming to get to a certain point? Or did you just keep picking moves that looked interesting to you?


I knew I’d always wanted to work in conservation, and I managed to get a role in that team, which was fantastic. After two or three years there, I thought I’m ready to move on but because of some of the resource issues with a lot of organizations, there’s not that many more senior roles there, and so competition is fierce and you need to do whatever you can to tap the edge to get wider experience. So when other opportunities came up, you know, if I was offered the opportunity to do something different for three months, six months and help out, the answer is always yes. Because I knew that whilst it might not on the face of it seem like a logical step, it gives you a different experience. You get to meet different people and you develop different skills.


So what would you say are the core skills that you need to be happy and successful when working in environment, but I guess also in this project management role you are doing now?


I think in terms of key skills, if my colleagues hear, they’d laugh at me, but I’d say organizational skills are probably quite high up there. And you need to be able to balance quite a lot of conflicting agendas at the same time. Really, an ability to kind of absorb very technical data very quickly, and then be able to use that to really to argue your case and to bring people on board, and a lot of the time it’s about taking that academic data and distilling it down into a key point that you can, you know, give to partners or the public. That’s really crucial, and being able to take the science and kind of use it in the public forum. And really, I think, as I’ve said all along, it’s about being able to work with people, and build those relationships quickly and maintain them.


And I think, from what you’ve been saying, it sounds like having a real positive attitude and seizing opportunities as and when they arise is something that is, particularly within a large organization, as you say, where there are opportunities to move about, it’s taking those chances.


Absolutely. I think, you know, I look back on some of the chances I’ve taken over the years, and I think I can say whilst they’ve not always been the easiest option, everything has given me more experience which has gotten me to where I am now and which will put me in good stead, you know, for the future.


What would you say is the best and worst aspects of the job?


I think, possibly the best aspect in my current role is probably the level of autonomy. So I lead the project. As long as I can meet the key deliverables, everything else about how I go about that is down to me. So it gives me pretty much free rein to go and think about different ways of doing things, look for kind of efficiencies, look for sort of novel approaches and work with different organizations. That’s really good. 


Yeah, that must be really nice to have that responsibility and sense of ownership of your work. 


Yes. I mean, in some senses, that’s always the biggest negative. When it doesn’t always go right. That really is a big bonus for me – being able to plan and manage your own workload.


What about the worst aspect?


That’s a tricky one, really, I think. I’d say there’s a few challenges. A lot of the time, just by virtue of being part of a big organization, it’s some of the processes that you need to go through, which are very time consuming to learn, especially when you need to navigate the maze of finance and procurement. And a lot of that process is quite daunting. And that’s probably the thing I struggle with, but working on it.


So it’s that red tape type thing. And for students or people thinking that they might want to work in this sector, what should they be thinking about or anticipating? What are the key challenges or issues coming up in the future worth thinking about and perhaps looking into a bit further?


I think as a sector, there seems to be a greater shift now away from possibly when I graduated, more sort of traditional ecological conservation roles. I think the focus now is climate, and I think that’s only going to continue. Certainly, looking back at the recent election and before, I think climate played a bigger role, and it was more heavily discussed than previously. And certainly, I think that’s going to continue, I think certainly with what we’re expecting in terms of changes to rainfall, frequency intensity, managing flood risk, it’s unfortunately going to be a bigger part of a future in the environmental sector. Already a massive issue, but I think it’s only going to grow. So it’s looking at novel approaches to this. I think natural flood management is certainly a growing area of interest and it’s something which I know quite a lot of environmental & biology students are very interested in. So we get a lot of interest from academics in that. And I think that’s an area which has the potential to grow further.


So it sounds like it’s only becoming more and more important, and this field in particular, and a real opportunity to make a difference?


I think there’s definitely an opportunity to do that. Yes, I think what I would say to students coming out of academia is just that there’s a need to be flexible, there are very few roles that allow you to go straight into the job you want. And competition for those is quite extreme. And I would say, if you’re looking at big organizations, then take the opportunity to get in where you can get yourself known. And that’s a good way of sort of building your reputation and getting more opportunities there. I know certainly, from my perspective, I’ve done everything in a very circuitous route. But I think looking back, there probably wasn’t an easier way for me to have done it.


So flexibility, being prepared to start at the bottom, and not in necessarily your dream job straight away is really important. Any other top tips for people wanting to break into the sector? Is there sort of key bits of work experience worth having? Or would you say it’s worth gaining those postgraduate qualifications before trying to get the job or actually, there’s still opportunities to get further training? 


I’d say there’s definitely opportunities to get further training and development as you move forward. I can only speak for my experience, but I would say that those postgraduate qualifications are useful at a later date and not necessarily at the start of my career, so definitely look at, you know, the option to gain some work experience and then marry that up with post grad qualifications as well.


Great, thank you. For more information about the careers we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. So if people want to find out more about that they can do including the work experience. Thank you so much for joining us today Tom, it’s been really interesting.


Thank you very much for having me.


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers