Since 2015 Colchester Zoo has delivered a voluntary one-year work experience placement on animal sections, called the Student Keeper Programme. As of January 2022, 97 people have participated in the programme. The goal of the programme is to provide opportunities for real world experience and to develop personally and professionally to aid career progression and experience the wider world of work in a real-world situation. The aims of the programme are:
- Introduce and expand knowledge of zoo animal husbandry – opportunities to take part in animal training, enrichment, behavioural observations, diet preparation and presentation, enclosure maintenance, and all other aspects of zoo keeping.
- Gain insight into the world of work – Following the zoo operational hours, being on a rota, having reviews to track progress and help development, being invited to take part in staff events and given goal driven tasks that are subject to time restrictions.
- Help develop transferable skills that can be used within and outside of the animal industry – opportunities to work in a team and on an individual basis, develop and improve time management, public speaking, and multitasking skills.
- Improve future employability, specifically within the animal industry – Working on and giving opportunities of the first three aims, gives evidential experience to improve confidence applying for jobs and to help them standout from other applicants. Strengthen not only their CV but also their working ability, making them an asset to have on the work force.
- Expand current knowledge – focus on real world application of animal husbandry theory, helping to develop partial wisdom and bring an understanding on why decisions are made based on evidence.
- Introduce new concepts – theory sessions go beyond the standard textbooks and work to bring attention to less obvious aspects of husbandry tied to real-world application.
- Support personal and professional development - Sessions on CV writing, presentation skills and the keeper’s role allows opportunities to build on the practical side and ensure the experience and knowledge gain is present and articulated in the most efficient manner.
Gaining practical experience in addition to formal learning is considered a key part of career development. “Every student should have first-hand experiences of the workplace through work visits, work shadowing or work experience to help their exploration of career opportunities, and expand their networks” (Department for Education, 2023).
The programme is also open to people who have gained a qualification or who have worked in the animal sector but wish to develop skills and knowledge working in a zoo environment.
Student Keepers are based on an animal section and take part in keeper duties. Student Keepers are not required to for running of the section, which means the animal team can focus and take the time in helping with the real-world learning opportunities.
Practical learning was tracked via three reviews. The average score out of 4 at 3 months was 3.3, 6 months 3.5 and 12 months 3.7. There are also monthly formal learning sessions. Topics of these sessions range from Customer Service to Enrichment. The goal of these sessions is to provide more in-depth theory and knowledge to help build practical wisdom. Pre and post session evaluation found a collective average score of 1.66 out of 3 increasing to 2.60, across all topics evaluated.
Within the first year of completing the programme, 4% of Student Keepers returned to study in an animal related field, and 74% of Student Keepers were employed in the animal sector. Of those employed in the animal sector, 39% were employed at other zoos and 61% at Colchester Zoo.
This project won Silver in the BIAZA Professional Capacity Building Awards category in 2023.