Well, firstly I have to declare I am biased, I have worked on a few for other companies and also run my own instructor training month. Actually, rather than making me biased, maybe it means I have an informed opinion? I’ve worked with and for many people who have gone through these kinds of schemes. I am talking about the commercial versions rather than University and College courses.
There’s a variety of courses out there that come under the same umbrella, from one month courses through to two year “drip feed” schemes. I think it’s worth pointing out at the start that in my opinion there is no perfect version, they all have good and not so good elements to them and there are so many out there these days that I, or anyone else, don’t have experience of even half of them.
In the outdoor industry there is an element of negativity about them from some quarters and I think this stems from the phrase “Zero to Hero”. Not one of these courses will take a client with little or no experience and turn them in to a highly qualified, highly experienced, well rounded instructor and certainly the ones I’ve been involved in don’t claim to. What they do offer is a “leg up”, “kick start” or maybe even a “fast track” onto the instructing career path.
Our industry is obsessed, rightly or wrongly, with National Governing Body qualifications. I like them. They provide a statement that on the assessment course the candidate met certain criteria as outlined in an agreed syllabus. This is just the start of course, further experience and practice lead to becoming a better instructor. There are thousands of SPA’s, ML’s and Level 2’s out there – you need to somehow differentiate yourself from the masses. Maybe the people enrolling on these instructor training courses have already made a conscious decision that they want to be quality instructors and by doing a course they are giving themselves a head start into their chosen career?
I say maybe because clients on these courses have a variety of reasons for doing them, from being super psyched to immerse themselves in the outdoors to being unsure what to do with their life. They do all have one thing in common though – some spare cash! The cheapest, shorter courses start at around £1500 going right through to £10,000 which is a lot of money by anyone’s standards.
So is it money well spent? In my mind that is entirely dependent on the client. If they’re super keen then yes, they get to spend time with potentially great instructors who are delivering the course and milk every last bit of knowledge out of them. This isn’t only technical knowledge, but anything and everything from soft skills to where to look for jobs. I’ve also worked with plenty of clients who really waste the opportunity and that’s a shame but the way of anything I guess, they tend (big generalisation here) to be the ones who haven’t paid for the course themselves.
I’ve mentioned there’s a wide variety of courses out there and they all have their own areas of expertise and so the clients tend to come out with differing skills depending on the course they’ve chosen. Hopefully they did some research before joining the course and picked the course most appropriate to their aims. Some offer a coasteering element, some an ML element, some focus on climbing & hillwalking and some on kayaking & canoeing. Some are 9-5, some have evening lectures on presentation skills etc. Some have ratios of 1:8, some have ratios of 1:2. You get my point.
I guess the original way into the outdoor industry was to be a climber or paddler etc. and then do the qualifications when you wanted to instruct/coach/guide. How, for example, do you know you want to be an outdoor instructor if you never climbed before, or kayaked before, or mountain biked before etc.? A lot of people coming onto these course are not active outdoor people, but somehow they’ve decided they want to be an instructor. I standby my principal that to be a quality instructor in your chosen activity, you need to be mega keen and active in it. But that doesn’t mean they wont be psyched after the course, in fact I think this is one of the really good things to come out of these courses – if you have quality, enthusiastic instructors the clients will leave the course having been excited as well as educated by them. I’ve seen people who have never climbed before their course go on to climb far harder than me and share their new found enthusiasm with their own clients and that’s got to be a good thing, right?
Over the last five years or so of being involved in outdoor instructor training I’ve worked with and met all sorts of people who have gone on to all sorts of careers. I know some who have nothing to do with the outdoor industry and I know some who have carved out a great career for themselves including one who is now an MIA and runs their own very successful company. The successful ones all share something in common though, they work hard, they love their job and in their spare time they are out doing something exciting, maybe climbing on a crag or kayaking down some white water, it doesn’t matter what, they are just genuine outdoor people.
There are many options in the outdoor world, you could start (like me) at an Acorn or PGL type centre and work your way up, gaining qualifications (often paid for by the company), you could gradually build up your certificates whilst working in a completely different sector, the instructor course is just another route. In my view it lets you enter the industry one rung up the ladder, there’s still a long way to the top of the ladder, if indeed there is a top at all.
A few options, of which there are many more:
Land & Wave, a 14 week course, in sunny Dorset, with a wide range of activities including the super popular Coasteering.
Plas y Brenin, the expensive one! But where better to be if your into the outdoors than in North Wales?
Manor Activity & Development, a traditional 16 week course, with a good spread of activities and a big focus on all round skills.
Wet and High, a long term instructor programme with very low instructor – client ratios and a wide range of activities.
Here’s a previous bit I wrote about my route to becoming a self employed mountaineering instructor.