Outside Magazine recently listed a career in the National Park Service as one of the country’s ‘Best Outdoor Jobs’, and for good reason. Most NPS employees primarily work outdoors in some of the country’s most beautiful places, and their days are typically spent educating the public about the importance of natural resource and wildlife protection. If this career path sounds right up your alley, here are a few tips to get you started.
Tip #1: Pick Your Discipline
Public perception of the NPS doesn’t quite do justice to the diverse range of job opportunities available within the agency. Generally, national park employees fall under one of three categories:
Contrary to popular myth, law enforcement rangers carry firearms, arrest criminals and otherwise perform the same duties as a police officer — and then some. Many LE rangers (as they’re known within the industry) also lead rescue attempts, patrol backcountry areas and monitor weather conditions to ensure their park and its visitors remain safe at all times.
Typically the most visible of all NPS employees, interpretive rangers can usually be found at visitor centers, points of interest and other areas teeming with tourists. They also lead guided tours, facilitate educational programs for children and play a major role in large-scale events.
Natural and Cultural Resources Management
This catchall category incudes wildlife ecologists, botanists, fisheries experts and other individuals who not only study their park’s natural resources, but also design and implement measures to ensure they remain safe from significant human impact. In parks that are susceptible to high levels of annual fire activity, wildland fire management officers and personnel may also fall under this category.
Like we said, the previous three categories are very general. National parks employ a large number of maintenance workers who are responsible for keeping park facilities, vehicles and equipment in top condition. Climbing rangers assist mountaineers in parks that boast high levels of climbing activity. And like those of any other government agency, NPS offices are comprised of receptionists, accountants, IT workers and other clerical staff.
Tip #2: Educate Yourself Accordingly
While you don’t necessarily need a college degree to launch a successful career with the NPS, higher education definitely helps. Some majors, such as wildlife management or environmental science/studies, can serve as a good starting point for students who are interested in finding a job with the NPS, but aren’t sure which type of job best suits them. Those drawn toward law enforcement are urged toward a degree in criminal justice; however, in order to receive full commission as a law enforcement ranger, you must attend an accredited seasonal law enforcement academy (full background check and drug screen are required for admission). If natural resources or interpretation is your calling, then a science-related degree — such as geology, biology, or fisheries — may be the most effective route.
Tip #3: Get Your Feet Wet
Typically, individuals who spend their career with the NPS start with an entry-level, seasonal position. These may include stints as a trail crew member, wildland firefighter, maintenance worker or visitor use assistant (the friendly folks that take your money when you first enter the park). Since many of these positions are reserved for student-hires, they usually last throughout the summer season and are not subject to furlough (which means you have to fill out the same application form every year). If NPS jobs are scant (as they tend to be, especially these days), a viable alternative would be to find a seasonal position with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Natural Resources or another related agency; while these organizations are governed by different federal departments, many of the skills you’ll pick up are highly transferrable to NPS positions. Another option is to spend the summer as a VIP, or volunteer in the park; you won’t make any money (obviously), but most VIPs earn the same experience credentials as paid staff. Volunteer opportunities are listed online; other unpaid opportunities include internships with the Student Conservation Association.
Tip #4: Beef up Your Resume
Not surprisingly, competition is stiff for permanent NPS positions. You can gain an edge on fellow job-seekers by taking certified courses that cover emergency medical technician training, weapons safety, swift-water rescue, mountaineering, and so on. If you’re seeking an interpretive gig, bilingual skills certainly don’t hurt. Also, be sure to include any relevant college classes you’ve taken.
Tip #5: Conduct a Thorough Job Search
You can spend as much time as you see fit looking for NPS gigs on Craigslist, Indeed and other job sourcing sites — but at the end of the day, your job search should begin and end on USAJobs.gov. This database not only lists all vacant federal positions (NPS, as well as other agencies), but also provides job criteria (qualifications, professional experience, etc.), expected duties, wage/salary, contacts and other information required to successfully apply for each opening. But, as anyone who has navigated USAJobs can tell you, the site can be confusing and, in many cases, some of the information isn’t as up-to-date as it should be (oh, government sites). For this reason, applicants are encouraged to contact parks over the phone and speak with their prospective supervisors directly; this will boost their visibility amid the pile of job applications the supervisor has received, as well as clear up any vague details related to the position.
Tip #6: Be Prepared for an Ongoing Education
You’ve landed a permanent job with the NPS, but that doesn’t mean the training process is finished. Take law enforcement rangers, for example. After grinding out a few seasons, LE rangers must eventually attend a rigorous (read: 22-week) program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. Upon completion of the program, the ranger then spends 12 weeks with a field training officer at a park other than the one that hired him/her. Natural resources and interpretive personnel may also be required to attend lengthy training sessions, as well as national seminars, regional conferences and other events.
If you’re considering a career with the National Park Service, best of luck during your job search! For more information, please visit the official NPS website.
By Brad Nehring