Types of Outdoor Jobs
A variety of options exist for those wishing to work in the outdoors.
Seasonal jobs with federal and state government agencies are the most plentiful, ranging from entry-level laborers to skilled natural science technicians.
Volunteering is a good way to gain experience, as well as get your foot in the door for a paid position. Natural science majors can earn college credit for their outdoor jobs through agency cooperative education programs. Finally, serious outdoor workers sometimes can get permanent positions with the government.
Seasonal employment with an outdoor agency offers people from all backgrounds the opportunity to live together, experience close contact with nature, and learn valuable job skills. A camp coordinator for a non-profit outdoor organization summed up the many facets of life as an outdoor worker:
“My overall responsibility is for the smooth running of base camp operations for the staff and volunteers. This involves cooking, meal planning, recreational activity planning, and keeping track of the budget and volunteer records. I am also responsible for resolving any problems at base camp. I am kind of like Mom, Dad, friend, and family all rolled into one.”
With seasonal work you’ll gain field experience that will enhance your qualifications for specific permanent positions. You will also make valuable contacts; as in any other industry, agency officials are more likely to hire someone if they can connect a name to a face. A natural sciences degree in ecology or botany, for example, is also helpful. But as one professional outdoor worker points out, college courses alone aren’t enough to ensure a position:
“The market is flooded with applicants, and there are too few jobs to go around. You need experience and certain character qualities to raise yourself above the competition. As one biologist with fifteen years in the business tells me, ‘Everyone has to pay their dues.’ Dues come in the form of racking up years of experience in tough working conditions for low wages.”
Although seasonal government employees are never guaranteed permanent positions, they often return for second or third seasons and sometimes eventually move up to full-time, career appointments. But due to the confusing and convoluted government hiring process, the move from a seasonal to a career position is rarely straightforward. Seasonal employees should not assume they will automatically be promoted to permanent positions, but having worked seasonally will make you more qualified than those without any experience. A multiple-season outdoor worker explains how the hiring process differs for returning employees:
“After you’ve worked one season and you receive a satisfactory recommendation, you get rehire status. It’s not a guaranteed rehire, because funding changes every year. But with this status, applying for a job requires only a very easy form submitted directly to the park. If you want to keep working for the government, I would also recommend taking the time to fill out the standard seasonal form, because your old job might not be available the following year. Applying to different employers in different areas every year in addition to where you’re trying to get rehired really opens up your options.”
If you are a college student interested in a career with a natural resources agency, you can take advantage of internship programs offered in cooperation with participating universities.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Cooperative Education Program provides students at participating schools with opportunities to work one or two quarters in their fields of study. Each year the Forest Service evaluates the disciplines and areas of expertise they most need and conducts interviews at campuses offering natural resources majors.
The internship usually requires two quarters of work in the field, and the student must be enrolled in a field of study related to the assigned work. Both graduate and undergraduate students are eligible, though completion of at least one year of college is recommended. In addition to pay, many of these programs also award grants and scholarships. Better still, successful completion of the internship often guarantees a job with the Forest Service upon graduation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service also sponsor cooperative education programs, each with similar requirements to those of the Forest Service. The Park Service allows part-time work during school with full-time work in the summer, and the Bureau of Land Management offers summer-only internships. Many state agencies offer internships as well, and they may be a better alternative for breaking into the outdoor job market.
Cooperative education programs are offered only in conjunction with member universities, which also participate in the selection process. To apply, you must register with the co-op office at your university. Together with the education coordinator, complete an application form (SF-171 if applying with the federal government) and a work/study schedule. Then, submit them with a copy of your transcript to the agency of your choice.
Careers with the Park Service, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service are among the most coveted jobs in the federal government. Fortunately, many non-career, seasonal positions are available for the -month summer season, so you can at least get a taste of the work – and if you decide to pursue a carethreeer with the government, you’ve already gained experience and contacts.
While it is true that summer and seasonal employees are offered full-time positions after completion of one or more seasons, it isn’t that common. For one thing, most agencies are downsizing, a symptom of the nation’s budget woes. If you are determined to obtain a permanent position, though, there are steps you can take to increase your chances when hiring begins again.
First, you should apply for seasonal employment. Many of the permanent employees in the Park Service and Forest Service worked seasonally before being hired on a full-time basis. Opportunities for seasonal work abound! So, while obtaining full-time work is difficult, seasonal jobs can provide you with experience that is valuable in the short term (helping you get rehired) and career-wise in the long term. One summer worker observed the following:
“It’s frustrating to see some of these people who go back season after season, trying to get permanent positions. For some reason they can’t get a high enough ranking. It’s a real Catch-22. You can’t even apply for some of these positions unless you’re a federal employee, but you can’t be a federal employee until you have experience.”
Once hired on a permanent basis, few employees leave. After all, instead of punching a time clock at an office, they are leading underwater tours of coral reefs in the Virgin Islands, rebuilding bridges at the base of the Grand Canyon, or counting alligators in the Everglades.
You may want to consider volunteering for an outdoor agency first, especially if you don’t have a lot of outdoor experience. Competition for paid full-time positions is so tight that many would-be employees first opt for a summer of volunteering to increase their chances of getting hired later. One recent volunteer describes the importance of volunteers to outdoor agencies:
“I thought being a volunteer would be like being a peon, but I worked eight-hour days as full as the paid employees. Because volunteers with my organization can only spend 50 percent of their time doing one task, I got to try my hand at a variety of things. If I expressed an interest in leading an adult walk instead of a children’s program, they’d let me. Or sometimes I was asked to help the biologists with their osprey study. Volunteers are just as valuable to the agency as paid employees.”
Most of the larger outdoor agencies have programs – Volunteers in Parks through the National Park Service is one – that allow volunteers to work side-by-side with paid employees. This is one of the best ways to get hands-on experience in the outdoor field and boost your rating when you apply for a paid position. Not only will you have needed skills, but you’ll also have personal contacts within the agency. As one experienced seasonal employee stresses, volunteering pays off in the long run:
“Volunteer experience – especially in the outdoors – is strongly weighted in hiring decisions. Avenues to acquire that sort of experience are through programs like Volunteers in Parks or the Student Conservation Association. Those are ways for prospective hires to qualify for a paid position later. You get your foot in the door, and in the future, people will recognize you as someone with skills and ability.”