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A View From the Overlook: “How Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?”

A ranger's job, and how to get one, have both changed quite a bit since these ranger's posed for a photo at Mt. Rainier in the 1930s. NPS photo.

'œHow Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?'

This is a frequently asked question, neighbors! If the National Parks are 'œAmerica'™s Best Idea,' then it logically follows that the agency that services the National Parks, that is, The National Park Service, is the best damn bureaucracy in the world, and (therefore) NPS rangers, including myself, are the best damn bureaucrats in the world. (There is a flaw in logic in there somewhere, but you get the drift.)

Everyone enjoys basking in the reflected glory of an elite organization; this is one of the many reasons for the popularity of both the National Park Service and the U.S. Marine Corps. (Admittedly, the Marine Corps is easier to get into.)

Another reason for NPS employment popularity is Positive Feedback: People actually like you and like what you'™re doing. Many of the federal agencies are regulatory, which means you have an established Enemies List, people that hate you automatically, even before you arrive at work at eight in the morning. Not so in the case of the NPS (except for Tea Party fanatics!)

Consider the Internal Revenue Service. Have you ever wondered why the IRS does not have a 'œJunior IRS Agent' program similar to the Park Service'™s Junior Ranger Program, in which aspiring juvenile IRS agents could conduct mock audits of the neighbors? No? I thought not. The same is true of the CIA.

A third reason for NPS job popularity is the physical setting.'œVignettes of Primeval America, at the point of European contact: Towering trees! Thundering waterfalls! Limitless vistas!"

No doubt about it, friends, the NPS is a feel-good agency that many people would like to join, and they are not easily dissuaded.

Recall the last cocktail party you attended. After the host has introduced you as a retired or active member of the NPS, you will be asked two questions: (A) 'œWhat is your favorite bear story? (Pretty difficult if you were at Statue of Liberty), and (B) "How can my (son, daughter, grandchild) get a job with the NPS?'

Now the answer to question B is complicated, ambiguous and fluid.

You might like to hedge, particularly if you are feeling a tad malicious.

'œDo you want your child to be happy?' you might solemnly inquire.

The answer will, of course, be 'œYes! Yes!' (America being the first country to be founded on the 'œPursuit of Happiness" as a goal.)

'œThen,' you reply, 'œYour child should get a job as a Federal Prison Guard.'

Your questioner will be appalled.

No, you have not taken leave of your senses due to Sequestration Frustration; you are merely alluding to a famous yearly study by The Partnership for Public Service in which they ranked the various federal agencies as 'œThe Best Places to Work.'

Now the NPS has never done particularly well in this survey, landing somewhere in the low middle. One notable year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was found to be a happier place to work than the NPS.Why is this the case?

Actually, it is an unfair comparison. You see, there is a difference in expectations.

A person who applies for a job as a prison guard has rather low expectation of approval by the clientele he serves. Most federal prisons are located in rural, low rent areas with few permanent jobs. Our prison guard candidate will be looking for a favorable retirement and medical package rather than Spiritual Fulfillment. In addition, he/she will be pleasantly surprised that they were not murdered the first day on the job. Every day after that is an improvement.

The NPS seasonal acolyte, on the other hand, has high expectations. If only he/she can enter the Nirvana of permanent employment in 'œThe best job in the world,' our Newbie expects 30 years of blissful contentment. What they fail to realize is that the National Parks are not administered by 'œtowering trees or thundering waterfalls,' or even by a John Muir clone, but by rather fallible and ordinary human beings. There will be difficulties and frustrations.

When approached by young men or women desiring a career in the National Park Service, Roger Siglin, former Chief Ranger of Yellowstone and Superintendent of Gates of Arctic National Park, would ask, 'œWhat is your second choice for a lifetime career?' They rarely had one. One should have a back-up plan, unless one is wearing a suicide vest.

'œYes, I know that!' our acolyte exclaims irritably. 'œI understand that the NPS has some serious personnel management problems, but I am different! Once I become permanent, I will reform the organization from top to bottom (WASO is clearly shaking in its boots!), BUT FIRST I NEED TO GET A PERMANENT JOB WITH THE NPS!'

Thereupon hangs many a frustration, neighbors! There are many rumors abounding that 'œOne must know someone' before the Holy Grail of a permanent position can be grasped, or that certain jobs are 'œwired' for certain individuals or certain minority groups.

'œOutsiders,' those brave, noble souls who are not part of the 'œConspiracy,' are condemned to wander forevermore in the Twilight Zone of seasonal employment or working for free as a volunteer. Since the NPS is one of the more gossipy agencies of the Federal Government, rumors abound. Some of them are true.

It is true there is malfeasance and corruption in the obtaining of government jobs, but less so than in the rip-roaring, wide-open period after the Civil War known as the Gilded Age, when everything seemed for sale, even if seller didn'™t own it. Federal jobs were just some of the merchandise available. People worked for political parties and voted for candidates not because they were interested in Good Government and Progress, but because they wanted the postmaster'™s job in their town or the lighthouse tender'™s job, or wanted to be the lucky chap that handed out land to railroads.

This was called Patronage, and constituted a venality tax on just about everyone as the wheels of government ground slower and slower. The various presidents of the Gilded Age may not have been personally corrupt, but many of their appointees certainly were, and the country was shot through with graft from top to bottom.

How were we to get out of the Civil Service corruption trap that even today bedevils most of the poverty stricken countries of the Third World?

'œIf in doubt, ask a ranger!" So, I asked Ranger Todd Arrington of James Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio to clear things up for us. You see, in addition to being in charge of the tallest tree and tallest mountain in America, the National Park Service is in charge of American history. If you are interested in the history of the light bulb, you contact Thomas Edison National Historic Site; if you are interested in Civil Service corruption, you contact James Garfield National Historic Site. It seems that President Garfield died for our sins.

Here is what Ranger Todd had to say:

'œ'¦Civil Service Reform was something that was awaiting James A. Garfield when he became President in 1881. Garfield was inclined to agree that some reform to the civil service system was necessary to get rid of patronage and replace it with a merit-based system in which only qualified candidates who passed exams could receive appointments to federal positions. However, Garfield became much more adamant about this need after his election to the presidency, when he was almost immediately bombarded by letters and visits from people seeking jobs. Very few of these individuals had any real qualifications for the positions they sought and to which they felt entitled simply because they were Republicans or knew someone who knew a Congressman, etc.

Alternate Text
President James Garfield supported major changes in hiring practices for federal jobs in the 1880s. Library of Congress photo.

This continued after Garfield'™s inauguration when he unhappily spent hours each day receiving job seekers. One of those who tried to convince Garfield to appoint him to a position (American Consul to Paris) was Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced stalwart Republican who had given a meandering, unimportant speech promoting Garfield in New York and wanted to be rewarded for it.

Guiteau didn'™t get the job, and he soon grew concerned about Garfield'™s intention to replace the patronage system with a merit system, as the new president engaged in a very public battle with New York'™s Senator Roscoe Conkling over who would be appointed to the most prestigious and lucrative patronage job in the country: Collector of the Port of New York.

Charles Guiteau eventually decided the best way to handle this was to murder President Garfield so that Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a New Yorker and Conkling acolyte, would be elevated to the presidency.

Guiteau shot Garfield on July 2, 1881; the wounded President lingered until September 19.Vice President Arthur then became the new president and, to his credit, immediately distanced himself from Conkling. It was President Arthur who signed the Pendleton Act on January 16, 1883. That law reformed the Civil Service, as Garfield had desired, by instituting exams and qualification requirements for those seeking federal jobs. This was the beginning of the end for the patronage system.'

Thank you, Dr. Arrington. You will note that Todd said that it was the beginning of the end, not the end of patronage.

Do we still have Patronage? Sure do, neighbors! Even in the National Park Service? Yup! These are called Schedule C jobs and are awarded to deserving, helpful people by the political party that won the last election. This is sort of a sanitized, 'œLiving History' patronage relic of the Gilded Age, as the Schedule C jobs are relatively few in number and mainly deal with policy. (Nothing secret, neighbors! The Schedule C jobs are listed in a handy little book produced by the US Government Printing Office. It is called 'œThe Plum Book' because, among other things, it has a purple plum colored cover. (Who says the Federal government has no sense of humor?)

But what of our original question: lacking patronage, how DO you get a permanent job with the National Park Service?

Again, James Garfield National Historical Site was most helpful. According to Ranger Arrington:

'œJobs with the federal government, both permanent and temporary, as well as paid internships, are advertised on USA JOBS.  You may search by the type of job you are interested in and the agency. National Park Service jobs are found under the Department of Interior. Be sure to read the announcement very carefully to determine what documents you will need to submit. On-line submittal of your application is preferred.'

Now is there any other way? (Aside from that of Charles Guiteau).

Well, yes, neighbors, at least for the protection ranger (law enforcement) there is something known as the Pro Ranger Program.

You see, the NPS, along with the rest of the Department of Interior, has a 'œDiversity' problem. That is, the Department of Interior is the 'œWhitest' of all the Federal Departments. (It is also regarded by some as the most corrupt, but any cause-and-effect correlation could be interpreted as racist.)

Anyway, how to solve the Diversity problem? Rather than trying to recruit graduates, it was decided to seek colleges with large minority populations and set up a program to steer undergraduates to a guaranteed career in NPS law enforcement.

Undoubtedly, there will be (or are) more colleges, but the ones that show up on Google are Temple University in Philadelphia and the very enterprising San Antonio College, a two-year community college in San Antonio, Texas.

According to the Temple blurb: 'œUpon graduation from Temple University and successfully completing the Pro Ranger Philadelphia Program, participants are placed in a permanent career tenured law enforcement park ranger position with the National Park Service.'

San Antonio College says, 'œRather than recruit or find the next generation of NPS law enforcement rangers, the Pro Ranger Program is a proactive approach to creating them.'

So, neighbors, I guess where your child goes depends on whether he likes Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches or Mexican food!

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I am afraid that there is no legislative "fix" for this issue. As long as two people compete for a job, the one who doesn't get it will harhor ideas of cronyism and political favoritism. I applied for several jobs in my career that I didn't get. Whenever I called the selecting official to ask wny, he or she had a good answer. We aren't owed jobs or promotions; we have to earn them, And we will have to compete with those commng into the Service who have systematically been excluded from NPS jobs previoiusly. We used to say the same thing about women. I can remember when we got our first African American seasonals in Yellowstone--it was 1960 I believe. That's a long time from 1916.

This is a tough issue.


Rick, thank you for this post. I must agree, as one person said, the efforts to make the NPS more inclusive are very important, they should be supported. I do remember the anguish/handrining of allowing women to participate fully in the NPS organization.You and i both can remember some of the terrible battles involved. In my own case, my spouse was actually better qualified for a ranger position, in some respects, than I, but women were not considered. However, I am still hung up on the part time/Intern/seasonal employment issue. This is not just a problem for the NPS, but for other governmental agencies and private sector operations. I was in a very nice supermarket the other day talking to one of the "Head Clerks", a personable and intelligent person. She informed me that every position in the store is part time except for management. All starting jobs are minimum wage, little or no benefits. Hours cannot exceed 40 a week, off season they are lucky to get 20 hours. It is the nature of areas that have off seasons, gateway communities to NPS areas a classic example, but I do think perpetual seasonal has an issue, If the job requires a full time employee, that should be the route we take. A complicated issue at best.

Mr. Smith, I know the go to move of NPS leadership is to attack the critic and claim they are just disgruntled kooks etc. but this is not about two people competing for jobs and one not getting it. This is about the NPS excluding certain people from even competing because of factors that have nothing to do with their job performance.

The bottom line is that our beloved NPS in the last several years has, at every turn, attempted to rig a system in order to favor people of certain races and ethnicities, at the expense of job seekers from other races and ethnicities

They can't openly state in a vacancy announcement that only those of certain race can apply. So what they have done is to get very creative and manipulative with the regulations they do have in an effort to rig the system to produce more of the kind of candidates they would prefer. And those qualities they prefer have absolutly nothing with a candidates ability to do the job.

As long as the sensitive issue of "diversity" in employment is being discussed, I believe one segment of our society that is notably missing from the ranks of park rangers are Americans of Asian and Pacific Islands descent.  Often, I read where the absence of certain ethnic groups among those who frequent parks is due to economic and cultural barriers.  Yet, as an identifiable ethnic group, Asian Americans are certainly present among those who frequent our parks.  Yet, I can only think of a few who wear, or wore, the green and grey. 

One area in which substantial advances have been made since the 1970's has been the marked increase in the number and percentage of women in the NPS ranger, resources management, interpretive, and administrative workforce, which includes many park superintendents, two past NPS Directors, and several Regional Directors.  

As a past seasonal NPS park ranger-naturalist myself, I certainly hope that volunteer and seasonal experience with the NPS would be given a higher priority when personnel decisions are made about new hires for permanent career positions.  If such experience is not considered relevant, then I most certainly can understand the frustration expressed by Perpetual Seasonal.

The real question is: Is there any value in having the "face" of the NPS look like the face of America? As we become a more diverse nation, our voting population will become more diverse also. Will they support an agency that does not look like them? I don't know the answer to that question, but it is on my mind often.


Point taken Mr. Smith on the "your friend" comment. Pro Ranger is new and was started under Jarvis. The Pathways program is also new and was ordered by the current President and has been embraced wholeheartedly by the NPS leadership. The manipulation of a few loop holes in what was supposed to be a merit based hiring system; making those loop holes into the primary source of new permanent employees; is entirely a policy direction from the current director and the current administration. It was President Obama who as one of his first acts ordered the elimination of KSA essays to rate job applicants. Jarvis said in his speech introducing his "Call to Action" program that he intended not to seek new authorities to carry out this agenda but would take current laws and regulations and interpret them in creative ways to get the desired outcomes.

I would also add that no one has been excluded from employment because of minority status in a couple of generations. In fact, for the few minorities who wanted a career in the NPS I think it is probable that its been an aid to their careers. It is just a matter of cultural differences that tend to take them down a different path. There are no offical barriers put up by the agency and I don't know that there ever has been.

I will also add that Pro Ranger is different from the old seasonal academies because its participants must be full time students and must be residents of the city the school is in. To attend a seasonal academy students faced no such residency requirement and were on their own as far as getting employment --nothing was guaranteed. People came from all over the country to attend for the several months of training that qualifies one for a seasonal LE commission. Most of them them are people who've already completed at least an undergraduate degree.

The third Pro Ranger school not mentioned in the article in in Browning Montana. Can anyone guess what it is about the tiny community college in Browning, Montana that caused the NPS to make it a pipeline to a much coveted permanent ranger job?

Very good question Rick. I'd like to also ask, to what extent should the face of the NPS take priority over education, skills, experience, and passion for the resource in NPS hiring? I would imagine that the public's support for the NPS will depend more on the quality of the services provided than any other factor.

PJ's article above addresses that somewhat elusive goal of obtaining a permanent career position with the NPS. As you are well aware, the "face" of the NPS is for all practical purposes presented by fee collectors at entrance stations, law enforcement rangers out on patrol or responding to incidents, and interpreters and information specialists, most of whom are seasonal, furloughable, or, with the exception of the patrol rangers, volunteers. Few employees in permanent career positions with the NPS are involved with daily visitor contact as part of their duty assignments. The public per se seldom encounters a permanent employee, let alone a Chief Ranger, a Chief of Interpretation, or a park superintendent. In fact, other than the fee collectors, in many locations the park employees most encountered by park visitors are those who work for the park concessioner. These positions are also seasonal.

I said I don't know the answer to that question I do know that having a diverse seasonal staff, including fee collectors, and a different looking permanent staff is not going to work well. Can you imagine the tensions that would exist? They would far exceed those that existed when a large number of seasonals were women yet the permanents were male.

I vote for diversity. Many of the seasonals and permanents we hired in Everglades knew little about the ecosystem there. In fact, when I drove to the VC my first day there, I could not name one living thing I saw except for the tomato plants that grew near the park. It was a steep learning curve, but I managed, but for the first couple days, you can bet that I referred a number of questions to Everglade's vets. Others can do the same.


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