You are here

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!

Featured Article



Regarding your 9:03 comment about there being no legislative fix. I have to respectfuly disagree. One specific problem, the lack of competetive status for long term temporary employees, is absolutely a legislative problem with a legislative fix. The idea behind veteran's preference was that it was mostly for entry level positions, once they got their foot in the door they would compete on merit for promotions. That is where status comes in. When they wrote the law they did not give status to temporary employees because they thought they were truly temporary. I don't think anyone anticipated that the land management agencies would use temps the way they do: year after year, for ongoing work, often in jobs that are a few steps above entry level. Parks often leave permanent positions vacant for a few years to save money. Those jobs are not going undone, they are being done by temporary employees. I have seen temporaries who are doing their supervisor's vacant job volunteer hundreds of hours in a year because they can only be paid for 1039. I have seen them hire, train, and supervise as many as a dozen employees, with little or no help from absentee managers, sometimes for years at a time. Reading resumes and interviewing, all on their own time, mid winter. You want to talk about earning a job? In the end, when after a few years the job is filled permanently, they can't even have their application considered. Every single permanent federal employee in the country who is interested, and every single military veteran, can have their application looked at, but not the person who has actually been doing the job, without being paid for it, for years. Even the OPM has said it is a problem, but that they can't fix it without legislative action. Status for temporary employees after a few years would solve it. I don't know how anyone could argue against it. Most people understand that you have to start out in jobs without benefits. They understand that if the NPS were to follow the spirit of the rules about which jobs should be permanent, it would be very expensive and there would have to be cuts to public services or cuts in the regional offices. People don't mind working jobs that don't pay well or don't have benefits, as long as there is some way to eventually move up, and a link between job performance and advancement and security. Currently there really isn't, and it is hell on morale, and on park operations and public service.

Regarding diversity. Diversity is great. Why don't they go to these colleges they have identified and tell students about the NPS, give them an overview of what we do and what kind of jobs are available, show them how to use USAjobs, and encourage them to apply to whatever vacancies appeal to them? Just handing people who haven't earned it a permanent job because of their race is insane. It will lead to all kinds of tension, bitterness, and the assumption that every person of color hasn't earned their job.

Has the NPS done a study to support their selections? Why not do a FOIA request to explore the NPS hiring policies?

I had no idea that the competition for NPS jobs was that fierce. My assumption is that the NPS is probably the only employer to provide good paying jobs with benefits and pensions in the rural areas where the parks are. If people are really falling over each other to join the NPS, the agency should lower its salaries as there is clearly an imbalance between supply and demand.

The above comment is indicative of the low regard the NPS leadership has for providing high quality interpretation and visitor services. They put a greater value on an attempt at social engineering than they do at fulfilling their number one mission --providing the tax payer the best service possible. Over my career in interpretation there have been many occasions where my experience, and resource knowledge, has not only helped the visitor have a greater appreciation for the park, and greater enjoyment during their stay, it has also led me to take actions that have kept people safe. I can think of five occasions where due to my experience and vigilance I passed along information to protection rangers that has led to arrests for criminal activity in parks, and instances where I intervened in situations to avert resource damage and serious injuries to the public. I have the letters of commendation to prove it. However I was cut out of my last seasonal job so that it can go to a Pathways student working at their first NPS site. But hey jumping on the latest political bandwagon is far more important to NPS leaders.

What the public should know is that participants in the “pro” ranger program are guaranteed permanent jobs and will be commissioned law enforcement officers in the NPS. If you look at some of the promotional materials for the program you’ll see “Pro” Rangers who say they had never been to a National Park or thought about a career in the NPS until they were approached at their college and talked into doing this. The scuttlebutt in the agency is that none of the graduates of the program have been able to complete the training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that is normally required of all permanent protection rangers. But the requirement has been waived.

Meanwhile there is a cadre of folks who’ve already finished their education, paid for training that qualifies them as law enforcement officers in the NPS, and they have already proven themselves as rangers at actual NPS sites in temporary seasonal appointments. These are people who've paid a ton of dues. Many have worked as lifeguards or fee collectors in the parks in attempt to get that foot in the door on the way to fulfilling their dream of being a ranger. They have moved from place to place far from family and friends in pursuit of that dream; all the while working with almost no benefits and with the possibility of being let go at any time.

Who do you think is more likely to be the better ranger? Someone who’s struggled for years competing against other applicants nationwide? Or someone who really just happened to be one of a small group of students in the right school at the right time and who said yeah OK I’ll do that after having the opportunity handed to them?

Those familiar with my posts here know that I've often tried to spread the word about how the agency uses temporary employees to do what is permanent work in order to avoid paying benefits. More and more though the agency is using student hires not only with programs like pro ranger but their other program known as “Pathways.” Unlike “Pro” Ranger, Pathways participants are working in parks as they go to school and they are not guaranteed permanent jobs. Also Pathways participants hold jobs in interpretation, resource management, and maintenance. Hopes of an NPS career are kept alive in Pathways participants because the agency has the option of appointing them to a permanent jobs during a short window after they complete the “internship.” Often the park hiring the student has no intention of converting them to permanent status when the "internship" is over. They work at the park until they complete their degree (or take out loans for second degree) and then the next student is moved in and the former one is shown the door. Hiring through the regular competitive process open to all applicants is almost a thing of the past. Why does the agency engage in such a practice? Aren't they just throwing away loads of experience? Well the answer to that is the same as why the agency has so often rotated “seasonal” employees on a year round basis; so that they wouldn't have to pay benefits.

There are many instances of rangers who've served at a particular park for years in seasonal positions and they are being replaced by people who haven’t even completed their education.

The bottom line is that if you want a career in the NPS the way to do it is to somehow make a supervisor aware of you and get them to like you. Then they might figure out some way to work the system to get you in. Almost no one comes though the front door anymore. Almost all hiring is done through the backdoor through the use of the various "special hiring authorities"

What is needed is the creation of a special hiring authority for those with the most merit. Passage of this bill may be one way to do that I enrage everyone to sign this petition:

Perpetual Seasonal, I do believe that you make some valid points about the perceived abuse of seasonal/ part time and VIP appointments. On the issue of diversity in the work force, I must disagree. I think the efforts on the part of congress, going back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was to enable minority groups the opportunity to have access to all employment opportunities. I remember well the contentious work place discussions surrounding the inclusion of women, not to mention other minority populations. I do not think this is social engineering, nor do I think the NPS administration is insensitive to the need to have the agency represent all of America, still recognizing that long term seasonal and others are frustrated by it. I also still work in a public contact and education function with the NPS (emergency basis only), it helps us all to have all segments of our diversified population represented in our efforts, at least that is my experience.

rmackie, it is interesting that you mention the Civil Rights act of 1964 because the NPS leadership seems to have taken a cue from those who crafted the laws of the South from that era in that they are rigging a system designed to guarantee a certain result racially. They are not trying to guarantee equal opportunity (which I am all for) they are trying to guarantee a certain result. When you do something like place one of the three pro ranger schools on a remote Indian reservation; enact a requirement all applicants must be from the local area, and then only allow a few days after the positions are announced before all those requirements be met, it is tantamount to declaring that this is a quota of X number of jobs for people of this particular race.

Now I have nothing against people of that tribe. I am sure they would probably make better Park Rangers than the average American. But I do know it is illegal for the federal government to start handing out jobs on the basis of race. As Chief Justice Roberts said: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide