How to get a seasonal job at a national park

The parks need seasonal workers, especially for the busy summer, which offers nature lovers an opportunity to immerse themselves affordably in a beautiful setting and earn some money to boot. Although the jobs are popular, there are still some openings this year. The widespread labor shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic have also hit national parks, creating a jobseeker’s market.

“Wages have gone way, way up for these starting positions, and there are more incentives than before,” said Kelcy Fowler, president of CoolWorks, a website that lists jobs in national parks and other interesting places. Entry-level jobs generally pay $13 per hour for a housekeeper to $16 per hour for a maintenance worker. Housing costs range from $20 to $125 per week. There are also bonuses for end-of-season work, travel and referrals. “Employers are offering the banana split of offerings these days … to do everything they possibly can to be as competitive as they need to be to catch the interest of the jobseeker who, at this moment, has what feels like all the options available to them ,” Fowler said.

Traditionally, college and retirees have filled a lot of seasonal jobs, but people between those age groups are increasingly pursuing these positions. “It has changed professionals” in the past few years, Fowler said, adding that more are opting into these experiences. Fowler chalks it up to people reevaluating priorities as a result of the pandemic, as well as the popularity of “van life,” where people trade in their homes for a four-wheeled existence.

If perks such as taking spectacular after-hours hikes and spotting wildlife during your commute intrigue you, here’s what you need to know about finding (and working) a seasonal job in an American treasure.

Parks rely on multiple employers

The National Park Service hires about 7,500 federal summer employees. Common seasonal positions include park rangers, trail workers, visitor service assistants and maintenance workers. It also offers internships through nonprofit partners, youth programs and the Experienced Services Program for people 55 and older.

Private companies, or concessionaires, are awarded contracts with the National Park Service to manage park lodges, restaurants and recreation such as mule rides and boat tours, and they need to fill seasonal positions such as shuttle drivers, servers, housekeepers and cashiers. Jobseekers can visit each company’s website and search for seasonal employment by park and position.

One such company is Xanterra, which typically has 3,500 summer employees and manages operations in Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Rocky Mountain and other parks. Another is Aramark, which has about 3,000 summer workers in Yosemite, Mesa Verde, Denali and elsewhere.

Small companies land contracts, too. Bright Angel Bicycles, for example, runs a bike shop and cafe at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and offers housing in the park in northern Arizona.

Jobs are available late into the season

Currently, positions with the National Park Service are limited; a recent search of the federal usajobs.gov site showed only three seasonal openings. (Search by keyword and/or location, then filter the results by “National Park Service” as the agency and “seasonal” or “summer” as the appointment type.) But opportunities abound with private companies, which generally post summer jobs starting in November and make offers through early spring. Positions are always open, however. “​​We’re having a really difficult time finding employees for all of the summer jobs that are available,” said Shannon Dierenbach, chief human resources officer at Xanterra.

Xanterra’s jobs website had a banner in late March: “New jobs just posted! Join us for the 2022 season.” The company on-boards seasonal workers throughout the summer, Dierenbach said.

Aramark recruits until the end of April, but it also expects to have open positions after that, said Jordan Glazier, vice president of human resources for the company’s leisure division.

Forever Resorts, with operations at Badlands, Bryce Canyon, Big Bend, Grand Teton and more, does the bulk of its hiring now for the season, but it continues to hire throughout the summer, according to Kim Clancy, human resources director.

There are short-term gigs

In addition to summer-long positions, there are also less-publicized opportunities to work as few as four weeks during the fall, after students return to college and because some other workers quit. The parks “absolutely need an influx at the end,” said Fowler, of CoolWorks, who calls the brief gigs “toe-dipping.”

Because recruiters focus on filling positions for the summer, the short stints remain under the radar. “It’s sort of the secret menu. You have to know it exists to order off it,” Fowler said. Strategies to find these openings include applying and listing only the fall dates you can work, or contacting employers in August to ask about opportunities for September and October.

Xanterra runs its Helping Hands program in some parks in spring and fall, which allows participants to work 20 to 30 hours a week for six weeks. “That allows us to help backfill into shoulder season while providing employees that maybe are not available the entire season but would like to have an experience,” Dierenbach said.

Anyone considering a seasonal park job should consider what they want and why the experience is attractive. The answers to those questions can determine the right job, and even park, hiring managers say.

Fowler advises inquire a potential employer to determine whether it is the right fit. One company might have people working six days a week, while another might prioritize giving two days off. Know your dealbreakers and what you hope to gain from the experience. “Lead with that as you pursue different opportunities with different companies, because it’s a jobseeker market,” Fowler said. “It can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of something.”

All experience levels are acceptable

Some jobs are specialized, and for management roles, you will need supervisory experience. But many openings are entry-level positions, where a positive attitude and willingness to learn can be enough. “A lot of these hospitality roles, if you have the will and the positivity rolling into it, that’s 90 percent of it,” Glazier said.

Don’t worry about being considered overqualified; corporate professionals apply and are welcomed. “It’s a great opportunity to take a break or pivot from one career to another and take a few months off. What better place to do that than out in nature?” said Andy Stiles, general manager of Xanterra’s services in Glacier National Park.

The desire to work in a national park can sneak up on people, perhaps while they are on vacation, said Stiles, who knows this firsthand. He grew up in Tyler, Tex., and had never seen a mountain until he took a road trip with friends after graduating from high school. While in Yellowstone, an employee jokingly asked the pals if they wanted jobs. “It was an epiphany. I didn’t realize people actually work in national parks if you’re not a ranger,” Stiles said. After finishing college, he worked the front desk of Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone. What started as one summer became a 20-year career in various roles in multiple parks.

Housing is cheap, but communal

Each company has its own housing in the park, as part of its federal contract. Accommodations vary, but the norm is dorm-style, with meal plans in an employee dining room. The cost, from paychecks, is a fraction of what tourists pay for a room during summer. Limited RV sites may be available.

Most workers have roommates, and couples live together. When matching roommates, housing managers ask about personal preferences and avoid pairing people who work opposite schedules, so sleep is not disrupted. “It’s probably one of the great jigsaw puzzles that our housing managers manage,” Glazier said.

Friendships form faster and deeper than in other environments; industry veterans compare it to the early days of college or summer camp, as everyone meets and decides who they click with. As different generations work, live and dine together, unexpected friendships occur, such as a 70-year-old and a 20-something who becomes hiking partners on days off.

Bridget Byrne, 26, spent the summers of 2017 through 2020 as an intern, then as a park ranger interpreter at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. The remote island in the middle of Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane, so the close-knit community of employees was crucial, said Byrne, a Michigan native. “These are the people you depend on day-to-day,” she said. “We get to live and work in places that people may only dream of visiting.”

This is a job, not a vacation

The parks bustling with activity all summer, and hard work is part of the deal. The advice repeated by seasonal employees and recruiters is to be open-minded and flexible. “It’s all about your mind-set when you’re in these places,” said O’Brien-Ducharme, the Yellowstone seasonal worker. “If you’re the type of person to get flustered easily or are not used to change, it might not be for you.”

The experience pushes you out of your comfort zone, so Fowler advises packing patience along with your hiking boots. “You’re going to have a button pushed,” she said. “It has all the makings of a mini-drama, all the twists and turns.”

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