Professionals should examine what attracts them to the job, and apply it to recruiting new faces to the field

Recruiting others to the park and recreation profession: professionals should examine what attracts them to the job, and apply it to recruiting new faces to the field

Mary Parr

Great Pay! Flexible Hours! Work from Home! Exciting Opportunity!

We’ve all seen fliers with words like these posted around our communities. Did you ever stop and wonder “what kind of people answer this call?” or “what kind of work could this be?” or perhaps even “maybe it’s time for a change?” If you are in a position to hire staff, maybe you’re wondering if this is a successful recruitment strategy for the company posting the fliers. If you were to post your own flier, what words would you use to grab the attention of the potential recruit?

Recruitment and retention of qualified leisure service professionals has been an ongoing topic of discussion and concern. In fact, a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration (in press) centers on professional development in response to a predicted shortage of park and recreation professionals in the coming decades. Leaders in parks and recreation predict mass retirements in the next decade.

According to Steve Dice, director of Park Operations for Cleveland Metroparks, “The exodus has begun. One third of the staff in Cleveland Metroparks Department of Park Operations has worked here less than seven years. Seventy percent of the employees occupying positions in management in park operations will be eligible to retire in the next seven years.”

Combined with fewer students choosing public parks and recreation as an emphasis, and fewer faculty identifying with public parks and recreation in their teaching and scholarship, many people are wondering who will fill the employment gap. This is particularly important as park and recreation professionals seek not only to fill jobs, but also to develop the future leaders of the field.

“We are having difficulty in finding potential employees academically prepared to work toward park and recreation management and administration positions, especially in the resource area,” Dice says. “Further, we are finding no potential employees with academic preparation in both parks and recreation, and fringe positions in human resources, engineering, accounting, marketing, etc.”

Considerable research has been conducted during the last few decades in order to determine the qualifications necessary to perform the work tasks of the leisure services practitioner. This research has led to the development of accreditation and certification standards. Research and discussion centers around identifying characteristics of the job and knowledge, skills and abilities required to do that job. This highlights an outward perspective: What qualifications are we looking for in others to support the mission of our organization? But maybe park and recreation professionals need to take a more inward perspective: What do we have to offer in order to attract qualified employees to support our mission? What factors influence a person’s decision to enter the field in the first place?

Related Literature

There are virtually no studies that specifically address the recruitment and retention of qualified employees into parks, recreation and leisure services. While there is little empirical research in parks and recreation, there have been studies comparing public versus private sector employees in their motivations and rewards. These have suggested that public service may be an important and attractive component of careers in public recreation. If so, then emphasizing the public service component of the work may aid in recruitment and retention of individuals with such dispositions.

It stands to reason that graduates of academic degree programs in parks, recreation and leisure services would be a major recruitment resource. NRPA’s Society of Parks and Recreation Educators (SPRE) has conducted a series of surveys, beginning in the 1960s, to monitor the status of academic programs in the U.S. and Canada. These show an overall decline in enrollments from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s. Trends in overall enrollment from more recent SPRE studies are difficult to determine due to increasingly low response rates to the survey.

These decreases in enrollments might be a natural function associated with a decline in job possibilities throughout the late ’70s and the ’80s, particularly in public recreation. Any expansion in enrollments in the ’90s (if it occurred) might be attributed to the expansion of the purview of academic programs to include commercial recreation (specifically travel and tourism) and sport management. Unfortunately, due to low response rates to the SPRE survey, these trends are difficult to document as well.

The 1986 SPRE study was the first in the series to ask respondents to indicate where their students would like to get jobs after graduation and how many were likely to continue their education. While the responses represent a “best guess” by the survey respondent, the average percentage of students who would like to get jobs in public parks and recreation has remained fairly constant at about 30 percent, albeit a percentage of a potentially smaller total. If the real number of students interested in public parks and recreation has decreased, as anecdotal evidence suggests, then an impending lack of qualified employees in public parks and recreation is likely in the near future.

The apparent low interest in public parks and recreation as a career may be due, in part, to the perceptions (and sometimes misperceptions) of the job. It might even be possible that people in general, or students specifically, have no perceptions of the job. It doesn’t even enter their consciousness as an occupational field like accounting, systems analysis, nursing or teaching. Parks and recreation is widely known as a “discovery major”–students stumble upon it either through friends, roommates or thumbing through the course catalogue (as this author did).

Recreation students hold positive perceptions of the profession, however the students also report an “image” problem when it came to how the public viewed their choice of major and career. The students cite public ignorance of the work required to provide recreation and leisure opportunities, a linguistic problem with the word “leisure” and its connotations of laziness, inadequate promotion of the field, and the lack of a professional image. How can we attract qualified, enthusiastic, dedicated individuals to the field, if the public doesn’t have a clue what we do?

People make decisions to take a particular job or enter a particular profession for a variety of reasons. People are potentially attracted to an occupation by benefits such as money, job security, social mobility, power, prestige and satisfactions gained from the job. But such decisions are not made in a vacuum–a person may also consider the influence of significant others, an absence of occupational alternatives and a subjective warrant. The subjective warrant is a match between an individual’s perceptions of what the job requires (knowledge, skills and sensitivities) and their own abilities and interests.

The purpose of the study reported here was to examine the perceptions of the job by public park and recreation professionals, in order to identify characteristics, or “recruitment resources” that make public park and recreation jobs attractive to potential employees.

Findings

Respondents to the nationwide online survey of public park and recreation professionals (N=611) indicated that interpersonal and cognitive skills are important, and that their jobs present opportunities to do a wide variety of tasks. They also identified administrative tasks and program planning as a major portion of this kind of work. Along with that, these professionals agreed upon the importance of a working knowledge of management principles, recreation activities and the benefits of recreation participation. (See Table 1 on page 74)

These respondents also agreed that public park and recreation professionals are not well compensated for their work, and salaries are low compared to other fields. An overwhelming majority of the respondents indicated starting salaries in their geographic area were between $20,000-$24,999 (35.8 percent) and $25,000-$29,999 (39 percent). In addition, these jobs are not associated with high social status.

It is interesting to note that these respondents did not agree with the statement that park and recreation professionals rarely spend time in the office. It may be a popular misconception that they get paid to recreate in the parks all day, or are at least in the park, directly facilitating the recreation of others. Given that administrative tasks comprise a significant portion of the job, it makes sense that this type of work would be done in the office. Finally, it was agreed that park and recreation professionals do not typically work a standard, co-hour week. (See Table 2 on page 75)

Several factors were important to the career satisfaction of these professionals, with the opportunity to “improve the quality of public/community parks and recreation in the community” rated as most important, followed by “helping participants gain an appreciation for recreation and leisure,” and “to fulfill an obligation to society to meet the demand for recreation and leisure services in the community.” Opportunities to work with underserved populations and to help community citizens develop an appreciation of other cultures were rated of least importance. Similarly, these respondents indicated that jobs in public parks and recreation were likely to provide opportunities to deliver these factors.

Respondents were also asked to indicate the top three influences on their decision to work in the field. “Personal experience with participation in recreation and leisure activities” was mentioned most frequently as one of the top three influences (25.4 percent), followed by “abilities are best suited for public/community recreation” (16.2 percent) and “greater likelihood of personal achievement and satisfaction than in other career areas (12.8 percent). Interestingly, “something I just fell into” ranked fifth out of 10 possible influences listed on the survey, with 11.3 percent of the respondents choosing it as one of their top three.

Conclusion

What do we have to offer in order to attract qualified employees to support our mission? Based on these findings, what we have is a dynamic environment that requires management skills and abilities in order to facilitate the recreation of others. Knowledge of and experience with recreation activities and its benefits are keys to accomplishing this mission. This may come as no surprise to park and recreation professionals, but seeing how a significant number of the respondents “fell into” their jobs, perhaps we could do a better job of communicating it to potential employees.

The most frequently cited influence on deciding to work in public parks and recreation was personal experience with participation in recreation and leisure activities. Our program participants appear to be a major source of potential employees, thus it may benefit the field to take a more active role in making them realize parks and recreation as a possible career.

Furthermore, these findings support the argument that social service may be an attractive component of the profession. Making a difference in people’s lives and in their communities were important to the career satisfaction of these professionals, and jobs in public recreation provide those opportunities.

While jobs in public parks and recreation may not be, for the most part, financially rewarding, they can be socially rewarding. The profession can also add a highly social environment to the list of what we have to offer. Professionals interact with customers, non-users, politicians, staff and colleagues on a regular basis. The job also offers employees a chance to use their intellectual skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and the ability to “think on your feet.”

In order to meet the profession’s future staffing needs, it is vital that we begin to take a seller’s perspective rather than a buyer’s perspective. A seller helps to develop a product or service, and then communicates the virtues of that product or service to potential buyers.

In this case, we are selling the virtues of working in public parks and recreation to potential recruits. It also implies a more active role in the early development of future professionals; creating an awareness of the profession at earlier stages of the career development process, and advising potential recruits about the education and experience necessary to be successful.

Perhaps the flier for parks and recreation might look like this below:

Exciting Opportunity! Work with People! Make a Difference in Your Community! Never a Dull Moment! Have Fun Helping Others Have Fun!

Table 1. Mean Scores of Job Characteristics

Item N Mean SD

Interpersonal, or people skills are very important 611 4.90 35

Provides an opportunity to do a wide variety of

tasks 611 4.71 .48

Cognitive skills and abilities are very important 611 4.65 .55

Working knowledge of management principles is very

important 611 4.53 .62

Administrative tasks represent a major portion of

the work of a park and recreation professional 611 4.35 .77

Working knowledge of a variety of recreation

activities is very important 611 4.29 .82

Tasks related to program planning represent a major

portion of the work of a park and recreation

professional 611 4.20 .89

Public parks and recreation is a good career for

women 611 4.14 .83

Working knowledge of the benefits of recreation

participation is very important 611 4.03 .08

Knowledge of psychology and social needs 611 3.97 .79

Influence in their jobs 611 3.84 .88

Professional training and education 611 3.78 1.05

Influential in their communities 611 3.66 .87

Working one’s way up the ladder 611 3.46 1.13

High job security 611 3.35 1.03

Jobs are available in desirable geographical

locations 611 3.30 .97

Opportunities for career advancement 611 3.27 1.18

Balance personal leisure with work 611 3.21 1.10

Direct leadership of recreation activities 611 3.18 1.17

Physical skills and abilities 611 3.11 1.08

Jobs are readily available 611 2.95 1.05

Highly respected 611 2.91 10.3

High degree of prestige 611 2.82 1.05

Salaries in the field are adequate 511 2.66 1.11

Power associated with the job 611 2.66 .98

Public park and recreation professionals are well

compensated for their work 611 2.46 1.03

Jobs in public recreation are associated with high

social status 611 2.45 .92

Jobs in public recreation are readily available

just about anywhere 611 2.44 .93

Professionals rarely spend time in the office 611 2.27 1.01

Professionals typically work a standard 40-hour

week 611 1.81 1.09

Salaries in public parks and recreation are high

compared to other fields 611 1.76 .81

Table 2.

Job Characteristics with a Mean Score of more than 4.0

Item N Mean SD

Interpersonal, or people skills are very important 611 4.90 .35

Provides an opportunity to do a wide variety of

tasks 611 4.71 .48

Cognitive skills and abilities are very important 611 4.65 .55

Working knowledge of management principles is very

important 611 4.53 .62

Administrative tasks represent a major portion of

the work of a parks and recreation professional 611 4.35 .77

Working knowledge of a variety of recreation

activities is very important 611 4.29 .82

Tasks related to program planning represent a major

portion of the work of a park and recreation

professional 611 4.20 .89

Public park and recreation is a good career for

women 611 4.14 .83

Working knowledge of the benefits of recreation

participation is very important. 611 4.03 .08

Job Characteristics with a Mean Score of less than 2.5

Items N Mean SD

Public park and recreation professionals are well

compensated for their work 611 2.46 1.03

Jobs in public recreation are associated with high

social status 611 2.45 .92

Jobs in public recreation are readily available

just about anywhere 611 2.44 .93

Professionals rarely spend time in the office 611 2.27 1.01

Professionals typically work a standard 40-hour

week 611 1.81 1.09

Salaries in public parks and recreation are high

compared to other fields 611 1.76 .81

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