Navigating Your Career in Parks and Recreation

Strategies for moving throughout your Parks & Recreation career in a way that is aligned with who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Written By: 

Becky Dunlap, CPRP

Choosing a job in Parks and Recreation is incredibly rewarding, yet is faced with a number of challenges. How can you navigate your career in the field without burning out?

There are many jobs you can choose from when it comes to Parks and Recreation – aquatics, camps, facilities, maintenance. Remember that it doesn’t matter so much about your job title, but rather how it helps you reach your career goals, ideal lifestyle, and alignment with your values.

What does a job in Parks and Recreation look like?

Many people ask about what a career in Parks and Recreation is like. Many entry level jobs require you to be a “jack of all trades.” You can constantly learning new things and interacting with lots of people. For instance, if you work at the front desk of a recreation center, you learn a little bit about everything. While your primary role might be in customer service – making your patrons happy – you will find yourself answering questions about every part of your department – from fitness and wellness, to virtual classes, to the program guide, to senior living (and maybe even a question about the DMV!). Often recreation centers are like the library – they are highly trafficked facilities where people go to learn more about services in their area.

As you move up throughout your career, you may find yourself becoming more generalized – and focusing more on being a supervisor over many employees. In that case, you will need to prioritize leadership skills, systems planning, and organizational development. It’s really about creating an environment that people want to work in, and you are that person that contributes to the culture.

It is also possible to become more specialized as you move up in your career. Depending on your career goals and your interests, this could be a great thing or it could end up pigeon-holing you into a role with limited upward mobility. For instance, a role in aquatics could provide opportunities to lead in-service training, lifeguard certifications, etc. but as you learn those very specific skills, you may miss out on promotions for general facilities jobs or a recreation supervisor. Some of those more general jobs may pay better, because they are in charge of more.

If you are a Facilities Supervisor that requires you to manage many part or full-time staff, you may be called in the early morning or late at night to answer questions. You generally are the on-call supervisor, and this type of work can be very demanding especially if you value work-life balance or have a young family to take care of.

For instance, if a part-time employee fails to open the building on time, you will be required to show up and work their shift. This can be frustrating because you are assuming the role of an employee that may have very different responsibilities than you. Although the need is still there for excellent customer service, it may not make the most amount of financial sense to pay a recreation supervisor to fold towels or wipe down equipment in the fitness facility.

Organizations You Can Work for In Parks & Recreation

Before we get into the specific parks and recreation jobs that you might find in the field, it is important to talk about the types of agencies you might work for. In Parks and Recreation, the field is very diverse. Here are some agencies that you might consider working for with a brief description of each:

  • Park Districts*
    • Park Districts are privately funded organizations that generally have more control over their budget and operations.
  • Cities/Towns/Counties (Municipalities)*:
    • Many cities and towns have local Parks and Recreation departments.  These agencies are often funded by tax revenue.  Much of this article focused on the types of roles and responsibilities within municipal parks and recreation and within Park Districts.
  • State:
    • Each state has their own system of State Parks – with a number of volunteer roles, part-time roles, and full-time opportunities.  Many of these roles are related to environmental education, wildlife/conservation, and park management. You may be asked to assist with camp registration, patron check-in, etc or you may play a more supervisory role.
  • National:
    • With over 59 National Parks, these federal parks operated by the Department of the Interior. National Parks have a number of volunteer opportunities, but working your way into a full-time role can be difficult.  A great podcast to listen to about working in National Parks is “Park Leaders.”

*Much of our work and podcast on Let’s Talk Parks focuses on these areas – Municipal Parks and Recreation!

Within each type of organization, there may be very different types of jobs.  It is difficult to narrow down the job titles within Parks and Recreation because they vary so greatly.  It will be necessary to learn how to navigate your career and choose the best path for you.

Although it may feel daunting to choose your next step in Parks and Recreation, the most important thing you can do is to choose a path where you can do what you enjoy and where you will learn the most. Especially early in your career, you may find yourself putting pressure on the next step which then might put a series of “what if” questions in your head. That’s actually not the most important thing you can think about. The beauty of working in this field is that it is very easy to move laterally throughout your department (or across different cities). You most likely are only a certification or volunteer opportunity away from getting a foundational level of knowledge under your feet.

Advantages to Choosing a Career in Parks & Recreation

The great advantage of working in Parks and Recreation is that you are always doing something different most days. While many people think that Parks and Recreation is mostly outdoors, that’s not always the case. You are usually in between parks and facilities. Depending on your role, you may be centralized in a certain facility – for instance a senior center or a recreation center, but then you may travel to other facilities or parks for meetings, special events, or inspections. Other times, you may be a supervisor that is in charge of an overall area – such as aquatics, youth sports, maintenance. In that case, you may have an office or simply take your laptop anywhere and work.

Challenges in Navigating Your Career in Parks & Recreation

A challenge within the field of Parks and Recreation is usually moving up in the field.  Depending on the size of the agency, your department may be very small.  It may only be a few people in your department, so depending on how likely they are to stay in their jobs, there may be very few opportunities to move up.  If you are looking for upward mobility, you may find that you will have to move to a new city or state for new job opportunities.

It is very typical working in Parks and Recreation that you work during the weekends and evenings.  You work while others are playing – which often looks like spending your holidays with your communities and supervising your staff.  For some, that may be very enjoyable.  However, for others, it may be very frustrating to constantly be on-call and needed in your facilities.

In addition, as mentioned before, in this career, you will often be asked to fill many different shoes. That little line in your job description (“other duties as assigned”) will become bigger as people find that you are adept and capable of new assignments.  From marketing, to security, to maintenance, to customer service, you will find yourself doing a LOT of different things all of the time.  If you enjoy doing different things every day, the field of Parks and Recreation might be for you.

Conclusion

It is often said that if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life.  However, in Parks and Recreation, you can love what you do AND work a lot.  Some days will be incredibly rewarding – helping your communities and residents better recreate and enjoy nature – however other days can be incredibly stressful and may be forced to deal with other issues outside of your typical role.  It will challenge you to grow as a person and as a professional.

Know your target career choice and you’ll be halfway to achieving your ultimate success in life. Always remember that your values and your standards define who you are as a person. Use them as a map to your professional life.

Becky Dunlap, CPRP
Becky Dunlap, CPRP

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