Strategies for Landing Your Dream Job in Parks & Recreation

Written By: 

Becky Dunlap, CPRP

We’ve been getting a lot of questions about finding work right now.  The job landscape looks so different in mid/post-pandemic world, and the typical ways of volunteering and shadowing may not be available like they used to be.  While many of the tried-and-true advice around cover letters and interviews still stand, we feel that it’s even more competitive than it’s ever been… meaning it’s time to step up your game, show up, and follow up!


The Show [Transcript]

Note: The transcript below is an abbreviated version of the podcast. The conversation has been edited for clarity, but has not been fully proofread fully for grammar or spelling.  Thanks for your understanding ✌️

Becky: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to Let’s Talk Parks. This is Becky Dunlap and Marissa Moravec joining you for a conversation around the state of jobs in parks and recreation. So if you are open to work right now, if you’re trying to find that next step for you, if you’re a student or you were furloughed or maybe it’s just time for that next level in your career, we are going to be talking about where the job market is right now. We’ll also be talking about some of the different options outside of the typical parks and recreation jobs that you may be looking for that can give you some inspiration or at least some job experience if you’re in need of that. 

We’re also going to cover some application and interview tips and then just creative ways to get your foot in the door. So let’s find some non-traditional routes to make sure that you’re reaching your career goals. I’ll let Marissa start with kind of why we’re talking about this now with some of the questions that we’ve had recently. 

Marissa: Lately I’ve had a couple people reach out to me on LinkedIn and our Facebook about their struggles in finding work. Typically, these people have been out of College for two or three years, and they’ve applied to many, many, many jobs. They’ve had several interviews, and they just can’t land that job. 

Get Your Foot in the Door

So it got me to thinking about my own experience when I graduated College. The housing market crisis had just occurred in 2007, and I graduated in 2009. So the workforce was still kind of feeling those effects. I had a hard time finding a job out of College. It took me about two and a half years. 

I worked part time at the Arlington Heights Park District as a program assistant. And by part time, I mean, I was still like 30, 35 hours a week. I was really fortunate that that agency saw my struggles, and they really wanted to help me and they wanted to make sure that I succeeded. So they gave me a decent amount of hours, and they were really helpful. 

But it took a long time for me to find a job. And I’m starting to see some similarities because of the pandemic and a lot of the jobs that have been eliminated or furloughed, and therefore, we’re seeing that it’s harder and harder to find a job. 

Understand the Competitive Market

I was talking to someone yesterday about how they’re struggling to find a job right out of College. And I was like, well, think about it this way, too. I mean, a lot of jobs have been eliminated. And even though here in Illinois, many of them are returning, you have some veterans in the field who are also competing for those jobs. You have people who have been in the field, like myself, for ten years, and we have so much experience and there’s award winners out there who were let go from their agencies. 

Those people are competing for the same jobs that these new College graduates are also competing for. It’s going to be really hard for new graduates to get that experience. I’ve just been going back and forth with these young professionals about how to build their resumes, how to build good cover letters, how to start searching more wisely for those jobs, not just applying to anything and everything, but being really strategic about which jobs you apply for. 

Becky and I had had an ongoing conversation with one individual together. So, Becky, do you have any thoughts about why the job market is where it’s at right now because of the pandemic? 

Becky: Well, it’s interesting. I think that different agencies are in different places, right. So there is no one size fits all. There’s no magic trick that we’re going to say today that you’re going to be like, oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I need to do, because everybody’s in a different place. So I’ll share some of the things that I’ve seen. 

Parks and Recreation Post-Pandemic is Not Normal

So we’ve got agencies right now that are completely back in the office, everyone’s back in their cubicles or their shared offices, everyone’s wearing masks. They’re trying to social distance. And things are going on as per usual. My fingers are in quotes here because we know it’s not normal, but they’re trying to make programs and events and things feel special. And so there may be adaptations to different programs, all that jazz. 

So in those types of facilities, summer operations may go on as planned. They may be hiring for seasonal employees, and they may be wanting high quality applicants and candidates like yourself to apply to those jobs, in which case it’s the typical route you go online or you may be able to meet them in person if they have a facility open. That being said, I think those situations are more rare right now. But I do just want to say that there are facilities and agencies operating like that. 

Now, the other side of that is that there are some agencies right now that have really just put a pause on everything that they’re doing. They’re still working mostly from home. I’ve had colleagues and I’ve seen other people in the field who are actually getting remote jobs, not working in the city or even the state in which they live, which is really cool to see because I think that’s reflective of where the field can and will go. Just the idea that we can have more the best talent regardless of where they live. But that being said, that makes that job more competitive, right. So there’s agencies on both sides of the spectrum, but I think probably most of them are in the middle. They’re trying to do some things, but it’s just not back to normal operation. 

Marissa: I agree. I’ve seen a lot of online opportunities, people able to work remotely or present remotely. I think what I’ve seen so far is typically you struggle to get lifeguards during the summer. You struggle to get camp staff during the summer. And this summer, we seem to be struggling even more. 

Work Your Way Up

So one little tidbit of information or advice that I would give you is if you have to for the summer lifeguard or be a camp counselor, because we really need those positions filled. So don’t be afraid of those. Don’t be afraid of the park maintenance end of things. Maybe get your hands dirty and try those. But I, too, have seen because we’ve had a couple of positions open here at our park district for various reasons, whether it was that we moved people around. We actually shifted some positions around here at our park district because we saw that sponsorship wasn’t going to be as necessary right now. So our sponsorship supervisor was actually moved over to learning how to write grants and help with more administrative duties. And our assistant Superintendent of recreation was moved over to our finance Department because that Department needed more assistance. 

So we’ve actually seen a couple of vacancies for full time positions at our agency because of we’ve kind of had to shift the way that our park district is operating. We’ve had to kind of put things on the table and see where our needs are. We’ve had to kind of do a needs assessment. So it has opened up a couple positions here at our park district, but at the same time, it’s kind of changed the applicant pool. 

The pandemic has changed the applicant pool because we’re seeing a variety of people applying for jobs that normally maybe they wouldn’t. So that’s kind of what I’m seeing is that a lot of park districts have kind of had to reassess and reorganize and maybe reprioritize. 

That makes me think of the way that we’re funded, too… and the different partnerships within the community and kind of how that opens up doors for us in the field of parks and recreation. So I think kind of moving on to another topic is options outside of our typical parks and recreation. 

Be Creative: Looking Outside Parks & Recreation

So, like here, I’ve noticed that our library has been able to continue offering programs that we kind of compete with them for like educational programs for adults, yoga classes, kids enrichment classes, things like that. And we’ve had a couple of community members ask why the library has been able to continue those programs, and we have had to cut back on them, and we may not even be able to offer them virtually.

 Well, the library is funded much differently than the park district is. The park district only receives about 5% of the community’s tax dollars, and the rest of a very small portion of our budget is tax funded. The rest is fee based. So we do have to take fees, and a lot of our programs we haven’t been taking fees for. So it’s made me think about all of the different agencies within our communities that are similar to parks and recreation, but maybe they’re funded differently. So like libraries and museums, they’re funded much differently through tax dollars. I know that libraries just talking to our local library this summer when trying to combat some of this. 

When our community members would ask me why the library was offering some programs and we weren’t, they explained to me that they cannot take fees. They cannot take a registration fee for some of the programs that I normally would take $10 for because I make it this large event. I might have a book discussion or a historical discussion, and I’ve got the whole room set up. I’ve got catering involved, and it’s this big production. The library isn’t doing that because they typically only have the money for just the presenter. But very similar to what we do. It just is maybe a little bit scaled back. And again, they’re offering many of the same programs that we, the park district are offering. So that it’s just a wild idea. 

But look at your local libraries. Look and see if there’s any opportunities to start working someplace like that. There are school districts too. School districts are funded much differently than we are, and a lot of them have recreational opportunities.  

Finally – Probably not your number one choice to look at, but Correctional facilities. Back when I graduated in 2009 and I was struggling to find a job, I actually applied to a couple Correctional facilities as their recreation program manager. So inmates and those who we are trying to rehabilitate need recreational programs as well. So looking into Correctional facilities, assisted living, because I have been so involved with seniors the past 1011 years, assisted living, they program in the assisted living facilities as well. And those are totally, in my opinion, really fulfilling situations, even Correctional facilities. Again, we’re trying to rehabilitate people so that they can come out and be better people. 

Identify Your Values & Priorities

Becky: So when we were talking about this, I think you have to decide what’s important to you and from talking with so many of you and other parks and recreation professionals, you have a servant mind. You do things because you care about your community. And so just put yourself in the situation where you’re thinking about who serves my community best or, you know, who has programs that can help my community. And so all of the ones that Marissa listed are awesome. Some of the other ones that I was thinking of were also just nonprofits in your area. So they may have different programs that they run. Maybe they run wildlife center or an interpretive area, or maybe they just need volunteer work right now. And that might be a good way to kind of just get some more experience. But nonprofits are a good one. And then finally, just looking at your trails, maybe there’s some open space areas that are run by a different division or a different Department that may be funded a little bit differently or along those same lines. 

What about a wildlife area or a Zoo or animal control? Or just, like, find anything that could be somewhat relevant in the field… Because a lot of things can relate back to parks and recreation. And what I found in my career is that as long as you can tie some of the responsibilities that you’ve had in those jobs to what you potentially want to do in the future, the exact role or title or even organization that you’re working for doesn’t matter as much as you might think. 

I would look at of course, your ideal might be to work as a recreation supervisor for your local park district. But let’s look at what do you actually need to happen right now? Maybe you just need that income, which is totally fine right now. Maybe you just need a little bit of experience because you’re fresh out of school. Then let’s look at some of these organizations that we just listed and try to find some way to get experience. There are a lot of people hiring right now that may not be as relevant. You could tie in restaurant experience or retail experience in some way, because a lot of what parks and recreation does is customer service, especially if you’re looking at frontline work. So if that’s where you’re at right now and that’s what’s available, you can tie it back. 

But I think from an employer perspective, if you’re looking at somebody who’s had experience at a restaurant versus maybe a nonprofit or a library or a school doing similar type of things responsibilities, I’m probably going to go with somebody who’s had more relevant experience. 

Stand Out From the Crowd

Marissa: I kind of want to jump to creative ways to get your foot in the door because I think that so the other day when we were messaging back and forth with one of our listeners, Becky had a really good response for how to create a ways to get your foot in the door, because right now it’s really hard to get even volunteer opportunities. Covid-19 has kind of put that barrier up. We can’t necessarily be in the same environment volunteering like we normally would. But Becky had some really good advice, so I want Becky to share that. 

Becky: Yes. So when I was thinking about responding back to this question, I think first of all, there’s the acknowledgement that when you are looking for a fulltime job, the amount of work that goes into an application and interviewing is exhausting. And it can be very frustrating because I know that from personal experience on both sides that there’s often a lack of follow up.

I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve applied for and I just never heard back. You spend like 2 hours on an application and customizing your cover letter and you just never hear back. So first, I just want to acknowledge how frustrating it must be right now, especially because you’re in this really unknown place and you’re trying to find anything. And it’s just hard. 

But to kind of circle back, I think first piece of advice goes back to what Marissa actually said earlier, which I hadn’t thought about, which is to be open to different positions. So she was talking about lifeguards and camp staff. That’s absolutely what is in need right now, what is in demand. 

And so even though your career goals might look like a position that’s higher than that, really we need to think about the next right step, which might just mean getting your foot in the door for a lower position. 

But what you can do is you show yourself as a leader? You have no idea how many staff some agencies need. Some agencies need hundreds of staff every year, and they’ll hire for managers, but typically they’re hiring from last year’s managers or someone who stood out last year. 

Make Yourself Invaluable

The goal here is that when you show up for this entry level position that you make yourself invaluable. You sign up for that extra morning shift. You’re demonstrating yourself as responsible, accountable, and having good communication skills. And if there are opportunities for you to raise your hand, you will do that and you will stand out. 

There could be opportunities for promotion within the first couple of weeks. You never know what opportunities may exist just by doing some of those entry level positions. And my second thing here is that when you are applying, know that your application is being submitted with possibly hundreds of others. So from an employer side, you see basically this long list of people that you’ve never met. Put yourself in their shoes. Like, how hard must it be to just look at these hundreds of applications — looking at another resume and another cover letter… It’s exhausting. 

Follow Up. Follow Up. Follow Up.

To me, here is nothing better than getting a phone call from somebody who is qualified and who wants to work for you and who not only calls and leaves a message but then follows up and says… “Did you get my application? I’m really interested in a position. I’m open to work. I want to work for you guys. This is really, like where I want to be this summer.” 

And just by following up, you are doing what 98% of applicants do not do. I know on every online application says, “Do not go to the recreation center. Do not call.” 

Well, right now we need to break the rules responsibly. So if the recreation centers or parks are open, maybe it looks like stopping by and checking out the facilities and figuring out what’s there and figuring out some good questions that you could ask them. Maybe it looks like calling the facility manager and just saying, “Look, I’ve just graduated. I’m looking for an opportunity. I think I would be a great fit here, would love to learn from you.”

Whether you end up with an informational interview, or maybe you’re able to shadow them for a day, or maybe they give you a part-time role, you are getting so much further ahead in the application pool than just submitting your resume and cover letter on the internet. So that’s probably my best advice right now. Marissa, does any of that ring true for you? 

Marissa: Yes, definitely. So back in 2009, when I was applying to hundreds of jobs, I wish someone had told me like, hey, pick the ones that you really want. I mean, yes, I will admit I applied to anything and everything, but there was a couple of jobs that I really had my heart set on, and I wish someone had told me, hey, call and follow up, because then that employer will really know that you’re interested in that position. Like you said earlier, go and visit the facilities and get a better idea for that organization. 

Tour the Facilities

So it kind of ties into some of my interview tips. I gave some of this advice yesterday. I talked to Indiana University Recreation Department, and one of the biggest tips that I can give you is checking out the facility prior to the interview. So say you apply, you get a call, you get an interview, go check out those facilities. Because I can tell you I want to say at least three of the positions that I have gotten during the interview process. I’ve mentioned that, yes, I did come and check out the facilities prior to the interview. And you can just see the interviewer’s face light up, especially when you can kind of comment and say, oh, I noticed that you have this amazing water feature inside of your Rec Center or you have this really cool climbing wall or you have this amazing childcare center. 

So if you know and can talk about those things, then the employer knows that you’ve really taken your time and you’ve done your homework. I’ll admit that there have been times that I haven’t gone and checked out a facility before the interview process. And so that I’m just randomly digging for information on their website. And so you don’t sound as invested and you’re not looking to ask questions at the end of the interview that pertain to maybe your job specifically. You’re just asking random questions like, hey, I noticed that you have this many people in the Department. Why do you have that many people? Why do you have this unique position, things like that, that may have nothing to do with your position. 

Know Your Stuff

So it really helps to go check out the facilities, check out that park district, look through their brochures, look through their websites. Most parks and Rec agencies have their financials posted so you can kind of dig around and look. That’s really what helped me my current position. I took a look at the financials for the senior center before my interview. So when I went into the interview, I said, hey, I noticed that this program area breaks even most years. It might even lose a little bit of money here and there. This is my plan to increase revenue. These are the programs that I plan to bring to the senior center. 

So when they know that you have a plan, you’ve come, you’ve done your homework, you have a vision. They are so much more likely to hire you.  Is their budget doing really well? Is their budget not doing well? Am I going to be expected to come in and fix their budget? Am I walking into a situation where I can kind of observe for a little bit and be a little bit more relaxed? Is there pressure on my shoulders because the previous supervisor did an amazing job? or totally dropped the ball?

The Interview Matters

Really do your homework. Develop those thoughtful questions. Be confident and positive in your answers. A lot of the questions that they’re going to ask you are situational or examples of maybe situations that they’ve been through. So answering those positively and making sure that you put a positive spin on it instead of, oh, well, that customer comes in and they yell at you and how do you respond? Making that negative situation and turning it into a positive is a really good thing as well. Then my last little bit of information before I’ll pass this on to Becky is making sure that you have a good cover letter and resume. 

One of the young ladies that I’ve been going back and forth with about her struggles to find a job, the other day she sent me a message and said, hey, should I be including cover letters in my applications? Yes, to me personally, if I received an application and a resume to me, because nothing in there is very personalized. You’re applying to anything and everything. But if you have a thoughtfully written cover letter of “Dear Mrs. Moravec, I noticed this position at the Mundelein Park and Recreation District, and I’ve spent this many years working with seniors. And this is where my passion lies. And then I really know that you want this position.” 

Always Craft a Cover Letter

You don’t just want any position. You want this position. So make sure that you have a good cover letter, a good resume that maybe target the position that you’re going for. 

And I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs. And yes, like Becky said earlier, it is a full time job just to apply to get a full time job. It’s not easy. And it does take a lot of your time and energy, but it really pays off in the end. 

You end up hopefully at an organization or agency that ends up being an amazing fit. So those are my little bits of advice on interviewing and applying. Becky, do you have anything that you want to add on to that? 

Becky: I love all of that advice. And honestly, if I could listen to this episode and put myself back right after I graduated College, man, I would be able to ace those interviews because you are so right. Knowing the facilities that you work at, knowing your agency… you are going to impress people if you have done your research. And on the flip side, if you don’t, they will know. They will know. 

You will never be able to predict what questions they will going to ask. It can be helpful to do mock interviews with other with maybe a current coworker or a friend or your mom or whatever, put yourself underneath under some pressure. That’s what I used to do with some of the employees that actually supervised who are going for a promotion. I wasn’t involved with that particular interview, but I gave them a list of potential questions and told them to come prepared to answer any and all of them. 

I think by replicating the type of pressure that you’re going to be under, you can really get a head start because it’s not always about having the perfect answer. It’s about what Marissa said. It’s about projecting confidence, because the idea is that you can figure things out on the job in parks and recreation. 

There’s so much that can come up in any given day. It’s a beautiful thing, and yet it’s the thing that can just drive you crazy if you’re all about structure and rules and everything, because there’s a lot of gray here. So it’s all over the map. 

Don’t Know It All. Just Know You Can Figure It Out.

The whole idea is that you don’t know everything about the job or what’s going to be expected of you, but you’re able to show up confidently. You’re able to answer kindly, you are able to escalate an issue when you need to and otherwise take care of things and follow up with things. That’s the kind of confidence that you need to portray in these interviews so that people feel, you know what? She’s got this, or he’s got it under control. So I really think that confidence goes a really long way within the interview.

Just to follow up or to circle back with what I said earlier after the interview, always send an email or give a phone call to the hiring manager and thank them for that opportunity. Because again, that’s something that I would say probably 50% of people do that and you’re waiting on pins and needles. Well just bite the bullet, send them an email and really show how invested you are in this opportunity. 

Send Your Thank Yous

Marissa: That’s one piece of information that I have forgotten to give people or piece of advice is that follow up. So back when I was at the Vernon Hills Park District, I was kind of involved with our high school. And I would do these mock interviews with high schoolers to prepare them for maybe their first job or going to College and things like that. And so those high schoolers were supposed to email us afterwards thanking us for taking that time. About 50% of them would email and say thank you for taking the time. And they would write something really thoughtful. And I always thought to myself, those kids are going to make it. Those kids are going to rock it. 

Not that those kids who didn’t send me a follow up email wouldn’t. I mean, maybe they’re late bloomers and they’ll figure it out later. But knowing that about half of those high schoolers already knew how important that follow up email was and taking the confidence to send me an email was like, yes, I would hire you, like, in a heartbeat. Don’t care what the position is because you’ve already shown that you’re professional and you’re willing to step up.

Becky:  Well, it’s all about the story that you tell yourself. And that comes across in your interviews, too. So, you know, everybody that is hiring is looking for someone that’s going to be a good fit in their organization. And even if it’s not like happy go lucky all the time, no one wants to work with a complainer. You’re looking for a positive person who is goal oriented, who works well with others and who is firm in their values – especially those whose values line up with them. 

Maybe all of your experience in your past jobs don’t exactly align with this opportunity. And maybe there are people who are better qualified for the job. And whatever story you’re telling yourself right now, figure out how you can flip that so that you can come across as confident. And no, you don’t have to have it all figured out. But the idea is that you know how to figure it out, that you believe that you can figure it out, and that you know when to call on others for help to get things done. 

I think that was a lot of good advice for anybody who’s looking for a job. I really like this episode, Marissa. 

Marissa: I love it, too.  I wish someone had told my younger self this advice. I wish someone had come in to Western Illinois University and given me a little bit of a Pep talk and a reality check before I graduated. I think that this will be huge in helping anyone who listens in finding a job, whether they’ve been furloughed, let go. They’ve just graduated College and they’re struggling. 

A Quick Story (You Can Laugh At Me)

Becky: I’m going to leave on a quick story because I think my younger self knew a lot of these things, but I really could have used this reminder. I remember I was applying for my first job. I was actually still in College. I think I was probably 18 or 19. And my dream for that summer was to work as a camp counselor, and it was for a wildlife center for a Leisure Services Department. I had my application printed. I decided I was going to go and turn in my application to the director of that wildlife center. And I parked in the furthest lot away from the center so I could just practice what I was going to say and get some fresh air in my lungs.  I get there and I see him in his office, and I see the front desk, and I’m like, panicking deep inside, I’m actually sweating. I’m actually shaking. I show up at the front desk and I’m like, Hi, I’m looking for Mr. Randy. Is he available? And they’re like, oh, no, he’s on a call right now. He’s not available. 

And instead of leaving my application there and confidently saying that I’d follow up with him later… No, I just went home with my application. No follow up, no nothing. I just sat in my car in like, tears… Thinking to myself, “Why isn’t this easy? Why can’t you just know that I’m awesome?” 😂

Here’s the thing. People don’t know you’re awesome unless you show up and let them know. And I know it’s scary and I know that it can feel overwhelming. And I know that this is like your 100th application, but just by showing up and doing the hard things, it will pay off over time. 

Go Land That Dream Job!

We appreciate you guys listening in on this episode and we hope that we will see you again soon. And if any of these questions or topics resonate with you and you’d like to hear more, feel free just to reach out to us. We’re active on Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn. You can connect with us any of those ways, but we really appreciate you guys tuning in. And until next time, Let’s Talk Parks!


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Becky Dunlap, CPRP
Becky Dunlap, CPRP