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Survey Says National Park Service Is Far from the Best Government Agency to Work For


Employee survey shows there's a little tarnish on the NPS shield.

You'd think that waking up every day in places such as Yellowstone, Olympic, Acadia, Yosemite or Rocky Mountain national parks would be part of a dream job. But a survey of federal employees shows that those working for the National Park Service are far from being the most content with their jobs.

In fact, according to the 2009 Best Places to Work survey, the National Park Service ranks surprisingly close to the bottom of all federal agencies in terms of job satisfaction: out of 216 agencies, the Park Service stood 160th. Topping the list were the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Government Accountability Office.

Why? The respondents pointed to poor training and development, ineffective leaders, poor teamwork, a lack of strategic management, and poor quality of life when it comes to a work/life balance. Distressingly, the Park Service’s overall reputation as a good place to work has gotten worse in recent years, according to the survey, the fourth annual.

While the latest overall index score of 59.8 was a tad higher than last year's 58.2 overall score, it was down from 62.5 noted in 2005 and 64.1 recorded in 2003.

In some specific categories, the Park Service garnered a score of just 38.5 out of 200 on the question of effective leaders, 38.3 out of 185 in the "family friendly culture and benefits" category, and 40.1 out of 200 in "performance based rewards and advancement. While the highest score was a 78.3 out of 120 in "employee skills/mission match," that was down from both the 2005 score of 78.8 and the 2003 score of 81.0 in that category.

The Park Service's National Leadership Council, which is comprised of the agency's director, deputy directors, regional directors, associate directors and assistant directors, says it is working to reverse the trends, but that it won't happen overnight.

"A number of initiatives in the learning and development arena were initiated in 2008 in response to the 2007 ranking. We will continue to focus on carrying these through to completion, as well as identify further workplace enrichment initiatives in the coming months," the leadership council said. "Emphasis in areas such as communication, supervisory skills development, and work-life flexibilities will support the NPS goal of becoming a best place to work in the federal government.

"Combined with the prior survey results (we're having the analysis done right now that compares 2002 with 2004 with 2006 and now 2008), we take the trends seriously and the similarity of responses to certain questions seriously," added the council. "Our training and development revitalization efforts over the past year-and-a-half are a direct result of 2006 results and simply haven't had time to pay off yet in terms of morale impact.

"It is important to note that real change in morale takes sustained effort over a number of years to find out what are the biggest concerns among the large number identified and to come up with meaningful ways to redress those concerns that will result in noticeable differences in the way the workforce perceives the issue."

Some of the concerns, however, were pointed out to the agency back in 2006 when Julie Elmore, then a graduate student working on her master's degree at Duke University, did her thesis project on National Park Service Employee Satisfaction and Employee Retention. That project, in which Ms. Elmore received responses from more than 2,500 Park Service employees, pointed to a number of areas of employee discontent. Some of the comments were quite biting:

* "In my park, I've seen a job created to employ the girlfriend of upper management as well as to move her entire family stateside. ... I watched my former superintendent play solitaire on his office computer for hours as well as to print out reams of paper from the Internet on recipes and ads for buying a boat."

* "We continue to put out large fires but fail to prevent the fires or see the cause."

* "Today's reality is that NPS managers at all levels are forced to concentrate all their energies on 'putting out fires' all day, every day. 'Doing more with less' is no longer an option. If preservation and protection of park lands is still important to the American people, then the case must be made to increase budgets and to hire and retain quality personnel."

* "We need to show pride and recognition to those who do a good job. This motivation goes a long way. We need to build pride again in our mission and our agency. People will see the difference and want to be a part of it. We have to build it from within, person to person, not with a national campaign and button."

* "Quit pulling out leaders and filling with cronies. Hire good people and believe in them. Let them do their work without the fear that they could be removed if a stakeholder isn't happy."

* "I have a short time left before I am eligible for retirement, and cannot wait. I believe in the mission of the National Park Service and it is extremely difficult to watch how that mission has been purposely and effectively corrupted and derogated over the past six years. Ideologues have hired ideologies."

How might the Park Service improve its overall ranking? According to the Best Places to Work survey, effective leadership at the top of the agency is the ticket:

For the fourth time in a row, the primary driver of job satisfaction in the federal space is effective leadership. While this finding is no surprise, the reasons behind it are. In a first, the 2009 Best Places rankings break down which factors shape employees’ views of their leadership. Conventional wisdom holds that the greatest influence on an employee’s satisfaction is his or her immediate supervisor. However, the 2009 Best Places rankings reveal that it is actually the quality of an agency’s senior leadership that has the greatest bearing on employee views.


I'm sure the survey is correct but on a recent trip to Grand Canyon North Rim and Cedar Breaks parks I talked to two NPS employees who said this was their 'dream job'. And they were both working the fee stations at the time. One had been laid off in Ga. and the other had been a nurse. Both thought they now had the best job in the world.

My son and I were at Yellowstone and Grand Teton two weeks ago and every ranger and NPS employee we had contact with had wonderful attitudes and were extremely friendly and sure seemed as though they loved their jobs. Our first night at Yellowstone we went to the campfire program at Bridge Bay Campground. It was presented by a male and female ranger who were husband and wife. They explained that they had both quit their jobs at the same time to accept ranger positions at Yellowstone. They made a point of explaining how happy they were to have made that choice.

Maybe there are areas within the NPS that are more unpleasant to work at than others, but we sure did not get that impression from what we saw at Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Like my son said when I asked him if he noticed how friendly the employees were..."You would be friendly too if you got to live and work around here".

Stephen Hicks

I am noticing frequent problems accessing NPT in recent days, sometimes briefly, some lasting. As I submitted a commented a few minutes ago, I got the dreaded "Server Not Available" error, and my post was null-filed. After several more failures, the site came up again.

Haven't seen this before on NPT, and all other web-activities continue normally.

Terry, those kids were high on gas fumes. I don't know one out of hundreds of fee rangers I've ever worked with during my ten seasons who said working the fee booth is a "dream job". And if they weren't high on diesel fumes, then it must have been their first week on the job. Or they were just lying to the public, which is pretty much required of them on a daily basis.

Anyway, Kurt, isn't this story a re-run?

The NPS sucks and it's a horrible agency to work for...yada, yada, yada....nepotism...yada, yada, yada...cronyism...yada, yada, yada... seasonals are treated...yada, yada, yada...

We rangers love our jobs - the actual job part and we won't tell a visitor we hate it (even if we did). The hard part is that mgmt doesn't care about seasonals, treats us like we are worthless and half the time won't bother to learn our names. Most of us aren't valued from within. As this story suggests, if my supervisor actually showed interest in me and my duties that would help a ton. Living conditions are poor at best and there is no training, incentives, or even opportunities to move up and stay with the agency. It's practically impossible to have a family and be in the service anymore.

I have been with the NPS for almost 10 years and I have seen many great rangers move on because of these reasons. We are filling positions with retired folks and vets - people that have had horrible jobs in the private sector - of course they love the NPS. They see it as a vacation, not a career. They don't have families and bills to worry about. I believe deeply in the mission and have struggled with all my heart and passion over the years to see it through. I have tried endlessly to get a perm job only to have nepotism, vet status and the glorious SKEP program move people ahead of me. You wonder why morale is low amonst the core career people....

The NPS has been in serious decline, some of it almost a free-fall, since its reorganization in 1995. That means almost fourteen years of erosion that will take some years to stop followed by several years of recovery. The good news is that I think the recovery may be underway, but I'm not sure how long it can be sustained. The economy, already large and increasing entitlements in the federal budget, and the potential for another reorganization or consolidation all threaten the Service. That doesn't mean we can't find bright spots. If there is much satisfaction out there, I would expect to find it in the parks where the idea of being "paid in sunsets," especially in the crown jewel parks and the West, is still very much alive. The reality is that the NPS is now much more than the lean, male ranger riding off into the Sierra alpenglow. Fewer and fewer employees get to work the so-called "dream" jobs. That "old" NPS eroded with the increasing crush of specialization, regulation and compliance that affected the organization dating from the late '60s, and with the Yosemite riot in 1970 that forced the Service to reexamine the park ranger concept.

Also, we should remember that all of what I mentioned above occurred at a time when the Service was marginally funded at the field level and undergoing rapid national expansion, both physical and ideological. It wasn't until the mid-'90s that we got several park rangers off food stamps by paying them a living wage. Then the Service proceeded to repair itself even though it wasn't broken. Several regional offices and centers paid dearly and several folks have the scars - and settlements - to prove it.

Today, the NPS has to own up to the fact, then convince Congress, that it is grossly overextended in terms of mission and facilities. Its central office experts often work at least one or two pay grades below their counterparts in other federal agencies. That needs to change in order to compete for expert employees. Its interpretive mission is now viewed through a politically correct, multicultural lens where moral equivalency sets a stage for visitors to reach their own conclusions. And, hopefully, narcissism and a host of non-merit factors no longer determine selections as they once did until recently in at least one regional office.

Indeed, repairing and restoring the NPS into even a mediocre place to work will be a serious challenge. I, for one, am glad that I'm out of it. I really love the park idea and am proud of my contributions to the mission over a long career. The NPS was a calling to me; however, it is no longer the noble organization I knew and loved and I have directed my children to avoid it as a career. Instead, I have encouraged them to follow the money, then volunteer because those folks really are the ones with the "dream" jobs.

I have only come across 1 individual who had a problem with her job, and she was in fact a fee booth employee at Cape Hatteras Light house. But as far as the 2 Grand Canyon fee booth employees, they may just have been referring to working in the Grand Canyon in any capacity as their dream job. I have visited many NP sites over the past 20 years and I have always found the rangers in all areas to appear to love what they are doing, but I am sure this survey is not wrong either. I just hope that things improve for everyone.

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