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A View From the Overlook: “How Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?”

A ranger's job, and how to get one, have both changed quite a bit since these ranger's posed for a photo at Mt. Rainier in the 1930s. NPS photo.

'œHow Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?'

This is a frequently asked question, neighbors! If the National Parks are 'œAmerica'™s Best Idea,' then it logically follows that the agency that services the National Parks, that is, The National Park Service, is the best damn bureaucracy in the world, and (therefore) NPS rangers, including myself, are the best damn bureaucrats in the world. (There is a flaw in logic in there somewhere, but you get the drift.)

Everyone enjoys basking in the reflected glory of an elite organization; this is one of the many reasons for the popularity of both the National Park Service and the U.S. Marine Corps. (Admittedly, the Marine Corps is easier to get into.)

Another reason for NPS employment popularity is Positive Feedback: People actually like you and like what you'™re doing. Many of the federal agencies are regulatory, which means you have an established Enemies List, people that hate you automatically, even before you arrive at work at eight in the morning. Not so in the case of the NPS (except for Tea Party fanatics!)

Consider the Internal Revenue Service. Have you ever wondered why the IRS does not have a 'œJunior IRS Agent' program similar to the Park Service'™s Junior Ranger Program, in which aspiring juvenile IRS agents could conduct mock audits of the neighbors? No? I thought not. The same is true of the CIA.

A third reason for NPS job popularity is the physical setting.'œVignettes of Primeval America, at the point of European contact: Towering trees! Thundering waterfalls! Limitless vistas!"

No doubt about it, friends, the NPS is a feel-good agency that many people would like to join, and they are not easily dissuaded.

Recall the last cocktail party you attended. After the host has introduced you as a retired or active member of the NPS, you will be asked two questions: (A) 'œWhat is your favorite bear story? (Pretty difficult if you were at Statue of Liberty), and (B) "How can my (son, daughter, grandchild) get a job with the NPS?'

Now the answer to question B is complicated, ambiguous and fluid.

You might like to hedge, particularly if you are feeling a tad malicious.

'œDo you want your child to be happy?' you might solemnly inquire.

The answer will, of course, be 'œYes! Yes!' (America being the first country to be founded on the 'œPursuit of Happiness" as a goal.)

'œThen,' you reply, 'œYour child should get a job as a Federal Prison Guard.'

Your questioner will be appalled.

No, you have not taken leave of your senses due to Sequestration Frustration; you are merely alluding to a famous yearly study by The Partnership for Public Service in which they ranked the various federal agencies as 'œThe Best Places to Work.'

Now the NPS has never done particularly well in this survey, landing somewhere in the low middle. One notable year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was found to be a happier place to work than the NPS.Why is this the case?

Actually, it is an unfair comparison. You see, there is a difference in expectations.

A person who applies for a job as a prison guard has rather low expectation of approval by the clientele he serves. Most federal prisons are located in rural, low rent areas with few permanent jobs. Our prison guard candidate will be looking for a favorable retirement and medical package rather than Spiritual Fulfillment. In addition, he/she will be pleasantly surprised that they were not murdered the first day on the job. Every day after that is an improvement.

The NPS seasonal acolyte, on the other hand, has high expectations. If only he/she can enter the Nirvana of permanent employment in 'œThe best job in the world,' our Newbie expects 30 years of blissful contentment. What they fail to realize is that the National Parks are not administered by 'œtowering trees or thundering waterfalls,' or even by a John Muir clone, but by rather fallible and ordinary human beings. There will be difficulties and frustrations.

When approached by young men or women desiring a career in the National Park Service, Roger Siglin, former Chief Ranger of Yellowstone and Superintendent of Gates of Arctic National Park, would ask, 'œWhat is your second choice for a lifetime career?' They rarely had one. One should have a back-up plan, unless one is wearing a suicide vest.

'œYes, I know that!' our acolyte exclaims irritably. 'œI understand that the NPS has some serious personnel management problems, but I am different! Once I become permanent, I will reform the organization from top to bottom (WASO is clearly shaking in its boots!), BUT FIRST I NEED TO GET A PERMANENT JOB WITH THE NPS!'

Thereupon hangs many a frustration, neighbors! There are many rumors abounding that 'œOne must know someone' before the Holy Grail of a permanent position can be grasped, or that certain jobs are 'œwired' for certain individuals or certain minority groups.

'œOutsiders,' those brave, noble souls who are not part of the 'œConspiracy,' are condemned to wander forevermore in the Twilight Zone of seasonal employment or working for free as a volunteer. Since the NPS is one of the more gossipy agencies of the Federal Government, rumors abound. Some of them are true.

It is true there is malfeasance and corruption in the obtaining of government jobs, but less so than in the rip-roaring, wide-open period after the Civil War known as the Gilded Age, when everything seemed for sale, even if seller didn'™t own it. Federal jobs were just some of the merchandise available. People worked for political parties and voted for candidates not because they were interested in Good Government and Progress, but because they wanted the postmaster'™s job in their town or the lighthouse tender'™s job, or wanted to be the lucky chap that handed out land to railroads.

This was called Patronage, and constituted a venality tax on just about everyone as the wheels of government ground slower and slower. The various presidents of the Gilded Age may not have been personally corrupt, but many of their appointees certainly were, and the country was shot through with graft from top to bottom.

How were we to get out of the Civil Service corruption trap that even today bedevils most of the poverty stricken countries of the Third World?

'œIf in doubt, ask a ranger!" So, I asked Ranger Todd Arrington of James Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio to clear things up for us. You see, in addition to being in charge of the tallest tree and tallest mountain in America, the National Park Service is in charge of American history. If you are interested in the history of the light bulb, you contact Thomas Edison National Historic Site; if you are interested in Civil Service corruption, you contact James Garfield National Historic Site. It seems that President Garfield died for our sins.

Here is what Ranger Todd had to say:

'œ'¦Civil Service Reform was something that was awaiting James A. Garfield when he became President in 1881. Garfield was inclined to agree that some reform to the civil service system was necessary to get rid of patronage and replace it with a merit-based system in which only qualified candidates who passed exams could receive appointments to federal positions. However, Garfield became much more adamant about this need after his election to the presidency, when he was almost immediately bombarded by letters and visits from people seeking jobs. Very few of these individuals had any real qualifications for the positions they sought and to which they felt entitled simply because they were Republicans or knew someone who knew a Congressman, etc.

Alternate Text
President James Garfield supported major changes in hiring practices for federal jobs in the 1880s. Library of Congress photo.

This continued after Garfield'™s inauguration when he unhappily spent hours each day receiving job seekers. One of those who tried to convince Garfield to appoint him to a position (American Consul to Paris) was Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced stalwart Republican who had given a meandering, unimportant speech promoting Garfield in New York and wanted to be rewarded for it.

Guiteau didn'™t get the job, and he soon grew concerned about Garfield'™s intention to replace the patronage system with a merit system, as the new president engaged in a very public battle with New York'™s Senator Roscoe Conkling over who would be appointed to the most prestigious and lucrative patronage job in the country: Collector of the Port of New York.

Charles Guiteau eventually decided the best way to handle this was to murder President Garfield so that Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a New Yorker and Conkling acolyte, would be elevated to the presidency.

Guiteau shot Garfield on July 2, 1881; the wounded President lingered until September 19.Vice President Arthur then became the new president and, to his credit, immediately distanced himself from Conkling. It was President Arthur who signed the Pendleton Act on January 16, 1883. That law reformed the Civil Service, as Garfield had desired, by instituting exams and qualification requirements for those seeking federal jobs. This was the beginning of the end for the patronage system.'

Thank you, Dr. Arrington. You will note that Todd said that it was the beginning of the end, not the end of patronage.

Do we still have Patronage? Sure do, neighbors! Even in the National Park Service? Yup! These are called Schedule C jobs and are awarded to deserving, helpful people by the political party that won the last election. This is sort of a sanitized, 'œLiving History' patronage relic of the Gilded Age, as the Schedule C jobs are relatively few in number and mainly deal with policy. (Nothing secret, neighbors! The Schedule C jobs are listed in a handy little book produced by the US Government Printing Office. It is called 'œThe Plum Book' because, among other things, it has a purple plum colored cover. (Who says the Federal government has no sense of humor?)

But what of our original question: lacking patronage, how DO you get a permanent job with the National Park Service?

Again, James Garfield National Historical Site was most helpful. According to Ranger Arrington:

'œJobs with the federal government, both permanent and temporary, as well as paid internships, are advertised on USA JOBS.  You may search by the type of job you are interested in and the agency. National Park Service jobs are found under the Department of Interior. Be sure to read the announcement very carefully to determine what documents you will need to submit. On-line submittal of your application is preferred.'

Now is there any other way? (Aside from that of Charles Guiteau).

Well, yes, neighbors, at least for the protection ranger (law enforcement) there is something known as the Pro Ranger Program.

You see, the NPS, along with the rest of the Department of Interior, has a 'œDiversity' problem. That is, the Department of Interior is the 'œWhitest' of all the Federal Departments. (It is also regarded by some as the most corrupt, but any cause-and-effect correlation could be interpreted as racist.)

Anyway, how to solve the Diversity problem? Rather than trying to recruit graduates, it was decided to seek colleges with large minority populations and set up a program to steer undergraduates to a guaranteed career in NPS law enforcement.

Undoubtedly, there will be (or are) more colleges, but the ones that show up on Google are Temple University in Philadelphia and the very enterprising San Antonio College, a two-year community college in San Antonio, Texas.

According to the Temple blurb: 'œUpon graduation from Temple University and successfully completing the Pro Ranger Philadelphia Program, participants are placed in a permanent career tenured law enforcement park ranger position with the National Park Service.'

San Antonio College says, 'œRather than recruit or find the next generation of NPS law enforcement rangers, the Pro Ranger Program is a proactive approach to creating them.'

So, neighbors, I guess where your child goes depends on whether he likes Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches or Mexican food!

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I am convinced that the way around this issue is to go back to the Federal Service Entrance Exam which many of us had to take to get into Federal Service. It was a glorified iq test. The ones with the highest scores were first referrred to the agency. Lower scores were either not referreed or referred later. Yes, it was discriminatory as it favored those with the most education but I knew many college graduates who could not pass it, And after all, some federal jobs do require some intelligence.


Mr. Smith, I’m glad there is something we can finally agree on. Having clear, objective, benchmarks where everyone can compete is the right way to go. I am sure the fear is though if we did as you recommend your friend Director Jarvis would not be able meet his goal of getting more minorities into an NPS uniform --his "call to action" item #36. I am not so sure that is true. Reducing the role of cronyism in hiring can’t help but bring in more minorities. However I don’t think it would immediately result in as many as the administration wants. And so the agency openly states in internal documents that supervisors are to use heretofore rarely used “special hiring authorities” to get more racial and ethnic minorities jobs in the parks even when there are other more higly qualifed applicants.

The Pro Ranger program has been scrutinized so much by those current NPS LE Rangers that just this week the US Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police (a national organization representing law enforcement officers) began an investigation into the program. Many of the complaints include things like why is the NPS paying students to attend training when there have been literally thousands that did it for free? There are hundreds of current seasonal LE Rangers who want a permanent job and are experienced yet these Pro Rangers are given permanent LE positions after working a 2.5-3 month LE "season." The NPS has seen a huge decline in the budget, why start a new program that costs millions of dollars when there are already hundreds of seasonal LE Rangers working in the parks.

It would be one thing if it was hard to recruit seasonal or permanent LE Rangers, but it isn't. There are more seasonal LE Rangers with active LE commissions then there are seasonal LE Ranger positions.

And you wonder why the NPS continues to see a decline in the view of the workplace?

I'm with Rick. The FSEE was a fair and unbiased way to determining qualifications. I remember the days back when vets were returning from Viet Nam and civil rights were the first reasons given for watering down and finally eliminating FSEE. Things have changed considerably. Perhaps it's time to go back to something similar.

But instead of casting blame entirely upon Jon Jarvis, don't all those programs date to far before his time? Where are the real roots of those programs? Perhaps Dr. Runte could give us some insight. I'm reading his book National Parks: The American Experience right now and just checked the index, but found nothing about such things.

Surely there must be someone out there who could educate all of us.

As long as the "face" of the NPS doesn't look like America's, there will be pressure to bring in those who have, for one reason or another, been excluded from employment with the agency. I think there was in EO offce in every park and region in which I worked. And Lee is correct, these programs started long before Jarvis' time. That's why most seasonal law enforcement programs are located at schools that primarily serve students who have not been attracted to the NPS before. It was the idea from the beginning.

And, oh by the way, I know Director Jarvis but I wouldn't consider us buddies. Perp seasonal, I think your sentence would have read as well without "your friend:"


IQ test are racist.

IQ test are racist.

That argument has been made from time to time, although it would be interesting to see an analysis of that from an unbiased study.

One would also suspect that there are many intelligent individuals from various ethnic groups who would reasonably take offense at the suggestion that they couldn't score just as well on "IQ" type tests as anyone else.

The lack of upward mobility for talented, hardworking staff is one of the biggest causes of the poor morale in the NPS. It isn't that there are no permanent jobs, it is that they tend to be reserved for special groups, like the students discussed here, or for people with political connections somewhere. It isn't all the time, it might not even be most of the time, but far too often good employees are passed over for much lower quality people. It seems to be done in the service of some goal like returning a favor, punishing honesty or percieved disloyalty, or promoting diversity, that doesn't relate in any way to the job in question being performed well. Because of veteran's preference, a temporary "seasonal" employee has almost no chance of getting a permanent job unless a hiring official goes to bat for them in some way. Unfortunately the only legitimate reason to do that, proven performance in the same or a very similar job, is not very important to a lot of managers. The best proposal to fix this that I know of is the attempt by the NFFE Forest Service Council to get a bill through Congress which would give competetive status to temporary employees after a few seasons, and in situations where a job that a temporary employee has been doing well for years is converted to a permanent job, agencies would be directed to fill it with that temporary employee. There is more information here:

That bill would solve a lot of the problems. Just not the cronyism and ladder climbing. One of these days it will all get straightened out I hope. It really takes a toll.

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