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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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Lee, it really is a mix of things, some policies with maybe unintended consequences, an odd organizational culture that doesn't seem to value long term employees, and the agency trying to implement laws that don't fit their hiring needs. I don't think there are really special interests involved. Mostly just no interest. My post from 2/6, 9:09am explains it the best I know how.

Come on, Rick, you know better than that.

Yes, there are policy and cultural issues within the NPS that lead to some of the problems we are discussing here. But, as I'm sure you would point out if I were just insisting that the NPS has to change its hiring system, a large part of the problem comes from above, from the OPM, and from laws that only Congress can change.

Exactly how would you suggest a seasonal employee go about working within the system to change federal hiring law? Talk to your supervisor? People who supervise seasonals know the problems, they spend much of their working life trying to deal with the problems. They have zero ability to fix them, the best they can do is try to work around them in an ethical manner. Often they are seasonal themselves. Go farther up the chain? I think you know where that would lead (“...endless hours bitching about their working conditions”).

Being seasonal within the system is not an advantage. We are all in an extremely tenuous situation. The NPS doesn't have to listen to you, but they often do. They don't have to listen to us either, and I can assure you that they don't. Retirees no longer have to worry about their livelihood and can tell it like it is.

The law needs to be changed, to allow seasonals to compete for permanent jobs. In order for the law to be changed, Congress needs to be lobbied to change it. NPS management isn't supposed to lobby Congress, although if called, they can and should testify on the need for the law to be changed. As a group of former managers, CNPSR has credibility on such issues, and this is an instance where that credibility should be used. The coalition has lobbied Congress on many issues it found important. Why not this one? If there is an issue with more of a negative effect on employee morale, I don't know what it is.

You still haven't answered my questions from yesterday at 8:22 and earlier.

I wonder if a well-worded petition to Obama might generate the hundred-thousand signature threshold on the federal seasonal employment issue?

Rick and others, I am still wondering just how much of all this hiring mess is really a result of NPS policies and how much may result from an organization trying desperately to comply with a hodgepodge of hastily written and very poor laws from a Congress beholden to more special interests than we can count.

Does anyone have an answer to that?

Look, folks, it's not whether ANPR or the Coalition want to do something about recruitment, leadership, succession or the other issues mentiioned in this thread. We do. It's whether the NPS wants to do anything about them. I think you would be much better off trying to work within the system than to expect outside groups to apply pressure to fix problems that mostly exist within the system Remember, those of us in the Coalition have no status with the NPS. Its leaders no longer have to listen to us. That's one huge advantage that many of you have. You are a voice in the organization.


As a member of both ANPR and CNSPR, I have just submitted my written request for these two organizations to become active in addressing the numerous issues raised on this excellent discussion thread. I am especially concerned about the plight of seasonal NPS employees, their lack of benefits, and difficulties encountered in having their employment experience and performance given appropriate consideration when competing for conversion to permanent status.

Regarding Granite Mountain: national standards for hotshot crews require them to have at least 7 permanent employees, due to the negative effects of a transient staff on crew cohesion and productivity. Granite Mountain only had 6. The city of Prescott lied on the crew's annual certification checklist, stating that temporary seasonal firefighter Christopher 
MacKenzie was permanent. Not saying that had anything to do with what happened, but it is shady nonetheless. The constant search for short term savings from cutting benefits is having long term effects on capabilities. If they had told the truth, the crew would have been downgraded to a type 2 crew, potentially losing the lucrative nationwide assignments that helped to fund the city's wildland division.

While i have all sympathies for the Ashcraft family ( and those of the other fifefighters), were they ever told they would get survivors benefits?

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