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.

“How Do You Get A Permanent Job With The NPS?”

This is a frequently asked question, neighbors! If the National Parks are “America’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 “Junior 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.“Vignettes 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) “What 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.

“Do you want your child to be happy?” you might solemnly inquire.

The answer will, of course, be “Yes! Yes!” (America being the first country to be founded on the “Pursuit of Happiness" as a goal.)

“Then,” you reply, “Your 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 “The 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 “The 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 “towering 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, “What 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.

“Yes, I know that!” our acolyte exclaims irritably. “I 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 “One must know someone” before the Holy Grail of a permanent position can be grasped, or that certain jobs are “wired” for certain individuals or certain minority groups.

“Outsiders,” those brave, noble souls who are not part of the “Conspiracy,” 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?

“If 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:

“…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, “Living 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 “The 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:

“Jobs with the federal government, both permanent and temporary, as well as paid internships, are advertised on www.usajobs.gov).">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 “Diversity” problem. That is, the Department of Interior is the “Whitest” 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: “Upon 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, “Rather 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!

Comments

Lee-

I think the culture problem is internal to the NPS. Not saying it isn't replicated elsewhere, but it is within the NPS's power to fix it within the agency. The policies with unintended concequences probably have a mix of internal and external sources. The issue of lack of status for seasonals is absolutely an external problem, imposed (unintentionally, I believe) by Congress. That is why I wish the CNPSR and ANPR, among others, would step up and lobby to get the law fixed.

These problems are due in large extent to internal decisions in the NPS and in the administration at large not as much with congress. There are already laws in place that would help a great deal with these problems if followed. But the NPS has approached the personnel laws as a tax attorney might look at the tax code to figure out how to creatively exploit each and every loophole they can. And where no loophole exists they just ignore the law. Director Jarvis has named his program "A Call to Action." Google it and you will see where he states that his intention is to use whatever discretion he has and to interpret regulations creatively in order to implement the agenda. So while they can't explicitly give extra points to a job applicant because of their race they can, as they have with pro ranger, construct an entire regime using layer upon layer of requirements that narrows the applicant pool to guarantee the result they want.

It would take congress to do things such as making seasonals eligible for non-competitive appointments but the agency and the administration could do much more to help with the situation by reinstituting an evaluation criteria for applicants which would appropriately credit that prior service. This would at least give long serving seasonals a fighting chance. The problem with that is the NPS leadership fears it would result in too many appointees from the wrong demographic background so they finagle the system to the disadvantage of the most highly qualified candidates to get the result they want. Also bringing back a system that credits merit would require a lot of resources to properly evaluate applicants and the NPS has slashed, and consolidated, HR staffs in the last six years.

Another way congress is contributing to the problem is the need for greater funding. Surely this is a major reason that NPS supervisors routinely stretch the use of temporary employees past the legal limits --because they are cheaper. But as much as I know funding is a problem I would be afraid to see what the NPS might do with it --more trainless train stations at the Grand Canyon more million dollar outhouses?

But regardless of what and who exactly got us where we are it is time to pick a target and go after it. Start applying enough heat and the recipient of the heat will intern begin applying the pressure where needed to make the needed reforms. Stop dithering and do something.

And as I said, President have been doing this since the beginning.

Witness: "The people who got those positions got them because of their credentials," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "They also happen to be donors in some cases. … Being a supporter does not qualify you for a job or guarantee you a job, but it does not disqualify you."

It's essentially the same explanation the Bush administration gave.

As I said, What's new? It's not right with any administration. But it all has to do with those dollars again. If we could just find a way to get money out of politics we'd have much better governance.

Now let's get back to the discussion at hand. While it may be true that the NPS can do better in trying to deal with the hodgepodge of laws, why are they there in the first place?

So funny Lee. You rail against "special interest" but its OK for Obama because Jay says it happens all the time. LOL


why are they there in the first place?


I would suggest because the NPS brass wants them there. Do you have any indication that anyone from the NPS has requested the law to be changed. I can't imagine why anyone in Congress would oppose giving a seasonal employee with experience an opportunity to compete for a full time job. Do you have any evidence that a Congressman has taken money and therefore opposes such a plan? Or is this one of your typical empty accusations?

Look, the law as written was not put in place to deny long term seasonals the ability to advance. It was written for the entire federal government, without any thought for seasonal work. Outside of the land management agencies and maybe the IRS, temporary employees are just that: people picked up for short term one off jobs. The land management agencies are using temporaries as seasonals: people who work every year, but not all year. That is very different from true temporary work, but the law doesn't recognize that.

The related issue is the one PS is talking about, where they are using seasonal employees to do work that by law should be done by permanents. Most attempts to fix the problem have combined the two issues, which I think ruins any chance of success. Management, and much of Congress, will always be dead set against forcing the agencies to fully comply with the law on what work should be done by permanents. It would create a lot of new permanent jobs and would be very expensive. I don't think I could support that without some reservations. You can argue priorities all day long, but cost pressures are real.

If you separate the two, and just concentrate on the eligibility to apply to existing vacancies, you remove the cost factor, and then I don't know what anyone's objection would be. It is absurd to have a system where people can't even compete for their own job if it is made into a permanent one. I've been asking Rick Smith for days why, from management's perspective, he doesn't think fixing this is a great idea, and he won't say. The chief of the Forest Service supports it, and they have many more temporary seasonal employees than the NPS:

http://www.nffe-fsc.org/committees/legislative/FS_110517_Chief_TempLtr.pdf:

Second, in the spirit of collaboration, Forest Service leadership is committed to work with NFFE toward establishment of a “path to permanence” for long-term temporary seasonal employees. A path to permanence” will require legislation to implement. The specific goals are to:

Grant competitive standing to long-term temporary seasonal employees so they can
compete for career jobs like any other federal employee.

Provide for conversion to career status of long-term temporary seasonal employees if
their job is converted to a career-status position.

Provide long-term seasonal firefighters with credit for their temporary service time for
the purpose of meeting the maximum entry age requirement for career firefighter
positions.

The problem is an unintended result of a law that was written with regular, year round work in mind. Congress hasn't fixed it because there isn't anybody with any weight pushing them to do it. Most of them probably have no idea the problem exists, and might have a hard time understanding it if you tried to explain it to them. They say only 5% of bills in a given session actually becom law. There are a lot of bigger issues out there.

Very informative post willj. Tried to open the link but my computer could not do it. USFS seems to have the right idea here.

Sorry about the link. You can get to that letter, as well as more information on the bill here:

http://www.nffe-fsc.org/committees/legislative/temp-hire.php

willj, this is excellent, I have it book marked. I will forward to the coalition listserve, you should forward to FOP and ANPR. Willj, you should share this with other NPS personnel, that is if you have the time, there are many very good people in the NPS at all levels. Perhaps a very constructive letter to DOI Secretary Sally Jewel and NPS Director John Jarvis with the USFS attachments would be a good idea. The list of co-sponsors is impressive, and quite non-partisan. Even if you, PS, others start with fire personnel, it would get the ball rolling. This is a good time to do it, especially with fire, as we are experiencing climatic changes and fire is a very big issue, both in its containment/suppression aspects and for ecological reasons. Needless to say the Yarnell fire is on everyones list involved in public land management. DOI Secretary Jewel is a very experienced and motivated person, great shape physically, a real mountaineer, has a broad background including the private sector, she is truly exceptional. I have met NPS Director John Jarvis once, at a very contentious public hearing, he impressed me in that he stayed the whole time, listened to some heated comments and then stayed afterward to meet the citizens. I was representing one citizen activist group which was involved in litigation with some park planning efforts, many of which were the purpose of the meeting. Mr. Jarvis remained very cordial and accessible to all in attendance. The meeting was chaired by a congressional sub-committee.

Look, I am not acquainted with any of the above, but have interacted with some of them, on one side of the table or the other. Changes can happen, but it takes grass roots efforts, as EC pointed out, you have to dig into the process. From looking at the co-sponsers list, you people, at least the USFS, have made a pretty good start. You may want to partner with them if that is possible. It does work sometimes. Forgive the length of this, but I must tell you that Mr. Rick Smith, along with a group of then young rangers in Yosemite National, were extremely instrumental in changing how the NPS approached its law enforcement responsibilities.

http://www.anpr.org/book.htm

Here's advice from the Association of National Park Rangers on how to appy for work in the NPS.

Also, while browzing ANPR's web site, www.anpr.org, under "What's New?" I found an announcement that urges readers to contact their legislators to support passage of the Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act H. R. 533.

"This is an extremely positive development for the National Park Service and all federal agencies that annually hire and employ seasonal employees. It provides a logical hiring authority to officially select employees who through their training, irreplacable work experience, and demonstraed job performance have established their value to the agency...."

Owen, that is great to hear they support the bill, I hadn't seen it. Guess I don't spend enough time on that site.

Owen thank you for the post, that is very good news. Willj, you might also be interested in knowing that the NPS Directors Office has announced some new top tier management positions. One, Mr. Mike Reynolds has been selected as associate Director for Workforce Relevancy and Inclusion, interesting title, but I can tell you he is a first class individual, born and raised in Yosemite by a single Mom (outstanding women), who worked for the concessionaire. With the ANPR effort here and the person selected by NPS Director John Jarvis, Mr. Reynolds, you seasonal personnel may have a real opportunity. You might want to get in touch with ANPR and volunteer some service to this issue.

rmackie, thanks for the info --very interesting indeed. I see that the prior holder of that position, David Vela, is being sent to Grand Tetons as superintendent. Could it be Vela went too far and is being moved out? He started his NPS career in San Antonio and spend a good deal of his career in that part of Texas and in Philadelphia which no doubt accounts for the location of the two proranger schools.

The job title I believe is new to the Jarvis era and is indicative of their focus.

http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/grand-teton-gets-new-superintendent

http://home.nps.gov/news/release.htm?id=1383

Best wishes to you people PS, look give it a try, you have a chance to participate with a good organization, ANPR, which is interested in the issue. You have a very, very good person sitting in the position in the Directors Office. I have probably said all I can say on the issue, with my own limited expertise, but I do believe the system can work if you stay on issue and work with the many good people both in the NPS and organizations like ANPR, FOP, etc.

The Land Management Workforce Flexibility Act, HR533/S1120, is currently in the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee. Committee chairmen will decide if it gets out to the full chamber. If it is not passed by the end of the 113th Congress, in early 2015, it will die and the process starts over.

This is the membership of the house committee:

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/committees/HSGO

And the senate committee:

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/committees/SSGA

Here is the NFFE page with information and talking points.

http://www.nffe-fsc.org/committees/legislative/temp-hire.php

Since there is no straightforward way that I know of to contact a congressman other than your own, it seems like the thing to do is go through the list of committee members and ask anyone you may know in their district to write them. It can't hurt.