Park jobs change lives but may be tough to get

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Joyce Rhodes, the supervisor at Holland State Park, began working for what is now the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE) as a part-time summer worker when she was in college.
It was a life-changing experience.
For this summer, the department is hiring 1,200 part- and full-timers to fill similar positions in Michigan’s 98 state parks and recreation areas. Every year the DNRE hires summer workers to help meet the demands of Michigan’s tourism season but competition for the jobs will be tougher this year because of the economy.
New hires, who are usually students and retirees, make $7.65 an hour their first year, without benefits. That increases to $8.20 the next year and $8.74 for a third year.
They do a variety of jobs, from janitorial and maintenance work to designing programs that inform visitors about park facilities.
Rhodes joined the department as a Western Michigan University (WMU) student because she wanted a summer job outdoors.
“I was going to WMU to become a teacher,” Rhodes said. “I got a job at Warren Dunes State Park and loved it so much that when I went back in the middle of my junior year I changed my major to parks and recreation.”
Rhodes said at least one summer worker each year usually switches majors after a similar experience.
Karen Gourlay, the head of the DNRE’s explorer program, said she hears similar stories.
“Just the fact that you’re outdoors working in an environment where most people are out for recreation or vacation is nice,” Gourlay said. “A lot of people who start out that way find that they want a career with the DNRE – a lot of us full-timers started out as summer workers in a park somewhere.”
Gourlay’s explorer program hires staff to design programs in 40 state parks.
“They might do nature hikes, they might talk about sand dunes or wetlands or whatever other park resources are present,” Gourlay said. “They design the programs to be educational but also really engaging and fun.”
Holland State Park will have 22 summer jobs, with nine or 10 of them filled by new employees.
Dan Flaherty, the park manager at Ludington State Park, said that because of returning workers, his park doesn’t expect to hire anyone new.
“Every year around this time we send out letters to satisfactory employees from the previous year, seeing if they’re interested in coming back,” Flaherty said. “Fortunately for us, just about everybody has responded that they are coming back.”
Ludington will fill its 20 to 25 summer jobs with returning staff. Flaherty said that although the group he hires is diverse, they usually fit into two age brackets – students and people at or near retirement.
Rhodes of Holland State Park said the recession has changed the summer hiring process.
“We used to hire anybody that would walk through the door because nobody would be applying, but now we’ve got 30 to 40 applicants for every position we have available.”
Michigan League of Human Services communications director Judy Putnam said she isn’t surprised to find more people applying for seasonal work.
“So many people have lost jobs and pay is so far down that people are taking what they can get,” Putnam said. “Michigan has spent 33 of the past 36 months with the worst unemployment in the nation.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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