I am an employee of the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. I am a permanent employee with “status” (more on this later). My official job title is GS-4 Park Guide. I spend my days as a front line interpreter at the visitor center desk, giving tours of the historic home, selling merchandise in the gift shop, and all that goes into dealing with the public face to face. I am often asked by visitors (as I’m sure most Park Guides and Rangers are), “How does a person get a National Park Service job?” In relation to this question, Mannie at My Year of Living Rangerously, and Kevin at Civil War Memoryhave invited discussion regarding the preference given to veterans in the federal government’s hiring process. With some trepidation, I am going to wade into this discussion here, but please understand that I am not in human resources, nor am I in a supervisory position with hiring authority. What follows is simply my personal story and my personal perceptions of the NPS hiring process.
I was raised on the west coast. I have loved history since I can remember. For a number of reasons, my high school grades weren’t that great. A year after graduating, not having the money or the inclination to go to college, I signed up for four years in the Marine Corps. It was August 1974, and my platoon was the last to go through boot camp that received the National Defense ribbon for Viet Nam. If you are not familiar with the ND ribbon, it is awarded during times when there is a war going on and a serviceman or woman might find themselves in a combat situation. By 1974, of course, Viet Nam was winding down and I never went there. In fact, I never left the states. After three months of boot camp at San Diego and Pendleton, I spent nine months at Twenty-Nine Palms and then three years at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington State. While I am proud of having served, I have always said that was the longest four years of my life. I learned, I matured, but I could hardly wait to get out. I began to take college courses offered on the base.
Following my discharge, in the fall of 1978 I started college full time. While attending college I worked 30-40 hours a week at menial jobs and relied on VA benefits. But what to major in? I loved history, but the only thing I knew a history major could do was teach, and teaching jobs were scarce. Public history never occured to me. The NPS has relatively few historic sites in the west. When I thought of the Park Service, I thought of Smokey the Bear in the woods. That’s not what I wanted to do. Instead, I had this crazy idea that I would get into politics; first by majoring in Political Science, then by going to law school. (You’ll think I’m nuts, but at the time Jerry Brown was Governor of my home state of California and his girlfriend was a very hot young Linda Ronstadt. I didn’t think it could get any better than that!) Besides, Poli Sci meant lots of history anyway.
I graduated from University of Washington with my BA in Poli Sci in 1982 and headed for Law School at Gonzaga University in Spokane. By this time I had married and already had a couple kids. After my first year of Law School my VA benefits ran out and I decided continuing in Law School with a family to support wasn’t financially feasible. So much for ever being a politician! I ended up in the truck rental and leasing business working for several different companies and eventually moved back to California. I had only limited success in the truck business and found myself out of work when a recession hit in the mid nineties. Needing any kind of job I could get, I answered an ad in the paper for school bus driver training and eventually got into charter/tour bus driving.
This was my first exposure to Public History. The first few years I had a job picking up passengers at the Amtrak station in San Luis Obispo, taking them on a city tour, and up to Hearst Castle, all the while giving the history of the area and the Hearst story. Eventually, I drove busses all over the west, including through several National Parks. By 2003, I was tired of being on the road all the time, and for other reasons also, I moved to Branson, Missouri. In late 2004 I decided to enroll at Missouri State to pursue an MA in history. I still didn’t know exactly what I would do with it, but I loved history and by now I was at least aware that there were public history jobs (although I didn’t realize there are graduate programs specifically for public history). After completing three courses, including one in 19th Century American history (my favorite period), I stumbled into USAJobs online for the first time and discovered a seasonal job opening at Lincoln Home National Historic Site. I applied and was one of ten seasonals hired in the spring of 2006.
In 2006 Lincoln Home was using KSA (Knowledge Skills and Abilities) statements. An applicant had to actually write out answers to qualifying questions. I’m sure my veteran’s preference points helped, but there were only a couple of us out of ten that had been veterans. My college courses and my job experience, I’m pretty sure, got me the job. I was much older than everyone else. Eight of the ten were young college students or just out of college. A couple of them had already worked a season at another NPS site. I have been told that there are certain parks that are considered “gateway” parks for employment because they hire a lot of seasonals every year; The Mall in D.C., Independence in Philly, Lincoln Home…
Springfield, Illinois is about a 5 1/2 hour drive from Branson. I had a small fifth-wheel trailer that I hauled over there and found a campground not too far from Lincoln Home to set up in. My wife stayed in our home in Branson and I would drive back and forth on weekends. The cost of this situation was such that I really didn’t make much money, but I was gaining the experience and deciding I really wanted an NPS job. This was a seasonal position; a 1039 position, which means you can only work 1,039 hours in a given year. If you work 40 hours a week, as I did, that is six months. Some seasonals spread those hours out by working part time. I believe you have to be placed on “intermittent status” to do that. Also, if you are on intermittent status, the park can bring you back each year for a new season, another 1039 hours, without going through the competitive process all over. I was asked at Lincoln Home if I wanted to come back in 2007. I initially said yes, but I returned to classes at MSU, and I later decided to not work at all for a while and get my MA quicker by attending classes full time. I also applied for a couple of positions at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield which is near Missouri State. I didn’t get them, but I learned more about the NPS hiring process and I made contacts at the park. (IIRC, at least one of those positions went to a disabled vet.)
After seven months of not working while attending classes, I desperately needed to get back to work. I got a job at the Titanic Museum in Branson. More public history. I enjoyed it, but I still wanted to work for the Park Service (better pay and benefits and 1912 is not quite the 19th century). Fortunately for me, my contacts at Wilson’s Creek and my experience at Lincoln Home paid off. The Chief of Interp at WICR called to say he was looking to fill a GS-4 STEP position and would I be interested? STEP, Student Temporary Employment Program. The park could hire anyone who was at least a half-time student without going through the competitive process. I worked full time at Wilson’s Creek for almost a year while I finished my graduate program. The problem with a STEP position is that you can only work while you are a student. Once you stop being a student you are out. Of course, I was paid while gaining more experience. The SCEP program (Student Career Employment Program) allowed a park to hire a student non-competitively and upon graduation convert the student to permanent status. I once thought the park had to guarantee a position to the student upon graduation, but apparently that wasn’t the case. In fact, the park could ‘shop’ the student around to other parks. I know a few lucky people who got permanent positions through the SCEP. Not me. I know a couple of them who got 5/7/9 positions (more on this later). I’m really envious of them, but I will say they are wonderful, bright, hard-working people and the NPS is lucky to have them. The STEP and SCEP programs have come to an end, but more on that later also.
One thing I learned very quickly was that competition for NPS jobs, especially interpretation jobs, is extremely fierce. The NPS gets hundreds of applications for every opening. Therefore, very few people get permanent positions without having worked seasonally first. You have to be willing to go where the opportunities are. If you have your heart set on a particular park, you may never be hired. With this in mind, my wife and I sold our house, put all our belongings in storage, and bought a larger fifth-wheel trailer. (By this time the kids were grown and on their own.) I was willing to go where I had to go. But where would that be?
Are you beginning to see what I went through to get my job?
During my graduate program at MSU I tried to take as many 19th Century History courses as possible. In addition, I was particularly interested in Ulysses S. Grant, so when I could I did book reviews on Grant books and wrote term papers on Grant topics. For instance, for my American West class I wrote a paper on Grant’s Peace Policy, and for my Civil War and Reconstruction class I wrote about Grant’s relationship with Charles Sumner, Santo Domingo, and the election of 1872. I opted not to write a thesis, although my seminar paper on Wilson’s Creek in History and Memory ended up being thesis length anyway. I maintained a 4.0 G.P.A while working fulltime at the battlefield. I knew though, that my employment would end upon graduation, so I kept a close eye on USA Jobs for possibilities.
I applied for a temporary one year GS-4 Park Guide position at Arlington House. I thought I was applying for a term position. Term positions include health benefits which I had not had for years. I didn’t realize that there is even such an animal as a temporary one year position. I thought the jobs were either 1039 seasonal, term (1-4 years), or permanent. I was wrong. Parks can hire on a temporary basis, keep you as long as they want or let you go when they want, and not provide benefits. Ever since, I’ve wondered why a park would ever advertise a 1039 or a term position, but I’ve actually seen very few temporary positions announced. At any rate, I was offered the job at Arlington House.
I was to report a few months later, after I had completed my graduate program. In the meantime I continued to look for better opportunities. I applied for and was offered a GS-5 seasonal position at Appomattox. I wanted to go there, but it turned out the job was only going to last a couple of months. I just couldn’t afford to risk being out of work that soon. I then applied for and was offered a GS-5 seasonal position at Ft. Vancouver. For personal family reasons, because it was a GS-5, and because Grant had been stationed there, I really wanted to accept, but this one was only going to last through the summer; about four months. So I called the Site Manager at Arlington House to talk about my dilemma. Miraculously, he told me to go to Ft. Vancouver for the summer and he would still bring me on afterwards. He said the experience I would gain at Ft. Vancouver would benefit Arlington House when I got there.
I have no doubt that my 5 points veterans preference helped me get these offers, but I also believe I was well qualified. In fact, I have applied for several positions that I did not get. A couple of them still puzzle me. For example, at this same time two term GS-5 positions were announced at Lincoln Home. I applied thinking I should have a great chance at getting one. I didn’t. I know one of the guys who did. He was a young college grad who had been a seasonal with me in 2006 and had returned for the 2007 season. I was now close to getting my MA, had worked at Wilson’s Creek for almost a year, and I was a preference eligible veteran, which he was not. But he got one of those positions. He is a great guy, very capable, and again, the NPS was lucky to have him. I count him as a good friend. He worked two years on that term appointment, applied for a permanent position that he was well qualified for and didn’t get it. He’s now out of the Park Service, and it’s the NPS’s loss.
If you are reading this and you don’t know about or understand veteran’s preference points in federal hiring, let me say this: when you submit an application you earn a score of up to 100 points depending on your qualifications and experience. Veterans who have served during specific time periods when the country was engaged in a conflict get an additional 5 points and handicapped veterans get ten. So a preference eligible veteran can get 105 or 110 points but the most a non-veteran, no matter how qualified, can get is 100. See here:
Theoretically, a well qualified and experienced non-veteran could get a job over a minimally qualified veteran. I say “theoretically” because that doesn’t seem to be what is happening and I will try to explain why I believe that is the case later. While I’m on the subject, there is also a program called VRA, Veteran’s Recruitment Act, through which certain veterans, basically those who have actually been in war zones, can be hired without going through the competitive process. See here:
I got my M.A. in history in May of 2008, and my wife and I hit the road to Ft. Vancouver, pulling our fifth-wheel trailer behind us. Just our luck, fuel prices skyrocketed that year. In Vancouver we found a decent RV Park not far from the park. I thoroughly enjoyed my summer working at Ft. Vancouver; in fact, I would love to go back there. The park does a number of special events each year, there is lots of living history, and it is a beautiful area. I definitely benefitted from my experience there. Unfortunately, my wife was never able to find a temporary job while we were out there, so our finances continued to suffer.
While at Ft. Vancouver, I continued to watch USA Jobs. Lo and behold, a term GS-4 Park Guide position opened at U.S. Grant NHS in St. Louis. I applied. I still had the job at Arlington House, but the Grant job was an actual term position with health benefits and in a much lower cost of living area. Besides, truth be told, I was much more comfortable with the idea of interpreting Grant than Lee. I got the job. I had to call ArIington House to tell them I wasn’t coming after all that time. I felt rather bad about it, but… In mid September 2008 we headed back to Missouri. I honestly believe that I was overqualified for the job. I was going from a GS-5 back to a GS-4, but it was term so that was a step in the right direction. Not long after I started there the Chief of Interp told me he had several equally qualified applicants and that the deciding factor was the last digit of my Social Security number. Somehow, I had the lucky number. Wow.
So I had a term GS-4 position at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. A term position is one year of employment, although the park has the option of extending the term up to four years. The benefits are essentially the same as a permanent position with one big exception – you don’t get “status.” Status is what allows you to apply for positions that are not open to the general public. Of course, you don’t know if you’ll be employed beyond a year either, so you can’t really “settle in.” We found a Mobile Home/RV park to park our trailer in. My wife managed to find a part-time job, and I continued to look at USA Jobs daily.
I applied for permanent positions that were open to the public. Usually I would “make the cert.” Here’s what that means as I understand it: When you submit your application it usually goes to the Office of Personnel Management first – OPM. OPM looks at your application, assigns you a score, then sends a certain number of the top applications to the park. If you do not meet the minimum qualifications you get an email saying you don’t qualify. If you do meet the minimum qualifications but there are other applicants with scores higher than yours, your application doesn’t get certified and doesn’t get sent to the park for consideration. I’ve already explained that the scores range up to 100 unless you are a preference eligible veteran.
This is where I believe the real problem lies.
Very few parks are using KSAs anymore like I had to fill out for Lincoln Home. Instead they are using a questionaire which allows the applicant to self evaluate. You answer a series of questions and fill in bubbles from “I’ve never done this and don’t know anything about it” to “I’m an expert and know everything about this.” (I’m paraphasing, but that is essentially correct.) Self-evaluation can be very tricky for many reasons and the questions often seem to have little bearing on the job duties. One questionaire that is frequently used asks, “How many times did you make the honor roll in high school?” Really?? High school, for me, was almost forty years ago. Some of the questions ask if you have experience or expertise in simple tasks like stocking brochures. Even if you haven’t actually stocked brochures it seems silly to say so. Who wouldn’t be able to stock brochures? Anyone who has filled out these questionaires knows what I’m talking about. This leads to the honesty part of the equation.
Most of us want to be honest. But it is clear that if you don’t mark yourself “Expert” on nearly every question, you won’t make the cert. You may as well not even apply. Even with my veterans’ points I was scoring in the 90s and not making the cert (or making it but not very high on the list). At one point I called OPM about an application and the person I talked to there basically told me I needed to be sure I wasn’t selling myself short. In so many words she was saying I had to mark myself higher even if I wasn’t sure I was an expert and let the hiring official decide if I really was or not. Your application, your resume and supporting documents, are supposed to verify the answers you give to the questionaire. However, I don’t believe OPM even looks at the supporting documents. (If someone reading this can tell me different, please do so.) Instead, OPM totals up the points based on the questionaire, and sends the top applications to the park. The park then has to look at the top candidates’ supporting documents, call the references, and decide if the candidate is as much of an “expert” at everything as he or she has claimed.
You can see the problems here. If veterans mark themselves as experts on all the questions and then get preference points also, they go straight to the top of the list. I’m not necessarily saying the vets are being dishonest. As I said, self-evaluation can be very tricky. We all want to at least get an interview. I applied for a position at a major Civil War battlefield. I made the cert, but didn’t get called. I called the park. The Chief of Interp said I was the type of candidate they were looking for, but there were several vets ahead of me on the cert list. Their supporting resume and documents didn’t support their score. The problem for the park was/is that the top candidates must be sent a letter detailing why the park feels they are not qualified. The candidate then has (iirc) 30 days to appeal the park’s decision. It can therefore take months for the park to get down the list to a candidate they actually want. In this case (I was told), the park threw out the entire cert (didn’t hire anyone from the list), and instead hired a student under the SCEP program; a guy who was working on his Phd. I was told that I might never get a permanent position through the competitive process; that I should go back to school somewhere and try to get into the SCEP program. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. I’d already spent a small fortune in time and money chasing this rather late-life career.
As I said, STEP and SCEP have gone away. Some people think it’s because the parks were using those programs to specifically avoid hiring unqualified veterans. But, in all honesty, giving a student a permanent position without having to go through the competitive process didn’t seem quite fair to me either. Of course, if I had been offered a SCEP position I certainly would have taken it! There is a new program for students called “Pathways.” I don’t know the details, but apparently it has a veterans’ preference component. One thing should be noted. The National Park Service is regulated by the President and by Congress. It is they who enact these types of programs and they do not want to be accused of sending young men and women off to war and then abandoning them when they come home.
I also applied for a 5/7/9 position on the Mall in D.C.
I am often asked by park visitors, “Does the NPS move you around from park to park?” or “Does the NPS assign you to a particular park?” The answer to these questions is, as a general rule, no. (There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.) However (I’ve already said this but it bears repeating!), the Park Service gets hundreds of applications for every opening, even the seasonal positions. Keep in mind that I am mainly talking about interpretive positions, which is what I am familiar with. The NPS employs people in lots of other capacities and some jobs are easier to get than others. For example, there always seems to be Law Enforcement positions open. The minimum qualifications for interpretive jobs are indeed minimal and everyone thinks they could do such an easy job as interpretive jobs appear to be. The practical effect is that limiting yourself to applying at only one park so severely limits your chances that you may never get hired. So as I’ve already said, you have to be willing to go where the opportunities are and hope that some day you land a permanent position wherever that might be. Once you have that permanent job, if you like the park and the job you can stay there forever. However, if you want to advance in the NPS, you usually will have to move to another park.
How to get a job at the National Park Service
Employment: Job openings listings, find and apply:
— police, lifeguard, park ranger jobs
— architecture, landscape architect
— historian, archivist, librarian and museum jobs
— biology, forest jobs
— aviation and helicopter pilot jobs
— graphic design, photography and engineering jobs
— nursing jobs, guide jobs, food service jobs
— archaeology, geology, anthropology and geography jobs
— marketing, administrative, communications jobs
— education, concessions jobs
— emt, ems, gis, fire jobs
— law enforcement jobs
— public health jobs: maintenance, paramedic, physician, medical
— trail crew, search and rescue jobs
Regional Offices Map - National Park Service Careers
Alabama, Alaska, Anchorage, Arizona, Arkansas, Asheville NC, Atlanta, Australia, Boston, California, Canada, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Denver, Everglades, Florida, Georgia, Gettysburg pa, Glacier, Grand Canyon Grand Teton, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Jacksonville, Kentucky, Los angeles, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Miami, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nashville, Nevada, Hampshire, Jersey, Mexico, New Orleans, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Omaha, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Tucson, Virgin Islands, Virginia, Washington, Washington DC, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Yellowstone, Yosemite
Jobs in the NPS have GS rankings. Generally speaking GS-4 is the lowest for interpretive positions, although I have seen a GS-3 Park Guide position advertised somewhere (can’t remember where.) “Entry level” seasonal or permanent interpretive positions are usually either GS-4 or GS-5. The difference as that 4s are supposed to be provided with prepared programs by higher graded supervisors to present to visitors. They are not supposed to be expected to develop interpretive programs and are only expected to be able to consult secondary source materials. GS-5s, on the other hand, are supposed to be capable of developing interpretive programs based on primary source materials. These distinctions become blurred in practice. I know from experience that GS-4s often do the same job that GS-5s do.
In order to advance, to move up the GS scale, one must apply for advertised positions just as if one is applying for a new job. A park can rarely promote a current employee without advertising the higher graded position; opening the job to competition. This is why many NPS employees have worked at several parks during their career. The one big exception to this rule is the 5/7/9. If you land a 5/7/9 position, if you perform your duties satisfactorily, the park must promote you from GS-5 to 7 to 9 within a couple of years. See why I said I am envious of those friends of mine who got 5/7/9 positions through the SCEP? They got a permanent job without going through the competitive process and will be promoted to GS-9 without going through the competitive process.
I’ve applied for 5/7/9 positions, including positions on the Mall in D.C. Once, I was called for a phone interview, then never heard from them again. Interestingly, however, the announcement was open to “all sources,” meaning the public could apply. Applicants can be restricted several ways; mainly by restricting the applicants to “merit promotion” only. This is where “status” comes into play. You only get status by landing a permanent position. In a public announcement you can meet minimum qualification requirements either through experience or education. Because of my graduate degree, I automatically qualified for the GS-7 position. In other words, if I got a 5/7/9 under a public announcement I would jump from being the GS-4 that I am now to being a GS-7 just based on my education. However, under a “merit promotion” annnouncement you have to have “time in grade” to jump from one GS level to the next. I found this out the hard way. I applied for a 7/9 at Shiloh. They weren’t offering a 5/7/9, just a 7/9. I thought my graduate degree would qualify me as a 7 like it had for the Mall in D.C. position. Nope. Education only works like that under a public announcement. Under merit promotion I could not even apply for a 7 because I haven’t been a 5 long enough. Conceivably, someone with a graduate degree but no Park Service experience could jump into a 7 or even a 9 position, but I have to believe that would be extremely rare. By the way, officially, 4s and 5s are only “Park Guides.” You have to be a 5 in a 5/7/9 position or higher to actually be a “Park Ranger.” Confusing isn’t it? It gets more confusing.
After working as a Term GS-4 Park Guide for a year at U.S. Grant NHS, it was decided that the position would be made permanent. Remember, I couldn’t just be “given” the job. It had to be announced for competition. I’ve heard it said many times that if a park really wants someone they will find a way to get them. I don’t know that that is entirely true, but if you see an announcement that is very specific; that is the experience and knowledge requirements are very specific, or applications are only being accepted from the local commuting area, or through specific hiring programs, then the park probably already has someone in their sights.
I got the permanent job.
It took me from the winter of 2005 when I first applied at Lincoln Home to the winter of 2009 to land a permanent NPS job. It took working at four different parks. It took working a seasonal job, a student job, another seasonal job, and a term job. It took traveling half way across the country and back. It took applying for numerous positions I didn’t get. It took lots of study, lots of money, and lots of sacrifice. My closest family is 4 hours away. My wife and I lived in our fifth-wheel trailer, with all our furniture and belongings in storage for three and a half years. All of this cost us a lot of money. And I only have a GS-4 Park Guide position! Still, in many ways I count myself lucky. I have a permanent job in a beautiful park where I get to talk about one of my favorite subjects. I know there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people out there who would like to have my job. Many have worked for the National Park Service seasonally longer than I did. My veterans preference points helped me get my job, but I believe I am more than qualified.
So, that’s my story. If you have been following it and have questions, please ask. I’ll be happy to try to answer them as best I can.
Positions and Salary for National park service jobs
Vacancies, requirements and average salary:
— for teachers
— for college students: summer jobs, internships, youth jobs
— for seniors and retirees
— for retired couples
— for volunteers
Part time (temporary and seasonal) and permanent (full time) jobs
— summer jobs
— winter jobs
How to become a National park ranger — Interview with national park rangers: