Landing a National Park Service Job: My Own Story (Part One)

If you have been following this blog or have read the “About Me” page you know that 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 Park Service job?” In relation to this question, Mannie at My Year of Living Rangerously, and Kevin at Civil War Memory have 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?

More tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Landing a National Park Service Job: My Own Story (Part One)

  1. The first of your park ranger posts that I saw was the 4th so I am just now reading the first 3. 2006 was the first year we used the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities statements. We got much better candidates that way. The answers were scored by someone from the Arch or MWRO, actually I’m not sure. But I know no one from LIHO scored them. By rule we have to make the first offer to someone in the 3 highest scores and we keep moving down until everyone is hired. I remember 2 of the 3 tops scores turned us down and we rejected the other 1 from the top 3 based upon phone calls to previous employers. As you said we hired 10 and if I remember correctly they were all in the top 18 scores. Some parks don’t realize this, but the first year you are at a park you can work more than 1039 hours [which is 6 months of work for the uninformed] IF the park can show those additional hours were training. Considering things change from school season to tourist season to state fair season to retiree season back to school season all within 9 months at LIHO and each season has its own challenges we could easily justify additional hours. I know some of the other 10 worked full time almost to Thanksgiving. But the next year those few that came back could only work 1039 hours plus 2 weeks of training. Another thing the uninformed should know is seasonals get no benefits. No help with health insurance, no money set aside for retirment; just payments to Social Security. I believe you got 5 extra points for your military service. There is a way to get 10 extra points, but I can’t remember if you have to have a purple heart or served in a war zone or what to get that.

  2. Update on my job search, I got an email from one of the parks talking about if I was available at x date. I don’t know if this is a good thing or what. Don’t want to be too excited.

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