Managing an entire city’s parks involves a lot more than just mowing the lawn. The parks and recreations department maintains a city’s public spaces, organizes community events, and much more, and all requiring an eclectic range of knowledge and skills. And there’s also paper work, of course.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.
I’m currently the Parks and Recreation Director for a small city in the state of Kentucky. My official title is the Director of Parks, Recreation, and Cemeteries. I operate as a contractual employee in a city manager style of government and directly report to the City Manager. I’m fairly new to this position—2 years—but have been in the Parks and Recreation field in various positions since 2000.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I’ve always enjoyed the parks and recreation field even when I didn’t know that it was an option as a career. My first job was working as a day camp instructor for my hometown’s parks and recreation department. I worked part-time throughout my high school and college summers and eventually ended up there full time. I really enjoy the opportunity to do something that directly affects people in a positive manner. The opportunity to work in the parks and recreation field has been great and everyday is a little different and never the same.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I got my current position after the previous director decided to retire and informed me of the opening. I competed with other applicants after making it through a pretty rigorous application procedure. I have a degree in Education and in English but I blame that on my guidance counselors in high school. When describing what I enjoyed doing that I could make a career of I told them I enjoyed working with kids during the summer as a day camp counselor. That was all they needed to hear and into education I went.
I actually never considered that you could make a living in parks and recreation. I equated it to wanting to be an astronaut. It was a real job but the chances of you doing it for a living were slim. I taught for a year, worked as a children’s social worker for a few years, and when a full time position in the parks and recreation department opened up in my hometown, I applied, and that was the start of my career. There are parks and recreation degrees offered by most colleges that will get you into the field but most social science degrees, (social work, nursing, education, psychology, exercise science and others) are applicable.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see?
Most people have the preconception that we simply mow grass and referee kids’ soccer games. We do that and a lot more. There are a lot of technical skills and behind the scene work that staff performs to make it all look easy. We do mow grass but we also maintain turf at golf course quality. Greens keepers mow daily, apply chemicals weekly, and use special equipment and machinery to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the root system of the grass. Recreation programmers have to create activity plans for a variety of ages and ability levels. Park maintenance has plumbing, electrical, carpentry repairs that they do for buildings and facilities. Front desk staff have to interact with families that have just suffered the death of a loved one and are looking for a final resting place. Park staff have to deal with drunks yelling at little league officials. All those things we deal with regularly. We do all the background work and prep so that your experience in the park is enjoyable, simple, and fun.
What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing? Do you go out in the field or is your work mostly a desk job?
In my position I do a lot of desk work. Although with this department being smaller I do get out frequently for some hands on portions of the job. In my position there is a lot of budget management, assignment of work duties, tracking of revenue and expenses, communication and interaction with other public entities. But one of the things that I make it a point to do weekly is get out into every park in my system to see what is really happening, conditions of the parks and amenities in them, and talk to staff and customers in the field.
The priority of my time is at the desk in the office but with special events it’s all hands on deck, and especially in a smaller parks department, I’m in the thick of it. I’ve shoveled snow, planted trees, filled graves, cleaned pool filters, set up tables and chairs and all manner of duties that staff has performed.
What other misconceptions do people often have about your job?
A lot of people don’t recognize all the things that the parks and recreation department does. If it happens in the parks, it’s our responsibility. Buildings, roads, street lights, trees, playgrounds, plantings, baseball/softball fields, swimming pools—all of that we have to operate and repair. Because of all the tools and equipment that we need, I have to know a little about everything. When upgrading registration programs I have to know minimum tech spec terminology of the computers that will be used. When purchasing tractors, I need to know horsepower of the tractors as well as how to write the specifications so we get the right tire type, attachments, hydraulic connections and so forth. I have to know the federal labor standards so summer employees stay in compliance. I need to know enough to be able to draft a simple site plan for construction. I have to write a simple business plan and create an operating budget. I need to know early childhood development for creating age appropriate activities. There’s so much that I need to know a little about. Luckily I don’t need to know all the intricate details, but the more you do, the more you pick up.
I’ve got to ask—how do you feel about the Parks and Rec TV show?
I watched and enjoyed it for several seasons like a lot of TV show viewers and as it went on I slowly lost interest, but I tuned in for the series finale. While I hold the position of Ron Swanson I’m not a diehard libertarian and my wife doesn’t look like Lucy Lawless.
What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
I generally start at 7 and work to 5 so I’m in the office while staff is in the field. A saying in the industry is that “we work while others play.” Working on holidays and weekends are regular occurrences. The pool opens Memorial Day so there we are. We have the fireworks display on the 4th of July, little league games that take place on nights and weekends, and the golf course is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. Thankfully I don’t have to work every time the pool or golf course or community center opens its doors, but getting called in isn’t unusual if there is damage or vandalism. I like to visit when programs and facilities are open too. A great part of the job is seeing people enjoy things that you’ve worked hard to prepare for them.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
One terrible part of the job is that working in the parks and recreation department takes some of the fun out of visiting those parks in your system. You have a hard time enjoying your walk or picnic if you spend so much time there already. You always hear the stories of servers that can’t enjoy eating where they work. Sometimes working in the parks and recreation field is like that.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
I have a concrete example of the output of my work: You can look at the green grass of the soccer pitch and see the kids running on it and know that you accomplished something. You don’t have to wait too long to see the positive outcomes of what you did.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
I think a lot of people undervalue that this is a real job, especially before the TV show. When I told people what I did they never had a clue that it was even a real job. You get a lot of jokes about how people took a parks and recreation class in college because they had to fill some time in their schedule and it was the easiest class they could find. Most people think that what I do is easy because they have a yard at home they mow so they think, “how is what you do any different?” They don’t consider that our staff has hard jobs that they are required to do year round, regardless of weather.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Like all city employees, the larger the city, the higher the pay scale. The directors of some of the larger departments make low six figures. Major metropolitan area directors do much better than that, in the mid to upper six figure mark. But they’re dealing with thousands of employees and acres in LA or New Orleans or Chicago. I work for a much smaller city so I’m not in that situation. As an aside ,all city budgets are published and with a little digging you can find any city employee job classification’s pay scale.
Is there a way to “move up” in your field?
Parks and Recreation is a smaller field so most promotions usually come as a result of the person above you leaving or you changing departments to take advantage of an opening. Very rarely is someone promoted if they aren’t moving into an already open position. Holding degrees, certifications, trainings are very helpful when looking to hire an employee.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Because of the small size of the industry, be prepared to start with an entry-level position even if you have a master’s degree. But once you are hired it’s easy for top performers to be noticed. Starting in the industry you can make yourself stand out a little with certifications that you can pick up in college. Don’t forget that in the recreation profession experience is a little different. Experience participating in sports, [working with] the boy and girl scouts, lifeguarding, and child care can all be listed as experience and are related directly to some of the duties you may be called on to perform professionally. Don’t be afraid to list some of those things as skills on a resume.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
June 7, 2016
By Andy Orin