Finding a pathway to natural resource management opportunities

Published Dec. 7, 2016
Park rangers promote water safety and assist with finding loaner life jackets and correct fitting.

Park rangers promote water safety and assist with finding loaner life jackets and correct fitting.

Group Photo Summer Rangers at Hillsdale Lake - 2016

Group Photo Summer Rangers at Hillsdale Lake - 2016

How does a college student find a career with the government? In 2010, an Executive Order was signed by President Obama to implement a program titled Pathways, this authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District to hire students two different ways. The first authority allows the hiring of temporary park rangers and maintenance workers to fulfill a seasonal work program at lake projects. The second authority allows students to enter the Natural Resource Management or Maintenance Training programs in which students are provided employment while they are trained for these specialized careers.

So students, start thinking about your career path now! The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District advertises temporary positions the first of the year to support the Operations Division as either a summer park ranger or maintenance worker at 18 different lake projects in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. These seasonal positions are offered from May through September.

Heath Kruger is a natural resource management specialist for the Kansas City District who also serves as the district’s Pathways Program manager. He strives to recruit applicants for temporary positions year-round, serves as a guide and mentor to applicants and encourages their federal career path into the Pathways Program.

“On average, we seek to fill about 70 summer park ranger and maintenance positions per year at several lake projects,” says Kruger. “We recruit all over the Midwest, work to gain new contacts at universities, sit on career panel discussions and speak to university classes (wildlife biology, conservation biology, and general informational classes) to inform students of these cool job opportunities.”

On the job, federal park rangers are not just seen as a biologist as they wear many, many hats. In fact, while a biology degree is preferred, actually only 24 hours of natural sciences classes are required for the program. Park ranger positions include visitor assistance, enforcement of Title 36 (federal laws and regulations), water safety, environmental stewardship, interpretative programing and much more. Following the completion of the two year program training and college graduation, individuals have 120 days to be assigned to a permanent position, which could be at any of the 18 lake projects.

John Swinford began with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District in 2014 as a summer park ranger at Perry Lake in Perry, Kan. After working three summers at Perry Lake, he applied for the NRM Training Program while attending Wichita State University. With a degree in criminal justice and currently pursuing a master’s degree in criminology, Swinford is enrolled in natural science (biology) courses, which allows him to be in the program. Swinford recently completed a few career training assignments at Pomme de Terre Lake in Hermitage, Mo. and at the Kansas City District’s headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

“I’m given a lot of exposure and many different responsibilities through the NRM Training Program,” says Swinford. “The program coordinators try to expose you to as many opportunities as they can. I’ve been learning about natural resource management practices, visitor assistance, shoreline management practices, real estate actions and inspections and enforcement of Title 36 federal regulations and laws.”

While attending the University of Missouri in 2014, Jaime Picken was hired as a summer park ranger at Harry S. Truman Lake in Warsaw, Mo. Through the NRM Training Program, she spent two summers and several special events throughout the school year preparing herself for a permanent federal career.

“Through this program I learned the Corps’ park rangers wear many hats,” says Picken.
“Previous to this opportunity, I had researched some different state conservation programs and conducted ride-alongs with their rangers. What appealed to me the most about the Corps’ NRM Training Program is that the Corps maintains the land, water, recreation and enforcement. It’s multi-faceted which gives a better overall understanding of the relationships between these different programs.”

Following her graduation in 2015, Picken had 120 days to be placed in a permanent park ranger position with the Kansas City District, if one was available. After 90 days of anticipation, she was notified of a full time opportunity at Smithville Lake in Smithville, Mo.

“The 120 day placement period went by very quickly. Once the opportunity was offered, I had 30 days to find a place to live, coordinate my move and get moved in order to begin work at my new lake project,” informs Picken. “It was a stressful time, but my supervisors were very supportive.”

“My ultimate goal is to be placed as a natural resource specialist in the Kansas City District. Through this program I am being prepared for the future,” says Swinford. “I’m given a lot of exposure to many different responsibilities of a natural resource specialist and am excited to complete the program and see where my 120 day placement period takes me.”

All temporary positions are advertised online at USA Jobs. Each year, one to five individuals are selected to participate in the NRM Training Program. Both opportunities can lead to a long-term federal career.

“On average, these temporary positions and NRM Training Program positions may pay $13-$15 per hour. That’s pretty good for a college student,” says Kruger. “Some shifts may offer additional pay as certain schedules may require evening and weekend hours. Applicants are provided the opportunity to work outside in a unique setting, meet new people and work special events throughout the school year.” Kruger points out, “Don’t let these schedules deter you from having an amazing opportunity. If you are leery on what the position and hours might entail, we encourage you to meet with a ranger at the location you’d like to work. Each lake is a little different and these women and men have a real passion for their jobs. Every day is truly a different day.”

“Lots of people don’t want to give up their weekends, but the tradeoff is definitely worth it in the end,” says Swinford. “During the recreation season is when we typically work weekend shifts to provide visitor assistance during peak visitation which is beneficial to our mission and ensures we are being good stewards to the land as well.”

There are many benefits offered through the Pathways and NRM Training Program. While these opportunities are highly competitive, those who are offered full time federal career placements have had a high success rate and many have grown into leadership roles. Applicants are encouraged to think about the long-term potential.

“Prior to this program I had a full time career but have always had a love for the outdoors so decided to work towards my goals,” says Swinford. “It can be difficult to get your foot in the door of the federal system, so I started volunteering with federal services such as the Fish and Wildlife Service seven days per week. I found my volunteer efforts to be extremely beneficial to network and gain skills needed. Once my foot was in the federal door, I knew I needed to be willing to learn and work hard.”

“My advice to those thinking about joining the NRM Training Program would be to take on a diverse array of courses and volunteer experiences,” informs Picken. “While we don’t specialize in just one specific field, we need to be able to research and implement critical thinking skills in order to make an informed decision. I would also stress the importance of public relations. We are always in contact with the public and often have to explain our regulations in addition to answering questions about state conservation and even the weather.” 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the number one provider of water recreation hosting 370 million visitors annually across 12 million acres of public lands and waters nationwide. So why should opportunities with the Corps stand out to you?

“We are able to look at what we can build and do with our resources and are able to actively manage our properties more than other federal agencies that may be more restricted. This is a benefit to our lands and the public,” informs Kruger. “Come be a summer park ranger and learn more about the Corps of Engineers. It’s an awesome, fun opportunity and could lead to a great long-term federal career.”