Michigan is again struggling to find summer staff for its state parks.
So far, the state has hired 636 short-term workers out of 1,300 empty seasonal slots, with 123 more to be hired pending successful drug tests.
The workers in state parks roles have to wear a lot of hats, said Ron Olson, the state’s director of Parks and Recreation in the Department of Natural Resources. They work in parks, state campground and harbors, answering visitors’ questions, maintaining trails, cleaning buildings, and more.
Last summer, facing the same issue, the department was only able to hire 736 people. Olson expects a similar number this time around.
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The state parks rely on seasonal summer employees, since the staff needed in warmer months would be impossible to keep on the books as recreation options dwindle in the winter.
The staffing shortages in recent years are “really changing the whole structure of our business plan,” Olson said.
Fewer retirees and college students applying
When the state can’t hire enough seasonal summer parks staff, it makes up the balance with private contractors for jobs like cleaning and maintenance, trash collection and shower sanitation.
One formerly dependable cohort for those jobs was retirees who took park jobs to stay busy and spend time in nature, Olson said. Concerns about catching COVID kept many older people from returning to those jobs initially. But two years later, some are coming back, Olson said.
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Due to summer parks’ 18-year-old age requirement and summer demand, college students were another reliable candidate pool. But their participation has dropped in the past three or four years, Olson said.
“Our students are looking to gain experience, have fun, and set up for a future career all at once. That’s a tall order,” said Rebecca Jordan, professor and chair for Michigan State’s Community Sustainability department, in an email.
Jordan also pointed to the job’s lower pay-$ 10 to $ 11 an hour-saying students in the department’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism program generally take on summer positions with agencies likely to transition to longer-term work.
Olson also pointed to demographic changes in rural areas near state parks, which continue to shrink in population.
“As their populations have declined, in some areas of the state, proportionately there just isn’t as many individuals that have the potential to work,” he said. “People would have to travel further, and that puts a burden on the cost of working.”
Higher pay, summer housing on the table
The department recognizes it needs to get creative, Olson said.
Recently, state parks have been seeing more employees who don’t want to commit to 40 hours a week. Some full-time jobs have been split into two part-time positions to accommodate flexibility.
Another idea floating around DNR is reintroducing summer lodging, which had previously been in place in remote parks up north.
“If you’re somebody from Southeast Michigan and you want to work up north somewhere in a state park, with the wage that you’re getting paid, by the time you rent a place to live you wouldn’t really make money,” Olson said.
The hourly wage itself is a big sticking point. The state starts new park workers at $ 10.20 an hour and moves them up after two summers to $ 11. Olson said the department is proposing using restricted state park funds to bump the hourly pay to $ 15, a more competitive figure.
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Hiring issues vary by location
Jodi Nieschulz, park manager for Sleepy Hollow State Park in Clinton County, said she hasn’t had the same hiring problem as more remote parks this year. She’s working on the final round of interviews to fill the last spot of their seasonal target of 12 employees.
She attributes that to being centrally located and near a city with a university. Sleepy Hollow attracts workers from both Michigan State and students home on summer break from other colleges.
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Parks farther from Greater Lansing don’t have that luxury. Olson said some of the most challenging parks to place seasonal employees in are the ones up north, where the parks jobs compete with higher-paying tourism and hospitality gigs.
“We are very fortunate that we don’t have the struggles some of the other folks are having at this point,” Nieschulz said.
Contact reporter Annabel Aguiar at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @annabelaguiar.