YCC employees at Muir Woods

“You were a Park Ranger?  My son wants to become a Park Ranger, can you talk with him?”

Such is the conversation I’m having with a woman I met on the trail last summer in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.  It’s a common question I get when people found out I worked with the National Park Service for seventeen years.

February is the time of year when young people start to think about finding a job for the summer.  And no job is more alluring than spending your days outside in the parks.

Becoming a Park Ranger with the National Park Service is the great American dream.  The vision of wearing the Smoky hat, the gray and green uniform, hiking the trails in some of the most beautiful places in the country attracts many.

When I’m asked this question by young people about a career in conservation, working in the national parks, I feel a bit challenged of how to respond.

On the one hand, some of my greatest moments in my work life were spent in pursuit of a career in the Park Service.  On the other hand, I spent years working seasonal jobs, getting paid a meager wage, and moving every five months.  I lived in spartan housing where I was lucky to have an indoor bathroom.  I applied for hundreds of jobs trying to get permanent status, and often got rejected, even after years of experience.  For every one position that’s advertised, parks will receive hundreds of applications.  While perseverance is key, there are things a young person can do to stack the deck in their favor.

As early as high school, students can gain valuable experience by working in the Youth Conservation Corps.  No experience is necessary, just a commitment to work hard on projects involving our public lands.

Teenagers between 15 and 18 years old can apply regardless of their background or experience.  In return, they are paid to work eight to ten weeks doing things like building trails, doing maintenance projects, and conducting environmental education.  They are provided housing, as well as at least minimum wage, for 40 hours per week.  They work alongside career staff in the Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, and other federal agencies.

It’s a great way for young people to get their feet wet, and learn more about a career in the parks and conservation field.  And it sets the stage for more meaningful work in the future, like paid internships, and yes, perhaps even a seasonal job as a Park Ranger.

During my Park Service career, I met some incredible young people through the Youth Conservation Corps.  Their work ethic, passion and commitment to learning inspired me and gave me hope for the future.  These teenagers are the future stewards for our public lands.