The department struggles to fill seasonal positions
Michigan is again having trouble finding summer staff for its state parks.
So far, the state has hired 636 short-time workers from 1,300 vacant seasonal jobs, with another 123 to be hired pending drug tests.
Workers in state parks have to wear a lot of hats, said Ron Olson, the state director for parks and recreation at the Department of Natural Resources. They work in parks, state campgrounds and marinas, answering visitors’ questions, maintaining trails, cleaning buildings and more.
Last summer, the department was only able to hire 736 people in the face of the same problem. Olson expects a similar number this time.
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State parks rely on seasonal summer employees because staffing needs during the warmer months would be impossible to keep on the books as recreational opportunities dwindle in the winter.
The staffing shortages of the last few years “really change the whole structure of our business plan,” Olson said.
Fewer pensioners and students are applying
When the state can’t hire enough staff for seasonal summer parks, it makes up for the rest with private contractors for jobs like cleaning and maintenance, garbage disposal, and shower sanitation.
A previously reliable cohort for these jobs was retirees, who took park jobs to stay busy and spend time in the great outdoors, Olson said. Concerns about catching COVID initially deterred many older people from returning to these jobs. But two years later, some are coming back, Olson said.
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Due to the 18 age limit at summer parks and summer demand, college students were another reliable pool of candidates. But their involvement has declined over the past three or four years, Olson said.
“Our students want to gain experience, have fun and at the same time prepare for a future career. It’s a big challenge,” said Rebecca Jordan, professor and chair of Michigan State’s Department of Community Sustainability, in an email.
Jordan also pointed to the job’s lower pay — $10 to $11 an hour — and said students in the department’s parks, recreation and tourism program generally take summer jobs with agencies that are likely to move on to longer-term work.
Olson also pointed to demographic shifts in rural areas near state parks, whose populations continue to shrink.
“Because their population has declined, there are proportionally not as many people in some areas of the state who have the potential to work,” he said. “People would have to travel farther and that would weigh on labor costs.”
Higher wages, summer apartments on the table
The department recognizes it needs to get creative, Olson said.
Recently, state parks are seeing more employees who don’t want to commit to 40 hours a week. Some full-time positions have been split into two part-time positions for flexibility.
Another idea buzzing around DNR is the reintroduction of summer shelters that previously existed in remote parks up north.
“If you’re someone from southeastern Michigan and you want to work somewhere up north somewhere in a state park, you wouldn’t really make money from the wages that you get if you rent an apartment,” Olson said.
The hourly wage itself is a big sticking point. The state hires new park workers at $10.20 an hour, increasing to $11 after two summers. Olson said the department is proposing to use restricted state parking funds to increase hourly wages to $15, a more competitive number.
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Attitude issues vary by location
Jodi Nieschulz, parks manager at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Clinton County, said she hasn’t had the same hiring problems as more outlying parks this year. She’s working on the final round of introductions to fill the final spot on her seasonal goal of 12 employees.
She attributes this to the central location and proximity to a town with a university. Sleepy Hollow draws Michigan state workers and students from other colleges home for summer vacation.
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Parks further from Greater Lansing don’t have that luxury. Olson said some of the toughest parks to house seasonal workers are those in the North, where the park jobs compete with higher-paying tourism and hospitality gigs.
“We’re very fortunate that we don’t have the struggles that some of the other people are having at this point,” Nieschulz said.
Contact reporter Annabel Aguiar at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @annabeguiar.