Department struggles to fill seasonal positions

Michigan is still struggling to find summer staff for its state parks.

So far, the state has hired 636 short-term workers from 1,300 empty seasonal positions, and another 123 are to be hired pending successful drug tests.

State park workers have to wear a lot of hats, said Ron Olson, director of state parks and recreation at the Department of Natural Resources. They work in state parks, campgrounds, and ports, answering visitor questions, maintaining trails, cleaning buildings, and more.

Last summer, faced with the same problem, the department was only able to hire 736 people. Olson expects a similar number this time around.

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State parks rely on seasonal summer employees because it would be impossible to retain the necessary staff during the warmer months as recreational options dwindle in the winter.

The staffing shortages of the past few years “really change the whole structure of our business plan,” Olson said.

Fewer retirees and students applying

When the state can’t hire enough seasonal staff for summer parks, it makes up the rest with private contractors for jobs like cleaning and maintenance, garbage collection, and shower sanitation.

A once-reliable cohort for these jobs were retirees who worked park jobs to stay busy and spend time in nature, Olson said. Concerns about catching COVID initially prevented many seniors from returning to these jobs. But two years later, some are coming back, Olson said.

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Due to the summer parks age requirement of 18 and summer demand, college students were another reliable candidate pool. But their participation has dropped over the past three or four years, Olson said.

“Our students are looking to gain experience, have fun, and prepare for a future career all at the same time. It’s a tall order,” said Rebecca Jordan, professor and president of Michigan State Department of Community Sustainabilityin 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 typically take summer positions with agencies that are likely to transition to work longer term.

Olson also pointed to demographic changes in rural areas near state parks, whose population continues to decline.

“As their populations have declined, in some areas of the state, proportionally, there just aren’t as many individuals that have the potential to work,” he said. “People would have to travel further, and that adds to the labor cost.”

Higher salary, summer housing on the table

The department recognizes that it needs to get creative, Olson said.

Recently, state parks have seen more employees unwilling to commit to 40 hours per week. Some full-time jobs have been split into two part-time positions for more flexibility.

Another idea floating around the DNR is to reintroduce summer accommodation, which was previously in place in remote northern parks.

“If you’re somebody from southeastern Michigan and you want to work up north somewhere in a state park, with the pay you get, by the time you’re renting accommodation, you’re not really going to earn money,” says Olson.

The hourly wage itself is a big sticking point. The state starts new park workers at $10.20 an hour and transitions them after two summers to $11. Olson said the department is proposing to use restricted state park funds to raise the hourly wage 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 it hasn’t had the same hiring problem as more distant parks this year. She’s working on the final round of interviews to take the last spot on their seasonal goal of 12 employees.

She attributes this to its central location and proximity to a town with a university. Sleepy Hollow attracts Michigan State workers and students to their homes during summer vacations from other colleges.

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The more remote parks of Grand Lansing do not have this luxury. Olson said some of the toughest parks to place seasonal workers are in the north, where park jobs compete with higher-paying touring and hospitality gigs.

“We are very lucky not to have the difficulties that some others are having right now,” Nieschulz said.

Contact journalist Annabel Aguiar at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @annabelaguiar.

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