My Adventures in the National Park Service

If I could do it all over again I would earn a degree in public history and work for the National Park Service at a historic site.  Over the past ten years I’ve had a number of opportunities to help out with various NPS projects and the work is always rewarding.  It has given me the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented historians and passionate educators.  On moving to Boston I decided to explore opportunities beyond the classroom and the NPS was high on that list.  Over the past few weeks I’ve made some wonderful new friends in the NPS here in Boston and it looks like I will be involved in organizing events over the course of the next year for the Civil War sesquicentennial.

As for more permanent work, the response has been less than enthusiastic.  It’s not that my new contacts don’t believe that I am qualified for most of their positions as an interpreter/educator; in fact, I’ve been told numerous times that I am over-qualified.  The problem is with the hiring process and what comes up more than anything else is the veteran’s preference.  If I understand it correctly the federal government gives preference to candidates who have served in the military.  If a veteran meets the minimum qualifications for a position he/she is given preference.  I recently came up against this wall when I decided to apply for an entry-level position as an interpreter (GS-05).

My friend Mannie Gentile, who works for the NPS at Antietam, recently asked if this preference is fair.  Hell yes it is fair.  I think it is safe to say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been little more than blips on our national radar so any assistance the federal government can give to our returning veterans is well deserved and very much needed.  Here is a comment from Mannie’s blog.

I respect the hard work, study, and effort made by many students. But while they worked hard at home, others put their own careers and college on hold to serve our nation, and to put themselves in harms way. Veterans are not getting a hand out here. They bring a maturity, level-headedness, experience and world view to the table perhaps not shared by their non-military colleagues. It is not a handout but a recognition of the experience that veterans bring. And what is wrong with our nation giving them a break in hiring. They are there for us. I think it is fair.

Here is another perspective.

I have a medical condition that basically prohibits me from serving in the military. So, what about me? How is that fair? Sorry that god had other plans for me. Is that your best answer? I could never serve in the military, yet I love serving my country. Being a park ranger is a way I can serve my country. Why make it harder for me to serve? [Update: As well as this incredibly thoughtful comment from Jared Frederick.]

The policy may also not be fair to those sites that are looking to fill certain positions.  I’ve heard at least one case of a job being canceled as a result of the candidate selection process.  The NPS will also have to consider whether the policy helps to advance the goals of a new study conducted with the Organization of American Historians [pdf] on the state of history within its park boundaries.

As for me, I am unlikely to ever apply for another NPS position.  I will continue to take advantage of every opportunity to work with the NPS here in Boston and elsewhere.  In the end, it seems silly for me to ask whether this policy is fair.  I’ve enjoyed so many opportunities to pursue my goals in relative safety, in part, because there are men and women who volunteer to defend this nation.  All I can really say is, thank you.

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14 comments… add one

  • Keith Muchowski Apr 8, 2012

    Kevin, like you, if I could go back and start again I would have tried to get into the NPS just out of college. Instead I find myself trying to get in now that I am in my mid-forties. My wife just got out of graduate school and our hope is that she will eventually get a full-time position (She is currently doing contractual work at the United Nations.) that will be our primary income. With that, I would then hopefully become a seasonal with the NPS and eventually achieve status. This would not come without risk because I just received tenure in my current position. I am very well-positioned where I am now and my job gives me a great deal of flexibility and autonomy. Still, it is what I would like to do and thankfully I have a wife who is supportive.

    I first emailed Mannie in November 2009 to get some advice, which was duly forthcoming. I actually contacted him two days before my father died, and I remember telling people at the funeral that I was considering a career change. Needless to say, the death of a parent forces one to prioritize and take stock of what one believes is important. That is why I volunteered at Ellis Island for 15 months. This was a tremendous learning experience. A friend of ours suggested I transfer to Governors Island, where I could apply my knowledge of the Civil War. (My volunteering at Governors Island came a year after my wife and I found the Black Confederates handout there. That’s not the point of my today’s email. And yes, they did take take it down.)

    Veteran preferences are something I have thought a lot about. Obviously it works against me but I have come to the conclusion that they are fair. As a country we often pay lip service to helping veterans while actually doing little to help them. Also, maybe it is just because they are older but I have found, too, that veterans usually bring a depth to interpretation that others sometimes do not. This is true even at sites that do not have a Civil War theme. The best rangers at Ellis are all veterans. My wife and I have sat in on dozens of interpretive talks over the years and have found that this is almost always the case.

    If you are still trying to break into the NPS I would say keep trying. One thing rangers tell me is that you hardly ever get in on the first shot. If you keep taking the test your scores will improve exponentially. Mannie always tells me. “There is a job waiting for you.”

    Anyways, I thought I would chime in with my two cents.

    Keith

  • Jan Dresler Apr 8, 2012

    Hi Kevin (and Keith).

    I can really follow you a long way with your wishes to serve in the NPS.

    But have you (stupid question, because I know you have) considered that it maybe is better to have this cw-stuff as a cherished hobby instead of a (sometimes/often ?)”sour” job ?

    I for one, have it the same way with my ultimate hobby/interest = danish “golden age”-painting (ca. 1816 – 1860). I have also considered taking a university-degree and get a job at a museum back here in Denmark, but then my hobby will be “a job” with a lot of “red tape”, paper-work and other boring stuff necessary for doing the job. Today I can enjoy my hobby every day, read about what I want, seeing those paintings I want to see, travelling everywhere in Denmark to museums and so on and really enjoying that in this way.

    ….but hen again….I surely understand your wishes for the NPS-job ;-)

    Kind regards

    Jan Dresler, Denmark.

    • Keith Muchowski Apr 8, 2012

      Jan, yes, it is important not to have illusions about any organization. On some level an NPS position is indeed a job like any other. The thrill is in being where history took place and making the experience meaningful to the public. Making that connection with people never gets old.

      • Jan Dresler Apr 8, 2012

        Hi again Keith.

        Yes – I know “the thrill”, the exitement about being there where history took place, that is a big thing about it; being in a artist’ home/studio (the fellow died about 100-200 years ago) where he painted those paintings, seing his brushes and sketches on the still existing canvas’s, sitting in his chair and so on…it gives me goosebumps. The same feeling when viewing a uniform of a civil war officer at a museum, which officer I have been reading about for so many years or being at a civil war battlefield and see it with my own eyes, standing there where it took place (I’m going to visit Gettysburg for the second time in May 2012 – first visit was in 2010) and I can hardly wait to be there…it’s a long way from Denmark ;-).

        Yes – I know the thrill and exitement :-)

        • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2012

          Hi Jan,

          Thanks so much for the comment. I guess my response is to say that I don’t consider this to be a hobby. I’ve been in the education business for the past fifteen years. The chance to work with the NPS would allow me to continue what I consider to be my calling.

  • Bob Pollock Apr 8, 2012

    Hi Kevin,

    I was sorry to hear you didn’t “make the cert.” Without question, as I already told you, you are highly qualified and would be an asset to the NPS.

    You said, “If a veteran meets the minimum qualifications for a position he/she is given preference. I recently came up against this wall when I decided to apply for an entry-level position as an interpreter (GS-05).”

    Two things here.

    One, theoretically a veteran has to have more than the “minimum qualifications.” As you probably know, when you submit an application you earn a score of up to 100 points depending on your qualifications and experience. All veterans get an additional 5 points and handicapped veterans get ten. So, again theoretically, a well qualified and experienced non-veteran could get a job over a minimally qualified veteran. However, the most a non-veteran, no matter how qualified, can get is 100 points while a veteran can get 105 or 110.

    Two, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a *Permanent* GS-5 Park Guide position
    an “entry-level” position. It might seem like that from outside the NPS, but competition for NPS jobs (particularly interp positions) is fiercely competitive. Very few people get permanent positions without working as volunteers, or in seasonal, student, term, and other temporary positions first. I’ve heard of people who have worked seasonally for years without ever landing a permanent position.

    I’m going to write about my own experience and perceptions of the NPS hiring process and try to post it on my blog later tonight.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2012

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the clarification re: the application process. To be completely honest, I know very little about the hierarchy of jobs within the NPS. “Entry level” was how the job was described to me by NPS employees, though they may have bee speaking loosely.

    • Keith Muchowski Apr 8, 2012

      Bob, this would be helpful. I find the process confusing as well. Anything you could add would be helpful. I look forward to reading your thoughts at Y&T.

      Keith

    • Bob Pollock Apr 9, 2012

      I need to qualify something I said here. Not ALL veterans get points. You have to have served during specific time periods when the country was engaged in a conflict. See here:

      http://www.fedshirevets.gov/job/vetpref/index.aspx

  • Mike Gorman Apr 9, 2012

    Kevin, unfortunately, Bob has it right. It is one of the things I find saddening about the career opportunities in the part service: you have to spend years (took me six, though I know many who have spent more) as a volunteer or seasonal before you have a real hope of getting hired on permanently. I have seen so many wonderful young interpreters get discouraged and walk away – joining the army would indeed be a better career move for them (and probably not take as long!). I think the park service is going to have to take a long hard look at their hiring process to determine what they’re really after (defining interpreters as historians would be a good start), but for now the system is a disaster.

  • Todd Arrington Apr 9, 2012

    This is a tough one for me since I’ve seen this issue from all sides. I’m a military veteran (U.S. Army, 1995-98) and a career NPS employee. I got into the NPS through a special employee development program that (unfortunately) no longer exists. My status as a veteran is what made me eligible for that program.

    I’ve clearly personally benefited from the existence of veterans preference. However, in my nearly 15 years in the NPS, I’ve see a lot of very talented, qualified individuals NOT able to get jobs at which they would have excelled because they weren’t veterans. This has been more pronounced in the post-9/11 world, of course, when we have so many vets coming back from combat and support actions overseas.

    I hate to see good candidates (like Kevin) not able to break into the system, but I also feel that we have a very strong obligation to assist those men and women who’ve voluntarily served in the armed forces.

  • John Maass Apr 10, 2012

    The problem with the veterans’ preferences is that often times the vets get so much “extra credit” in the application process that they outrank better qualified people. Also, many times applicants who are vets have NO qualifications at all for the jobs to which they apply, but because of the preference, they get to the top of the list and block the non-vet, better qualified people.

    • Eric Jul 30, 2014

      That is 100% wrong. If a vet has 0 qualifications/experience in that field, they WILL be passed. IF YOU MEET THE MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS you will be able to use your vet preference to its fullest potential. You’re horribly mistaken.

  • mannie gentile Jul 22, 2014

    Kevin,

    Since my name has been mentioned here a couple of times I thought I’d chime in.

    I have a five point veteran’s preference. Despite that I am beginning my ninth year of trying to find permanent employment with the NPS. I started a a volunteer then became a seasonal, then a STEP, and then a SCEP. Both of the latter are types of student appointments. Upon completion of my masters degree (as a SCEP) I was to be converted to permanent status at Antietam. However those appointments can only be made if there is a position available; unfortunately for me there was no open spot at Antietam. So still I look. Currently I’m a “term” employee at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. My position will last from one to three years only, so you see the veterans preference is not the “golden key” that so many complain about.

    The veterans preference is simply the thanks of a grateful nation.

    Mannie

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