Going Beyond the Degree: Real-Life Education

January 1, 2016, Department, by Inés Palacios, Ph.D., Kate Mattison, CPRP, Troy Euton, CPRP

Three park and recreations professionals offer insights on how to make the transition from school to real-life career.Many students who are soon-to-be professionals in our field may struggle with the uncertainty of what to expect when transitioning from school to real-life. We have all been there at some point in our lives. Our field is rich and full of opportunities, and we wanted to share our journey and insight with the upcoming generations. 

Our backgrounds are diverse: Troy Euton, who holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial and systems engineering, worked in the hotel industry and serves as the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation for Gahanna, Ohio, has been in the parks and recreation industry for 23 years in four different positions. Kate Mattison, with a bachelor’s in sports management and a master’s in recreation, sports and tourism, serves as recreation administrator for recreation services in Dublin, Ohio, and has been in the industry for eight years. Lastly, Inés Palacios, who holds a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in parks, recreation and tourism management and serves as director of recreation for PlayCore, has been in the private sector for more than two years and was previously a professor at North Carolina State University for more than three years. 

While sharing our experiences and backgrounds with each other, we realized that the journey was not a straight line but a series of turns that connected us with the park and recreation field. We also realized that what we expected to happen after graduation was far from what reality had in store for us: whether it was the naïve assumption that we would immediately be working a normal nine-to-five gig or the even more ridiculous assumption that we would absolutely love our first jobs. A successful career in parks and recreation requires paying a few dues and a willingness to get your hands dirty, but it is attainable if you’re willing to fight for it. We also realized that class material was quite useful but not used exactly as the textbook would describe. Adapting to reality and knowing that not everything is going to go by the book will make a difference.

Employment Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of July 2015, the national rate of unemployment was 5.3 percent, while the Gallop Poll stated that the rate of underemployment (highly skilled workers employed in low-paying and/or low-skill jobs, and part-time workers who would prefer to be full-time) was 14.2 percent. Interestingly, parks and recreation and physical fitness majors had the third lowest unemployment rate among college graduates in 2013. 

It is estimated that by 2020, employment will grow 17 percent in therapeutic recreation, 19 percent in recreation and 44 percent in event planning. Students should be excited about the wealth of opportunities they may encounter once they graduate; however, they should expect to work harder and be prepared to compete to make themselves attractive to employers and apply their skills to divers work settings.

Bringing It All Together

NRPA’s 2015 Field Report provided further information on how well our industry is doing and what students need to be prepared for while transitioning to a full-time position. Interestingly, the majority of respondents indicated that they required individuals to have certifications for some of their staff. More than 80 percent require some level of certification to even be eligible for hire. Eighty-eight percent of individuals stated that the most common type of certification they require is CPR/AED/First Aid. 

Participate in every committee or task-force group you are offered or on which have a chance to serve. These experiences offer expanded knowledge, are great résumé-building opportunities and build your network of potential connections once you are in the field looking for a job. Attend NRPA’s Annual Conference for the chance to network with other students and professionals. Getting involved in your field also gives you a leg up. You are being seen as an interested member of the park and recreation field, and you will be positioning yourself in the minds of those you meet. To better prepare yourself even before you graduate, seize every training opportunity you possibly can, regardless of whether it is related to what you want to do for the rest of your life. You never know what your next career move will be and what type of skills or knowledge this new opportunity may require.

Lessons We Have Learned

In developing a strategy, we found there are several suggestions we would like to share when embarking on the journey.

Before graduating, make sure to get certified in CPR/AED/First Aid. Make sure to research the position you are interested in applying for, and fill any gaps you may have in your résumé. As with certifications, the sooner you do it the better suited you will be for the position.

Never turn down lunch with your boss. This is a great opportunity to learn and to get the best information and advice in an organic moment rather than at the office. You can learn more from a person when you are in a relaxed environment and able to ask questions that you may not otherwise be able to ask.

Also know, the knowledge you acquired while in school is invaluable even though in a real-life situation you may apply it differently. This knowledge will differentiate you from others in the field. Having an interest in a variety of fields would also help enormously when seeking an opportunity in the field.

Lastly, and possibly one of the best words of advice we have all gotten, is to treat everyone like you want to be treated. You never know who you will be talking to or where the connection will come from when you are engaging with people. That same person you talk to today may be hiring tomorrow or you may be interviewing them for a position in your organization. Be realistic and know you can cross paths with people at different times in life.

With more than 30 years of combined experience, we have learned more than one lesson. One of the biggest lessons is to be adaptable. Always pursue jobs that utilize the skills you enjoy performing most — do not pursue a job title. Doing so will prevent you from enjoying your work, leaving you with a job title full of words that mean nothing. 

We have also learned that the park and recreation industry offers opportunity in most every trade and field of study. Focus on a few areas of expertise you enjoy within this generalist umbrella. You will be more successful and fulfilled at the end of the day, while using your skills and knowledge to your full potential. And last but not least, there are many routes that can take you into the park and recreation field. Remember, it is not a straight line but a series of turns.

Inés Palacios, Ph.D., is Director of Recreation: Programs, Partnerships and Professional Development for PlayCore. Kate Mattison, CPRP, is Recreation Administrator, Recreation Services for the City of Dublin, Ohio. Troy Euton, CPRP, is Director, Department of Parks and Recreation for the City of Gahanna, Ohio.