Houston, We Have an Employment Problem

September 29, 2022, Department, by Joe Snook, CPRP

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Our profession has an employment issue and agencies across the country are feeling the impact. The factors contributing to this challenge are many. Currently, unemployment is at 3.8 percent, and the Federal Reserve projects unemployment will continue to stay low through 2023 at a projected rate of 3.5 percent. Looking at the issue from another perspective, currently 5.9 million people are unemployed. Meanwhile, the number of open jobs in the United States is 11.5 million, meaning if every unemployed person entered the workforce, there would still be 5.5 million unfilled jobs. In addition, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, employment of recreation workers is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations. For perspective, approximately 64,600 openings for recreation workers are projected each year over the decade. In addition, my home state of Missouri has seen a minimum wage increase from $7.85 per hour in 2018 to $12 per hour starting in January 2023, a 53 percent increase. It is not uncommon to see starting wages in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, for unskilled labor at $15 per hour to $20 per hour.

Low unemployment rates accompanied by increased competition, increased staffing needs and increased wages are causing park and recreation agencies across the country to face staffing challenges. Hiring full-time, part-time and seasonal employees has never been more daunting. How have we found ourselves in this situation? Conversations with colleagues quickly lead to a familiar answer: low pay. And the solution? Increase pay. If only it were that easy. Although pay rates may need adjusting, pay is not the sole solution to the problem.

Traditionally, park and recreation agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit organizations providing similar services do not lead the market in compensation. This begs the question: How do park and recreation agencies compete for staffing?

1. Compensation

It is important to make sure staff compensation is fair. To ensure this, regular evaluations of pay plans, pay ranges and range penetration are necessary. Pay plan evaluations should be completed every two to three years (perhaps, more often as necessary) and should include private and nonprofit comparators as well as government agencies. Including the value of a benefits package can be challenging and often is overlooked in the evaluation process, leading to inaccurate comparisons. Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation’s (LSPR) approach in this process is to focus on direct pay and identify the benefits package as “value-added” compensation.

2. Communication

Collectively, our profession does a sub-par job of communicating the benefits, values and professional opportunities available through employment in parks and recreation. For example, LSPR requires all staff in our agency to be first aid, Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillators (AED) certified. These are life-saving skills, and many positions within our profession — like facility managers, lifeguards and camp counselors — become true “first responders” in an emergency. We provide customer service training, develop organizational skills, teach responsibility, provide leadership opportunities, and, hopefully, create an enjoyable working environment. In addition, many park and recreation organizations provide professional opportunities not typically associated with our profession, such as marketing, communications, information technology, finance, cultural arts, public safety and landscape architecture. These are but a few of the benefits and opportunities that need to be communicated to our communities and future employees.

3. Higher education

Educational partners play a role in our efforts to attract employees. LSPR is located in a major metropolitan market with three major sports teams and two minor sports teams. In conversations with students, when asked what they would like to do after graduation, their responses are overwhelmingly similar — many want to work for a professional sports organization. Others mention working in hospitality or collegiate sports. Rarely do they mention working in parks and recreation. When you compare the number of professional sports organizations to park and recreation agencies, it is easy to conclude there are significantly more opportunities in parks and recreation than in professional sports. In addition, my limited experience suggests that park and recreation agencies pay more for entry and mid-level positions and provide more opportunity for advancement. Finally, it could be argued that working in parks and recreation provides an opportunity to positively impact a community in significant and meaningful ways that professional athletics cannot.

4. Workforce development

My observation is most agencies do very little with workforce development to address staffing challenges. Here are some questions to ask: Have you identified key part-time and seasonal employees to talk with about future opportunities in our profession? Do you invest time and money in the training and advancement of those key part-time and seasonal employees? Do you provide meaningful volunteer opportunities for youth in your community? Do you attend local and regional job fairs? Do you speak positively and passionately about our profession and the work you do when interacting with your community? Our profession has an opportunity to expand and grow in workforce development and we need to start those efforts today.

5. Culture

Finally, and most importantly, understanding and communicating the culture of your organization are paramount in recruitment and retention of staff. Some work cultures are toxic, some are inspiring, but most are somewhere in the middle, languishing due to a lack of effort. My experience in both the private and public sectors has reinforced that high pay cannot compensate for poor culture. You can be the market leader in pay, but if your culture is poor, you will consistently have employee turnover. High employee turnover in our profession does not lead to success. What are your values? How do you communicate those values? Do you recognize and celebrate employees? Do you practice consistent and timely gratitude with your employees? Do you survey your employees about their work environment and respond accordingly? Do you provide opportunities for personal and professional growth? Do you reinforce the value and significance of our profession and the daily impact we make on communities, families and individuals? Do your employees know their purpose? These are just a few questions to ask yourself as you evaluate your culture.

Our profession has an employment issue and pay is but one of many factors that will help address this challenge. As leaders in the park and recreation profession, we must take a good, hard look at our organizations and ask ourselves what we can do beyond increasing pay to create and enhance employee-valued work environments that differentiate park and recreation employment from other opportunities in our communities. The five areas identified are critical to that success. These are not quick-and-easy solutions — they require intentional,
focused efforts. Hopefully, the benefits of increased applications, high-staff retention, minimal turnover, and a happy and productive workforce will be the fruits of your labor.

Joe Snook, CPRP, is Administrator at Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation.