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Lessons from a 30-year park and recreation professional
My name is Jim O’Connell, and I am the director of the Vero Beach (Florida) Recreation Department. I have been working in the park and recreation field for 30 years. I was thinking about how I got here, and more specifically, when parks and recreation became my career. It wasn’t on purpose — at least not completely. But what started out as a “job” became, at some point, a “career,” and I am very glad it did.
My start as a recreation professional was basically a fluke. I grew up, went to school and got married in Chicago. I had been working full time as a “desk jockey” at a commodity-trading firm — a job I disliked intensely, but at least it paid (poorly). When our second son was born, my wife and I realized that between daycare, commuting and other work-related expenses, we were losing money by having me work. She had been doing well in her career, so I became a stay-at-home dad. I did that for about six months. I loved my kids, but I hated being at home all day and missed the “working world.”
I had enrolled my older son in a class at our local park district. One day after the class, I got to talking with the instructor. She mentioned that the park district was looking for a part-time coordinator for their athletic programs. While my degree was not in recreation — I didn’t even know that recreation could be a college major — I did have a background in athletics, mostly as a very mediocre athlete.
I applied for the job but did not get it. Not surprisingly, they had found someone more qualified. A few months passed, and I didn’t think about it much. Then, out of the blue, the director from that department called and asked if I was still interested. You bet I was! That was my first recreation job.
My job duties grew, as they generally do, and before long, the part-time job became a full-time job. After a couple years, my wife and I decided to relocate from Chicago to the Atlanta area. I was fortunate enough to find a full-time coordinator position. I didn’t know it yet — or maybe I just didn’t realize it at the time — but recreation was now my career.
I was at my first job in the Atlanta area for a little more than three years. At that point, another position with a neighboring agency became vacant. The position offered more money and better facilities. I hated to leave, but I couldn’t turn it down. That was my work home for 18 years. My duties grew over the years, and the position seemed “safe.” However, around 2008, the economy declined. Like a lot of agencies, we had to make some pretty extreme cutbacks. We lost about half of our full-time staff. I was fortunate to retain my job, but at the same time this was going on, our director retired. I and one other coordinator interviewed for the position. I had more experience and had worked for several agencies, whereas he had only worked at ours, but he had obtained his CPRP certification, and I had not. You can probably guess who got that job.
The Career Moment
Looking back, it was probably good that I didn’t get that position. I don’t think I was ready to lead that agency. But the experience made me think about my future as a recreation professional. Eventually, I was promoted to programs manager, which was, essentially, the assistant director. I was there a few more years when I was given the opportunity to leave and take on the bigger challenge of being a department director. I have been in that role successfully, I’d like to think, for almost three years now.
There was a time in my career when I was happy with my job and didn’t really think about advancement or taking on additional challenges. I felt that I was good at what I was doing, was working for a good agency and could see myself staying there until retirement. That was, frankly, not the right attitude. The fact is, if you aren’t advancing or at least building on your skill set, you are stagnating. The world is changing very quickly — are you keeping up? Political environments change. Economic environments change. Will your job always exist? Will you be ready if it doesn’t? Beyond that, do you want to be doing the exact same thing you are doing now for the rest of your career? Some people do, and sometimes that works for them. But, as you build your skill set and gain experience in this field, you’re building something else — your ability to lead.
In my case, I have been involved, on some level, in many distinct aspects of this field. I have prepped ballfields, organized parades, processed payroll and prepared budgets. I have hired people, and I have had to let some go. All those experiences made me a park and recreation professional. Your agency and our field need people with these experiences and skills. And we need people who can lead the next generation of professionals. If that’s not you yet, it will be — and soon!
Parks and recreation doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. It is usually the first thing that gets cut when budgets are tight. That can — and often does — mean that positions are lost. If you want your park and recreation job to be your park and recreation career, you should consider the following:
Get your CPRP certification now! Even though I was encouraged by my longtime employer to get my CPRP, I put it off for several years. It wasn’t required in my coordinator position, and I didn’t see the value to me in that position. As I mentioned earlier, not having my CPRP probably cost me a chance at advancement. You may not think you need it now, but if the time comes that you want to or have to change jobs, you’ll be glad that you can put the letters CPRP after your name on your résumé. A CPRP shows your agency and prospective employers that you are a serious, dedicated park and recreation professional.
Take on new challenges. Just about every department has some level of specialization, and most park and recreation professionals start out in a specialty. Just about every department has opportunities to cross over into other areas. Most of us have been asked to help with a special event, or a camp or something that’s not in our area of expertise. Don’t shy away from those moments — they are not burdens; they’re opportunities. They help you expand your base of knowledge. And, they show your supervisors and your co-workers that you are a team player. And sometimes, they’re fun! Have you ever been the emcee of an Easter egg hunt? Have you dressed in a chicken costume for a wing fest? Or have you played Santa in a Christmas play? I have, and I had a blast every time!
Be open to relocation. This is a tough one. Most of us live where we live for reasons that may have little to do with work. Maybe you grew up there or your family is there. Maybe you just can’t imagine living anywhere else. Well, I understand. But have you looked at the NRPA Career Center lately? There are opportunities all over the country and some truly wonderful places to live and work. In my case, I lived in the Chicago area until I was 35. We moved because both my wife and I were, frankly, sick of freezing through every winter. I lived in the Atlanta area for 22 years, and I loved it! But, when the opportunity came to take this position, I knew that it was time. It didn’t hurt that my new opportunity was in sunny Florida! It was scary — I had never even been to Vero Beach. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t really know what I was getting into. But I’m glad to say that it has worked out very well. I like to think that our city manager, my boss, would agree with that statement. The point is, sometimes we have to work up the courage to make changes. Any opportunity for growth is also a risk. Be open to opportunities — even if they are risky.
Looking back, I couldn’t have predicted 30 years ago that I’d end up here, doing this. But I love the job, I love our profession — and I suspect that you do, too. So, let your job become your career and take the steps needed to make sure that you get the most out of it!
Jim O’Connell is Director of Vero Beach (Florida) Recreation Department.