Getting Back To BASICs

Author’s Note: This column is the first of two describing how some California parks and recreation professionals are addressing a pair of pressing national issues: 1. the widespread retirement of mid- to upper-level managers, and 2. “branding” parks and recreation to heighten its visibility, credibility and relevance.

It’s no secret that an estimated 30 percent of current parks and recreation staff may retire in the next decade. To meet the challenge of impending retirements, District IV of the California Parks and Recreation Society (CPRS) has been considering a proposal titled the Bay Area Succession Initiative Consortium (BASIC), a structured relationship among member parks and recreation organizations and state universities located at San Jose and San Francisco.

Simply, the plan centers on “mentoring” young people from the time they are involved as participants in public recreation programs through their graduation--degreed and certified--from either one of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)-accredited four-year universities.

Cradle To Grave

The process begins on the (play) ground, when observant parks and recreation staff notices program participants who not only enjoy the particular activity, but also show a genuine interest in assisting staff with program implementation. In a summer camp scenario, these are the young people who transition from campers to camp counselors. Under the proper mentoring, might they eventually become camp directors?

At some point the camper is introduced to the supervisor, who, during a break, “interviews” the camper to identify interest and assess capabilities. These contacts and informal meetings continue until the camper graduates from high school. By this time, the recreation supervisor is prepared to offer the (former) camper full-time summer employment, the faculty member has guided the student-to-be through university enrollment, and the graduate has secured tuition and registered for fall semester courses.

During following semesters, course content focuses on skills and concepts the student will need the following summers, and the coursework contains elements of practice and service. In turn, the recreation supervisor offers the student part-time work while the university is in session, full-time work between semesters and positions of ever-increasing responsibility as the years pass, culminating in a paid internship senior year.

Upon graduation from the university, the student sits for the Certified Parks and Recreation Professional (CPRP) certificate, and is prepared to accept a supervisory position either at the sponsoring agency or elsewhere.

The Ingredients

Ultimate success requires all parties to contribute two ingredients--prior preparation (especially a recruitment mindset) and long-term commitment.

First, parks and recreation organizations will need to realistically assess retirement prospects, project those among current staff who may step into vacated positions, and determine where gaps may occur between those needed and those available. University departments must have up-to-date recruitment, enrollment and orientation materials (brochures, Web sites, etc.) and, most importantly, faculty who are willing to make on-site visits to personally speak with prospective mentees.

Second, parks and recreation agencies must be committed to provide both part-time and full-time employment to their mentees throughout the four or five years required to complete the sequence. One crucial issue seems to be the ability of parks and recreation agencies to “guarantee” these employment opportunities.

Similarly, universities must ensure that their curriculums substantially match the skills and competencies required for success in the professional environment. NRPA accreditation serves only as a guideline, and any discussion regarding the relevance of academic training to the professional environment will soon reveal some degree of disconnect between the two. (Indeed, the aims of parks and recreation theory and practice historically have been at odds.) A balance must be maintained between the practical skills required for day-to-day operations and the conceptual, holistic learning promoted by liberal arts institutions.

Retirements are a natural part of every organization’s life-span. The question is, has your organization prepared for this BASIC condition?

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at