Maintaining a trained and energetic workforce is a challenge in today’s austere budget environment.
With increasing demand to “do more with less,” layoffs, retirements of key employees, and reductions in operating hours, park and recreation agencies need to be creative in their approach to recruiting and developing young talent.
Offering internship opportunities is one way to effectively identify and train future leaders.
Students trained in parks and recreation, sports administration, recreation management, and related fields often cite their internship experience as one of the most beneficial aspects of the college curriculum.
While students clearly see the value of internships, numerous obstacles may limit their selection as well as their satisfaction of an internship experience. For example, many students who aspire to be park and recreation professionals are challenged with increased tuition costs, financial limitations, uncertain career paths, and curriculum requirements.
More recently, students have found that internships offering paid stipends, opportunities for future job placement, and other financial perks (e.g., free housing and meals) are more limited than ever before.
Understanding the challenges faced by students can assist these organizations in developing innovative strategies for recruiting, training, and retaining qualified young professionals, thus improving the field’s ability to sustain its workforce into the next decade.
In order to address these issues, a survey of park and recreation seniors from two college programs in Pennsylvania was conducted to learn more about the challenges faced when deciding upon an internship site. This article presents the key findings from that study and offers potential solutions for reducing perceived barriers to increase the attractiveness of an organization.
On average, students considered two to four agencies for their internship. Besides wanting to complete their graduation requirements, students were also motivated to apply their skills, to experience something new, and contribute their ideas.
The following are two typical student responses:
• “I was excited to find out my internship site.”
• “I wanted to choose a site that would parallel my academic focus as well as my personal interest.”
Lastly, and not surprisingly, a large percentage of the students (almost one-half) were hoping their internship would lead to a future job at that site.
In order to better understand what students expect from their internships, participants were asked what they believed was the role of the internship agency. A five-part Likert-type scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neutral, 4=agree, and 5=strongly agree) was used to determine this.
Overall, the top-three responses (based on scores of 4 and 5) by students were that park and recreation agencies should:
• Provide orientation and training opportunities for professional development (89%)
• Allow students to lead programs (85%)
• Allow students to manage staff (52%).
Participants were provided a list of potential barriers that might hinder their internship choice and were asked to rate the importance of these barriers on a 5-point scale (1=not a barrier, 3=somewhat of a barrier, and 5=a significant barrier). However, barriers did not appear overwhelming for students.
For example, almost one-half (44%) of the students reported that the barriers did not impede their selection. However, barriers cited by a sizable percentage (scoring a 3, 4, or 5) of the sample were:
• The internship did not provide a stipend (56%).
• There was no free housing (46%).
• Internship choices were too far from my home (37%).
• I felt I did not have enough skills to do a good job at my internship (33%).
• I did not give myself enough time to consider options for my internship (32%).
Remove or Reduce Barriers
Before examining how agencies can remove or reduce barriers for potential interns, it must be noted that some of the barriers students face are beyond the agencies’ control. For example, one of the frequent barriers listed was that students did not give themselves enough time to consider internship options. In many cases, students acknowledged they started the process far too late in the semester.
Student comments included:
• “There are so many things that need to be addressed when finding an internship.”
• “It was difficult deciding what to do.”
• “It adds a lot of pressure.”
Additionally, some students felt the university was unrealistic with deadlines, thus causing students to feel rushed to make an internship choice. Cleary, this is an issue for universities to address.
Payment and Stipends
Although paid internships make agencies more attractive to potential applicants, budget limitations may not allow for compensation. However, agencies may financially assist interns in other ways.
For example, when interns are not scheduled to work, there might be opportunities for paid part-time employment (e.g., food service, child care, front desk, housekeeping, etc.) on a flexible basis. Not only will interns be helped financially, but they can gain a better understanding of the entire operation.
Depending on what agencies can offer, incentive considerations might include free meals or the use of recreation programs.
Lastly, it’s always helpful for interns to learn of the typical expenses while working at an agency. In part, this will better prepare students to plan and adequately save for their internship.
Housing can be a significant cost for those who need to relocate for their internship. However, there are numerous, innovative ways agencies can assist interns with housing.
Depending on agency resources, some may want to consider working in collaboration with hotels, universities, and employees who already live there. Nearby hotels often provide reduced rates to students (especially during non-peak seasons) with a guaranteed stay of 10 to 15 weeks. Of course, the more interns staying, the better the rate to be negotiated.
Providing students with the contact information of other interns (with approval) is helpful. Interns can organize roommates and reduce the overall rental costs in advance of their placement. If a list of current interns cannot be provided, consider asking previous interns if they would be willing to be contacted for a housing referral.
Internships Far From Home
Because of this barrier, it is difficult to offer any concrete recommendations. However, the study suggests many interns do not want to travel too far from home. This, along with the financial constraints (e.g., the internship doesn’t provide a stipend or free housing), suggests there are multiple considerations in the decision-making process.
In other words, students may want to select a local internship in order to live at home and save money. Regardless, that opens the door for more local providers to consider how they might reach potential interns.
Lack of Time for Selection
“I did not give myself enough time to make my internship selection” and “The agency that I wanted to go to did not get back to me” were two recurring themes reported by students in the open-ended questions of the study.
Both the student and the agency have a role to play in the coordination and confirmation of an internship site. However, it is suspected that many students select an internship over others because the person in charge (at the agency) responded first. Ironically, these students are often the most motivated ones in conscientiously trying to meet university deadlines for site selection.
Regardless, both the agency and the student need to respond quickly to secure placement.
Students are well aware of the university deadlines to select and confirm an internship site. Therefore, agencies should also be aware of these deadlines, and try to notify students early in the process if an interview needs to be scheduled or additional documentation is required. Furthermore, agencies need to provide advance notice of any additional internship requirements prior to placement.
For example, if students are required to have a background check, first-aid certification, a driver’s license, or insurance, they need ample time to complete these requirements. Advertising any pre-internship requirements and corresponding deadlines on internship materials (e.g., websites, pamphlets, and fliers) is helpful.
Parks and recreation agencies have numerous challenges recruiting and maintaining a qualified workforce. As budgets decrease and pressure increases, the agencies are looking for college interns to fill their personnel gap and train the next generation of professionals.
When agencies take the appropriate steps to eliminate or reduce student barriers, agencies will see an increase in the number of intern applications, placements, and overall satisfaction with the experience.
Kimberly Batty currently teaches in the Recreation Management department at Lock Haven University; she is the academic advisor to 32 students, and assists with internship placements. Prior to teaching, she was a Recreation Supervisor at Centre Region Parks and Recreation in State College, Penn., and an Athletic Director in Christchurch, New Zealand. Recently, she completed her Ph.D. at Penn State in Workforce Education and Development.
Dr. Andrew J. Mowen is an Associate Professor in the Recreation, Park and Tourism Management Department at Penn State. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in park administration, park planning, and research methods. Prior to his appointment at Penn State, he was the manager of research and program evaluation at Cleveland Metroparks in Ohio.