August 2016 | Volume 22, Number 2
BY GABRIELLE SNIDER
Competition for talent is one of the leading challenges facing many of today’s organizations. Recruitment and retention of top talent in public service organizations and agencies is more important than ever in a work environment with persistent low employee engagement scores and an emerging generation of workers who are expecting more from their employers in terms of growth, training, and career ladder opportunities. Talent management for wilderness professionals is no different. With increasingly complex issues facing wilderness managers (e.g., climate change, ecological restoration, drought, fire and disease, high recreation use, technology, and decreasing budgets), recruiting and keeping the best and brightest to manage wilderness areas should be a paramount goal across all agencies with wilderness management responsibilities.
The USDA Forest Service has a strategic goal to “excel as a high performing agency,” with key objectives to “attract and retain top employees,” “promote an inclusive culture,” and “recruit a diverse workforce” (USDA Forest Service 2015). Although much is being done by the Forest Service to reach this goal, several challenges to retaining experienced and qualified wilderness specialists have been identified within the Forest Service wilderness program. Recent efforts led by the chief ’s Wilderness Advisory Group (WAG) have been undertaken to address some of these challenges.
In 2013, the WAG responded to concerns raised by wilderness specialists about the apparent lack of a well-defined career ladder in wilderness management within the Forest Service. It published a white paper titled The Forest Service Wilderness Career Ladder: In Search of the Missing Rungs (Wilderness Advisory Group 2013), outlining key career ladder barriers, relevant personnel case studies, and several possible solutions to identified obstacles. The paper found employees with significant wilderness management experience gained through progressively responsible field positions (e.g., Lead Wilderness Ranger) had extreme difficulty breaking into higher level management positions for a variety of bureaucratic and administrative reasons. Confronted with these challenges, many felt trapped in their current positions with no opportunity for advancement, resulting in low morale and in some cases leaving the agency for private sector jobs where their skills, experience, and education would be more recognized. From the agency perspective, loss or lack of advancement of these employees represents a loss of highly valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities, sometimes gained over decades, from the Forest Service wilderness program.
Understanding the Barriers
Most wilderness and recreation management positions in the Forest Service are currently classified in the GS-0401 General Natural Resources Management and Biological Sciences Series. The General Schedule (GS) establishes a pay scale with progressively higher salary from GS-01 (e.g., entry level Forestry Aid) to GS-15 (e.g., Forest Supervisor), and the series indicates the occupational group to which the position belongs (i.e., biological science, engineering, administrative). To qualify for General Natural Resources Management and Biological Sciences Series, an applicant must have either a degree in a biological science, agriculture, natural resource management, chemistry, or related discipline or a combination of education (at least 24 semester credit hours) and appropriate experience. Although the GS-0401 Series recognizes wilderness management as a natural resources management function, wilderness and recreation undergraduate and graduate degree programs at US universities and colleges do not typically include a sufficient scientific component and “related discipline” coursework to qualify for the GS-0401 Series. For example, a candidate with a wilderness or recreation management undergraduate or master’s degree that does not also include 24 semester hours of biological (or related) sciences would not qualify for a wilderness manager position, whereas a candidate with a microbiology or chemistry degree and no wilderness management coursework would. Additionally, entry into the Forest Service wilderness and recreation program is frequently through the GS-0462 Forestry Technician Series (GS-8 and below), while positions at or above the GS-9 level are usually classified in the professional GS-0401 General Natural Resource Management Series. Relevant work experience gained in a “technical” position is consistently not counted toward qualifying for a “professional” position, even when work assignments overlap substantially and when technicians have successfully demonstrated professional level competency. As a result, highly qualified candidates with relevant education and/or experience are frequently disqualified from wilderness and recreation management positions in this framework.
Building Tools to Increase Flexibility
To address this situation, the WAG/Human Resources Management (HRM) group has developed a full suite of recreation and wilderness management position descriptions (PDs) classified in the GS-0301 Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series (GS-5 through GS-12). Positions in this series do not have a minimum education requirement, but they do involve the type of analytic, research, writing, and judgment skills typically gained through a university level education or through progressively responsible experience. Prospective candidates who gain applicable program knowledge and skills through extensive and progressive field experience and training in series such as the 0462 Forestry Technician would qualify for this series. This constitutes the elusive “bridge” from technician to manager positions that has been missing from the wilderness career ladder in the USFS land management context. Additionally, candidates from wilderness and recreation undergraduate and graduate degree programs who do not meet the scientific component or the “related discipline” requirement of the GS-0401 Series would now qualify for the GS-0301 Series. Adding this new series to the existing set of PDs classified for wilderness positions affords maximum flexibility and benefit in the recruitment, retention, and advancement of employees within the recreation and wilderness program area by recognizing the diversity of education and experience relevant in wilderness management positions.
Some challenges and misperceptions must be overcome for the 0301 Series to gain widespread acceptance across the USFS Wilderness and Recreation programs. Wilderness professionals currently classified in the Professional Series may be reluctant to accept positions in the Administrative series, fearing lack of flexibility and mobility in future desired positions. However, other program areas that have adopted the Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series categorization (Fire and GIS) have not found these barriers to exist in reality; in fact, positions at the highest level within the Forest Service (line officers and directors) are frequently hired utilizing the Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series. Another possible challenge may include hiring and human resource managers and staff being unaware of the new series or unfamiliar with its values and benefits, missing opportunities to advertise positions so they are accessible to the most qualified applicants. Therefore, use of this new series will take education, outreach, and time: the more the Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series is used in a wilderness management application, the more positions will be outreached, advertised, and filled using this series, and the more likely hiring managers and candidates will take advantage of these new position descriptions. The value of providing a career path for high-performing, experienced, and qualified candidates into positions with increasing wilderness responsibility and leadership will improve employee morale, benefit recruitment and retention, and ultimately benefit the wilderness resource.
The Future Is Bright
Retaining top talent in wilderness management is an important management goal. As we are faced with the next wave of retirements and look to advance the next generation of wilderness professionals, continually improving and developing tools to advance the most experienced and qualified individuals will serve the wilderness resource well. We may even see increased engagement of current and prospective candidates interested in a career in wilderness and the retention of the skills and experience necessary for the complex, yet rewarding, work of wilderness management.
Progress on this issue would not have been possible without the initiative, dedication, and support from the USFS’s chief’s Wilderness Advisory Group (past and current representatives), the USFS Human Resources Management Group (especially, Anita Valdez), Washington Office Wilderness staff, and the many employees who shared their stories and suggestions for improving career ladder opportunities within the Forest Service Wilderness program.
USDA Forest Service. 2015. USDA Forest Service Strategic Plan: FY 2015-2020. FS-1045. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Retrieved from http://www.fs.fed.us/strategicplan.
Wilderness Advisory Group. 2013. The Forest Service Wilderness Career Ladder: In Search of the Missing Rungs. Retrieved from http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/documents/FS/WAG_Wilderness%20career%20ladder.pdf.
GABRIELLE SNIDER is the Region 6 Forest Service Wilderness Advisory Group representative and manages wilderness, climbing, outfitters, and guides on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.