Recreation Workers

Significant Points

  • The recreation field has an unusually large number of part-time, seasonal, and volunteer jobs.
  • Educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a graduate degree.
  • Competition will remain keen for full-time career positions; persons with formal training and experience gained in part-time or seasonal recreation jobs should have the best opportunities.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

People spend much of their leisure time participating in a wide variety of organized recreational activities, such as aerobics, arts and crafts, little league baseball, tennis, camping, and softball. Recreation workers plan, organize, and direct these activities in local playgrounds and recreation areas, parks, community centers, health clubs, religious organizations, camps, theme parks, and most tourist attractions. Increasingly, recreational workers are also found in workplaces, where they organize and direct leisure activities and athletic programs for employees of all ages.

These workers hold a variety of positions at different levels of responsibility. Recreation leaders, who are responsible for a recreation program’s daily operation, primarily organize and direct participants. They may lead and give instruction in dance, drama, crafts, games, and sports; schedule use of facilities and keep records of equipment use; and ensure recreation facilities and equipment are used properly. Workers who provide instruction and coach teams in specialties such as art, music, drama, swimming, or tennis may be called activity specialists.

Recreation supervisors oversee recreation leaders and also plan, organize, and manage recreational activities to meet the needs of a variety of populations. These workers often serve as liaisons between the director of the park or recreation center and the recreation leaders. Recreation supervisors with more specialized responsibilities may also direct special activities or events and oversee a major activity, such as aquatics, gymnastics, or performing arts.

Directors of recreation and parks develop and manage comprehensive recreation programs in parks, playgrounds, and other settings. Directors usually serve as technical advisors to State and local recreation and park commissions and may be responsible for recreation and park budgets.

Camp counselors lead and instruct children and teenagers in outdoor-oriented forms of recreation, such as swimming, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. In addition, counselors provide campers with specialized instruction in activities such as archery, boating, music, drama, gymnastics, tennis, and computers. In resident camps, counselors also provide guidance and supervise daily living and general socialization. (Workers in a related occupation, recreational therapists, help individuals recover or adjust to illness, disability, or specific social problems; this occupation is described elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

The work setting for recreation workers may vary from a cruise ship, to a woodland recreational park, to a playground in the center of a large urban community. Regardless of setting, most recreation workers spend much of their time outdoors and may work in a variety of weather conditions. Recreation directors and supervisors, however, typically spend most of their time in an office, planning programs and special events. Because full-time recreation workers spend more time acting as managers than as hands-on activities leaders, they engage in less physical activity. Nevertheless, recreation workers at all levels risk suffering an injury during physical activities.

Most recreation workers put in about 40 hours a week. People entering this field, especially camp counselors, should expect some night and weekend work and irregular hours. About 3 out of 10 work part time, and many jobs are seasonal.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Recreation workers held about 241,000 jobs in 1998, and many additional workers held summer jobs in this occupation. Of those with year-round jobs as recreation workers, about half worked in park and recreation departments of municipal and county governments. Nearly 1 in 4 worked in membership organizations, such as the Boy or Girl Scouts, the YMCA, and Red Cross, or worked for programs run by social service organizations, including senior centers, adult daycare programs, or residential care facilities like halfway houses, group homes, and institutions for delinquent youth. Another 1 out of 10 worked for nursing and other personal care facilities.

Other employers of recreation workers included commercial recreation establishments, amusement parks, sports and entertainment centers, wilderness and survival enterprises, tourist attractions, vacation excursion companies, hotels and resorts, summer camps, health and athletic clubs, and apartment complexes.

The recreation field has an unusually large number of part-time, seasonal, and volunteer jobs. These jobs include summer camp counselors, lifeguards, craft specialists, and after-school and weekend recreation program leaders. In addition, many teachers and college students accept jobs as recreation workers when school is not in session. The vast majority of volunteers serve as activity leaders at local day-camp programs, or in youth organizations, camps, nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers, YMCAs, and other settings. Some volunteers serve on local park and recreation boards and commissions. Volunteer experience, part-time work during school, or a summer job can lead to a full-time career as a recreation worker.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Educational requirements for recreation workers range from a high school diploma, or sometimes less for many summer jobs, to graduate degrees for some administrative positions in large public recreation systems. Full-time career professional positions usually require a college degree with a major in parks and recreation or leisure studies, but a bachelor’s degree in any liberal arts field may be sufficient for some jobs in the private sector. In industrial recreation, or "employee services" as it is more commonly called, companies prefer to hire those with a bachelor’s degree in recreation or leisure studies and a background in business administration.

Specialized training or experience in a particular field, such as art, music, drama, or athletics, is an asset for many jobs. Some jobs also require certification. For example, when teaching or coaching water-related activities, a lifesaving certificate is a prerequisite. Graduates of associate degree programs in parks and recreation, social work, and other human services disciplines also enter some career recreation positions. High school graduates occasionally enter career positions, but this is not common. Some college students work part time as recreation workers while earning degrees.

A bachelor’s degree and experience are preferred for most recreation supervisor jobs and required for most higher-level administrator jobs. However, increasing numbers of recreation workers who aspire to administrator positions obtain master’s degrees in parks and recreation or related disciplines. Also, many persons in other disciplines, including social work, forestry, and resource management, pursue graduate degrees in recreation.

Programs leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation, leisure studies, or related fields are offered at several hundred colleges and universities. Many also offer master’s or doctoral degrees in this field. In 1997, 93 bachelor’s degree programs in parks and recreation were accredited by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Accredited programs provide broad exposure to the history, theory, and practice of park and recreation management. Courses offered include community organization, supervision and administration, recreational needs of special populations, such as older adults or the disabled, and supervised fieldwork. Students may specialize in areas such as therapeutic recreation, park management, outdoor recreation, industrial or commercial recreation, and camp management.

The American Camping Association offers workshops and courses for experienced camp directors at different times and locations throughout the year. Some national youth associations offer training courses for camp directors at the local and regional levels.

Persons planning recreation careers should be outgoing, good at motivating people, and sensitive to the needs of others. Good health and physical fitness are typically required, while activity planning calls for creativity and resourcefulness. Individuals contemplating careers in recreation at the supervisory or administrative level should develop managerial skills. College courses in management, business administration, accounting, and personnel management are likely to be useful.

Certification in the recreation field is offered by the NRPA National Certification Board. The NRPA, along with its State chapters, offers certification as a Certified Leisure Professional (CLP) for those with a college degree in recreation, and as a Certified Leisure Technician (CLT) for those with less than 4 years of college. Other NRPA certifications include Certified Leisure Provisional Professional (CLPP), Certified Playground Inspector (CPI), and Aquatic Facility Operations (AFO) Certification. Continuing education is necessary to remain certified.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Competition will remain keen for career positions in recreation, as the number of jobseekers for full-time positions is expected to exceed the number of job openings. Opportunities for staff positions should be best for persons with formal training and experience gained in part-time or seasonal recreation jobs. Those with graduate degrees should have the best opportunities for supervisory or administrative positions.

Prospects are better for those seeking the large number of temporary, seasonal jobs. These positions, which are typically filled by high school or college students, do not generally have formal education requirements and are open to anyone with the desired personal qualities. Employers compete for a share of the vacationing student labor force, and although salaries in recreation are often lower than those in other fields, the nature of the work and the opportunity to work outdoors is attractive to many. Seasonal employment prospects as program directors should be good for applicants with specialized training and certification in an activity like swimming.

Employment of recreation workers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2008, as growing numbers of people spend more time and money on leisure services. Growth in these jobs will also stem from increased interest in fitness and health and the rising demand for recreational opportunities for older adults in senior centers and retirement communities. In particular, jobs will increase in social services as more recreation workers are needed to develop and lead activity programs in senior centers, halfway houses, children’s homes, and daycare programs for people with special needs.

Recreation worker jobs will also continue to increase as more businesses recognize the benefits of recreation programs and other services like wellness programs and elder care. Job growth will also occur in the commercial recreation industry—in amusement parks, athletic clubs, camps, sports clinics, and swimming pools.

Employment of recreation workers in local government—where nearly half of these workers are employed—is expected to grow more slowly than in other industries due to budget constraints. As a result, some local park and recreation departments are expected to do less hiring for permanent, full-time positions than in the past. Because resources and priorities for public services differ from one community to another, this sector’s share of recreation worker employment will vary widely by region.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median hourly earnings of recreation workers who worked full time in 1998 were $7.93. The middle 50 percent earned between about $6.14 and $10.65, while the top 10 percent earned $14.74 or more. However, earnings of recreation directors and others in supervisory or managerial positions can be substantially higher. Hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of recreation workers in 1997 were:

Nursing and personal care facilities $8.10
Local government, except education and hospitals 8.00
Individual and family services 7.30
Civic and social associations 6.80
Miscellaneous amusement and recreation services 6.20

Most public and private recreation agencies provide full-time recreation workers with typical benefits; part-time workers receive few, if any, benefits.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Recreation workers must exhibit leadership and sensitivity in dealing with people. Other occupations that require similar personal qualities include recreational therapists, social workers, parole officers, human relations counselors, school counselors, clinical and counseling psychologists, and teachers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For information on jobs in recreation, contact employers such as local government departments of parks and recreation, nursing and personal care facilities, and YMCAs.

Ordering information for materials describing careers and academic programs in recreation is available from:

  • National Recreation and Park Association, Division of Professional Services, 22377 Belmont Ridge Road, Ashburn, VA 20148-4501. Internet: http://www.nrpa.org

For information on careers in employee services and corporate recreation, contact:

Selected industries employing recreation workers that appear in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries:

O*NET Codes: 27311 About the O*NET codes

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