A city’s parks and recreation director reports to the city manager or an assistant city manager and manages all activities of the parks and recreation department. All staff in the department report to the director.
Parks and recreation directors routinely interact with other department heads. For example, the parks and recreation director works with the finance department to determine the department’s annual budget, with the city attorney to ensure that legal liability is mitigated and with the public information officer to create marketing campaigns promoting department services.
Parks and recreation directors make frequent presentations to the city council and to an advisory board usually called the parks and recreation board or parks and recreation commission. The director forms strong personal relationships with parks and recreation board members and collegial relationships with city council members. The director relies on the city manager for advice on presenting to the city council.
Parks managers are responsible for the maintenance and operations of city parks. They develop maintenance schedules and hold their staff accountable for carrying out the tasks necessary to keep parks clean and safe. Parks managers help the director create and update the city’s parks plan that projects when construction of new parks and major renovations to existing parks will take place.
Parks maintenance supervisors oversee the daily work of parks maintenance crews. Sometimes they pitch in to help with manual labor, but their primary role is to ensure the work is done safely and efficiently. New supervisors are often promoted from the crews they just worked on. Managing a group that used to be peers brings its own unique challenges.
Parks maintenance workers take care of the landscapes, hardscapes, structures, and equipment within parks. Their mowing, edging, pruning, trimming, and countless other tasks keep parks pristine for citizens. The work requires an attention to safety to avoid injuring themselves or others.
Recreation managers oversee recreation activities the city administers for its citizens. Recreation coordinators report to the recreation manager.
They help parks and recreation directors create recreation plans and budgets. Plans can cover one or multiple years. Budgets typically cover one year, but they are made with both long-range and short-range plans in mind.
Recreation managers keep up with maintenance schedules for recreation facilities and equipment. Faulty or unsafe equipment can leave the city legally liable if accidents happen.
Recreation coordinators deliver recreation services directly to citizens. They report to recreation managers and may supervise part-time staff or volunteers.
They most often work with youth and senior adults as these two groups tend to consume recreation services more than others. Recreation coordinators ensure a safe environment for their customers by modeling safe behavior and enforcing rules. They often work evening and weekend hours.
Aquatics managers supervise operations of aquatics centers. Head lifeguards and lifeguards are under their line of supervision. There may be a few other staff at the aquatics center, but lifeguarding staff comprises the vast majority of employees.
A big challenge for aquatics managers is the age of their staff. Most city lifeguards are teenagers who, by virtue of their young age, do not have more than a few years of paid work experience. Aquatics managers often have to teach their staff how to be an employee, helping them learn good habits like coming in on time, staying on task and treating customers with respect.
With this young staff come a high turnover rate; aquatics managers are constantly hiring and training new staff.
Head lifeguards play a precarious role. They often do not have managerial authority over lifeguards, but they direct lifeguards’ work under broad guidance from the aquatics manager. Head lifeguards are lifeguards who have proven technical proficiency and have shown leadership potential. They do not only model safe behavior for swimmers but for lifeguards as well.
Lifeguards protect swimmers by enforcing rules and attending to swimmers in distress. While most are very young, they must present themselves as authority figures and command respect. The challenge is doing this while maintaining a customer service attitude.
Since lifeguards are at the bottom of the organizational structure of the aquatics center, they often have to do the tasks that no one else wants to do. If the bathroom needs cleaning and the janitorial staff is not scheduled to show up for another hour, guess who grabs the mop.
Open water lifeguards patrol beaches and other shorelines to keep swimmers safe. They put themselves in more dangerous situations than other lifeguards and have more extensive training. They often have EMT certifications.
Careers in a Parks and Recreation Department
Park land, recreation centers, and aquatics centers give people low-cost and no-cost ways to remain physically active and enjoy the outdoors, and parks and recreation departments contribute to the overall quality of life in a city.
Working in parks and recreation can be a rewarding career choice if you're interested in playing while you work!