Image: Maya Havusha, Amelea Canaris and Cyrina King at Slide Ranch (Photo by Jonah Most)
MUIR BEACH, Calif. — At 7:00 AM Cyrina King often starts her workday taking the temperature of the compost pile. A recent graduate from Bard College, King is working as a summer counselor at Slide Ranch, a Marin-based organization that teaches farm skills and environmental science to children.
The pay may be minimal, but the position comes with perks that staff say far exceed those offered in corporate offices, including tent lodging, unlimited goat cheese, great views and a fantastic community.
Choosing to pursue work outdoors, some young adults today in Northern California are defying expectations of a generation thought to be too obsessed with technology to have interest in the great outdoors.
The average adolescent spends 7.5 hours per day consuming entertainment media, leaving little time for much else. Youth obesity rates are at record highs and attendance levels at US national forests and state parks have been declining for several decades.
But, while addiction to screens keeps many indoors, some young adults are rejecting this trend and are declining to spend their time tuned-in, logged-on or otherwise zoned out.
Employment is one area where young adults’ interest in the outdoors is most visible. For recent graduates, choosing a career is often the most important decision they have ever made and some are rejecting the notion that a college degree is a license to sit in front of a computer 8 hours per day.
King said that she believes this is characteristic of her generation’s unique position as the last to grow up before the proliferation of portable electronic devises. Personally witnessing the rise of electronic media, she said she feels she has a responsibility to sustain interest in the outdoors.
This sentiment is reflective of Richard Louv’s book The Last Child In the Woods, published in 2005, in which Louv writes about psychological and behavioral problems associated with diminished time spent outdoors in childhood.
“I was encouraged to find that many people now of college age — those who belong to the first generation to grow up in a largely de-natured environment — have tasted just enough nature to intuitively understand what they have missed,” Louv writes in the introduction of his book.
“This yearning is a source of power. These young people resist the rapid slide from the real to the virtual, from the mountains to the Matrix. They do not intend to be the last children in the woods,” he writes.
Various staff members at Slide Ranch say that working in an office setting simply does not appeal to them. King said that she has instead found learning farm skills empowering. Other opportunities for recent graduates, such as working for a large established company, “are really limited and really fake,” she said.
Maya Havusha, who works with King, said that spending long hours indoors conducting research for her thesis convinced her to pursue a career that involved working outdoors.
Her job at the ranch involves working with children, milking goats and attending to a variety of other farm chores.
Havusha said she was also motivated to work at the ranch because she feels responsible for teaching future generations about the environment. She said that teaching is one way she feels that she can make a real impact.
“Our kids probably won’t know anyone who doesn’t know what the Internet is,” she said. What we’re teaching the kids is just the bare minimum. “It’s basic level stuff, this is a goat, not a cow.”
At UC Berkeley, the student career office has seen a growing interest in the environmental field in recent years. The career office has begun offering a specialized green career jobs fair, which showcases opportunities in industry, sciences and community non-profits, including opportunities that would bring students outdoors.
“I think there are a number of students for whom the idea of working 9-5 at a desk sounds very limiting and a little dreary,” said Suzanne Helbig, Assistant Director of the Career Center at UC Berkeley in a phone interview. “It’s not something they’re used to. Especially being college students, they’re out walking about from building to building, from topic to topic so a lot of this desire comes from wanting variety in their jobs,” she said.
While there are enticing opportunities for those seeking work outdoors, there is also stiff competition.
The East Bay Regional Park District, which offers paid student internships in natural sciences and environmental education, receives typically 200 applications for just 10-12 internship positions. Among applicants, about 60 percent indicate that they would prefer a position outdoors as opposed to a desk job.
“People have grown up going to our parks and to hear that there is actually a paid internship available at the park district is almost unbelievable,” said Sonja Stanchina, a human resources officer for the agency, characterizing the response of applicants.
Positions for the National Park Service’s approximately 10,000 seasonal positions are often competitive as well but the perks have no comparison in office work, said Park Service Spokesperson Kathy Kupper. “Park rangers get paid in sunsets,” she said, adding that staff at the park service have the opportunity to be “working in places where people travel to and spend money just to go on vacation.”
There has been about a 10 percent increase in applications for seasonal positions at the park service, according to Kupper.
Many popular outdoor careers, such as botanists, foresters, landscape architects and wildlife biologists have higher than average pay but are projected to grow at slightly slower rates than the overall workforce, according the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But, the summer already half over, in early-July King and Havusha were searching again for jobs.
For this, they must return inside to their computers. It felt ironic, Havusha said. “I was emailing [potential employers] saying that I want to spend my life with kids outside.”
For others, working at a park for the summer is just a way to soak in some sunlight before beginning an indoor career, which some believe to be an inevitable reality. Kupper said that she finds about 20 percent of seasonal employees intend to later pursue careers in completely unrelated fields, such as in law or accounting. These employees figure “I’ve got a couple summers to live the dream, to work with my hands,” she said.
Jobs outdoors offer these individuals “an opportunity to work outside before they’re looking at it from the inside out,” she said.
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