193+: Millennial Employees and Rural Places: A Millennial’s Thoughts About Increasing Forest Service Recruitment and Retention in Rural Places by Don Radcliffe

Don Radcliffe

This is the third  in our series of posts by the original authors summarizing, riffing on, and updating essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres.

The original title of the essay was Millennial Employees and Rural Places: A Millennial Forester’s Thoughts about Increasing Young Employee Recruitment and Retention in the National Forest System.  Information on the author, Don Radcliffe, can be found at the end of the post.

My essay for 193 Million Acres explored issues the Forest Service had with recruiting and retaining talented young employees, specifically within the national forest system. I was 26 and it was 2017 when I wrote it; I had worked for the Forest Service as a seasonal silviculture technician in a small western town in 2014 and 2015, then worked in construction with my family and did a forest policy internship with the Society of American Foresters, before going to graduate school for forestry and forest ecology. So the essay was based on personal experience, along with a bit of literature review. Working with my family’s general contracting business showed me that companies which treated their employees well usually had the best reputations for quality work, and greater longevity. My opinion was that the Forest Service was a decent place to work as a young person, but that it had a lot of room for improvement. When the opportunity arose to write for 193 Million Acres, I thought up seven recommendations for improvement in recruitment and retention of talented young employees in the Forest Service, which I’ll list out below.

But before listing out recommendations, I explored a couple important areas of background context: rural demographic patterns and attitudes of Millennials towards the workplace. The gist of the rural demographic section was that most rural spaces are becoming lonely places for people in their twenties. However, there are a few rural recreation destinations that tend to concentrate more young people, tending to focus around areas of natural beauty. These destinations have much turnover due to high housing prices in combination with unstable and low wage seasonal work. The gist of the Millennial attitudes section was that many of us Millennials want to make a positive impact in our work, seek consistent growth in our work, and we seek work-life balance. More so than past generations, we will change jobs and/or careers if these needs aren’t met. Often these characteristics are framed negatively, but I see them as an economic and survival imperative. We grew up in uncertain times with great changes in job markets and rising cost of living, and we grew up being taught about a wide variety of existential threats. If we aren’t constantly learning new skills, we risk being left behind by automation and/or political restructuring. If we aren’t making a positive impact in our work, we may not leave much of a world for our future children.

With this background of rural demographic patterns and millennial attitudes towards the workplace in mind, I listed seven recommendations to improve recruitment and retention of talented
young workers in the Forest Service. The recommendations mostly touch on issues that are much broader than the narrow context of this blog post, and I’m keeping them very brief here. And all these issues are also explored in some of the other essays in 193 Million Acres, to different degrees and with different focuses. Briefly, my recommendations were:

Recommendation 1: Diversify the work and provide more mentorship. Many 1039 seasonal employees have relatively monotonous experiences in a season with the Forest Service, and some have a greater variety of experiences. I think efforts to expand the breadth of a young seasonal’s experience is likely to increase their interest in the overall work of the Forest Service, and improve the chance they will return for a second season and beyond. Forests should place more emphasis on mentorship, which is a major factor by which millennials judge the quality of their job.
Personally, I got lucky in my seasonal position and was able to learn from working in a variety of tasks, and that was a major factor in deciding to return to the same job for a second season.

Recommendation 2: Promote on merit
Anyone reading this essay has probably at least heard stories about bad promotions and deadweight employees in government agencies. I don’t have the management experience in the Forest Service to really understand how problematic deadweight employees are or aren’t, and I’m not as sure that it’s a real problem as I used to be, as I’ve interacted with many very helpful Forest Service employees on several national forests both when I’ve been an employee and a grad student. But when I was a seasonal there was a narrative that being a good employee didn’t help you get promoted in the Forest Service, and that being a bad employee could get you promoted because it was the only way a boss could ‘get rid of you.’ Clearly that kind of narrative is going to be deterring to ambitious and talented young employees, and I think efforts to give promotions to those who deserve them will be motivating to talented young employees of the Forest Service.

Recommendation 3: Pay people what they’re worth
I’ve often seen pay raises being held back at the Forest Service. For example, a person with a college degree is supposed to make a GS-5 wage, but most people I know have been hired out of college at a GS-4 and kept there for one, two, up to four years. Even upper-level forestry positions like district silviculturists are often paid a couple GS levels less than what they’re supposed to be. Obviously holding pack pay increases doesn’t make the Forest Service an inviting place for talented young people with the skills to work elsewhere.

Recommendation 4: Hire more people

A major theme of my essay is that rural places are often lonely for young people. In a small Forest Service town, the community of seasonals is likely to provide most of the social life for employees fresh out of college. More seasonals and young permanents would mean a richer community, and more reasons to stick around. More jobs open generally may also decrease the need to move frequently to climb up the ladder, therefore increasing stability of the Forest Service lifestyle, for those who want it. Additionally, having more employees would increase the talent pool available to the Forest Service.

Recommendation 5: Make rural districts better places for young people
Those small towns with higher proportions of young people have a couple of common characteristics: ‘natural amenities’ defined by proximity to scenery, topographic variation, water, large
forested regions, and/or a pleasant climate, and access to recreation. For the most part, natural amenities are a set asset, and some places will have more than others. But Forest Service districts can work with the natural amenities they have to develop recreation opportunities that will give people of all ages more reasons to move to a town and stick with it. I won’t claim that developing recreation is a magic bullet: it can lead to well-known issues with rural gentrification, cultural clashes, and high turnover of residents. But from what I’ve seen in both the literature and from various places I’ve lived, developing recreation is the only option that small production-focused towns have for attracting and retaining young people with college degrees.

Recommendation 6: Recruit (and retain) a greater diversity of workers

The United States is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, and other dimensions of identity, and the Forest Service cannot adequately serve this diverse constituency without hiring and retaining a more diverse set of employees, and making them feel included in the agency. Additionally, an increasing number of young people prioritize being in communities and jobs where they are surrounded by a diversity of identities and viewpoints, as a matter of both self-growth and societal equity. The Forest Service has made strides to increase diversity and inclusion in the agency, but there is still a widespread perception and a reality of the Forest Service dominated by heterosexual white men. The agency will not fare well in recruitment and retention of young employees if it does not improve its reputation on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Recommendation 7: Promote forestry and inspire the general public
I think this is my most important recommendation in my essay. Since the day I decided to major in forestry I’ve been fielding questions like: ‘so you want to be a park ranger?’ Most often people that I interact with either don’t have any kind of schema for what forestry is, and they go straight to one end or the other of the ‘loggers vs. tree huggers’ dichotomy, depending on where they grew up and what their experiences in forests had been. I’ve often tried to explain forestry to a friend or loved one several times, and they end up going back to the dichotomy. In my time in grad school, several people have told me to call myself a researcher of forest ecology rather than a researcher of silviculture or forestry, because I would get more grant money. For decades college departments have been moving away from using the word ‘forestry’ in their name, like my department at the University of Washington. Career is such a defining part of identity in our culture, and the forestry community is surely losing both talented young people and the money to hire them to the lack of positive public perception of forestry. I think what we’re lacking is inspiration; I haven’t seen many folks successfully communicating what an inspiring job we have, working to balance many crucial societal needs at once. If we can do a better job at being inspiring about forestry, I think it would go a long way towards improving the Forest Service’s ability to recruit and retain young people.

Changes in my opinions since I wrote the essay in 2017

I don’t have many changes to my opinions since I wrote the original essay, but it’s possible some things are out of date already. My finger is less on the pulse of Forest Service affairs than it was in 2017; when my time with the Forest Service and with the Society of American Foresters was fresh and more relevant. Additionally, most of my experience and research was relevant to the Millennial generation that I’m a part of, but Generation Z is increasingly more relevant to discussions about young employees. There was little published research on Gen Z in the workplace when I was looking, and I haven’t had time to dig into any literature that’s been published since. My hunch is that Gen Z has similar attitudes towards the workplace to Millennials, and that it may be even more imperative for the Forest Service to pay attention to their needs and to my recommendations to recruit and retain Gen Z employees, but I don’t have a lot of hard evidence to back that up.

I am now a little more optimistic about the ability of small towns to attract and retain young people, after seeing movement patterns shift somewhat during the pandemic, when remote work untethered some employees from their employer’s location. Clearly there are some young people living in big cities for economic reasons when lifestyle preferences might lean more rural. I haven’t had time to research pandemic movement patterns in depth, but the fact that some young people did move out of cities when given the economic opportunity gives hope that small Forest Service towns will be able to attract and retain vibrant communities of talented young employees, if the Forest Service can provide a quality place of employment.

About the author
Don Radcliffe is currently studying fuel treatment longevity and rotation, as a PhD candidate in Brian Harvey’s lab at the University of Washington. He has previously worked for the Forest Service in Montana as a silviculture technician and firefighter, for the Society of American Foresters in Washington D.C. as a forest policy intern, and as a project manager with his parents’ construction company in Wisconsin. He has a B.S. in Forest Science and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and an M.S. in Environment and Natural Resources from Ohio State University, where he studied mesophication in oak forests. He is also on Twitter here.

7 thoughts on “193+: Millennial Employees and Rural Places: A Millennial’s Thoughts About Increasing Forest Service Recruitment and Retention in Rural Places by Don Radcliffe”

    • Wrong group Paul; this Agency was founded on conservation and providing goods and services to the American public! Preservation is the mantra of the Park Service; you need to go there…

    • Forestry is about managing forests for whatever… species of the landowners’ choice, carbon whatever. Not just logging and roadbuilding.

      As I heard Jerry Franklin say once about forest geneticists (at a giant R-6 Biodiversity Workshop in the 80’s) (paraphrase) your beef is not with the professionals, it’s with the landowners who have objectives, or in this case, as Jim Z says in his comment, the Congress who passed the legislation. Geneticists can inform tree improvement or conservation.. but they don’t pick the path. Foresters are the experts in the applied science that informs the “path-choosers.”

      This was a concept not found in the 80’s but I think what Franklin meant, if translated today, would be something like “don’t punch down.”

  1. I won’t argue point for point with the Author, I’ll just add a bit of reality to his observations. First, diversify; the FS has been on that road since I was an entry level professional in the late 70’s. Back then it was called “upward mobility”, or something of that verbiage. I guess I was living in a different world because about that time, women were coming into the workforce in professional roles. I didn’t think much of it (meaning; I didn’t see it as anything different than expectations) since women were in my classes in college. Business as usual.

    Before I retired, the diversity gauntlet was waved at every opportunity. I saw well represented candidates not be selected because of the diversity goal. I held a very tense argument with a DRF on a fantastic NEPA candidate while in Region 3. The DRF argued and would shut me down on every point I tried to make. Now, I am sort of a “player”, especially with people not onto my antics. Anyway, time was about up, my choice was not going to be selected, so I played my “hold” card; I mentioned she was Acoma….. case closed, got my candidate!

    As for life on a RD, it is what you make it! I was on several remotes before age 25, so I have walked the talk! I call bs on those identified recommendations!

    Pay? Earn it! Don’t settle for low pay, define a course of action to ascend in the organization. Once you look around in the FS, you’ll see many folks who (as you say to yourself) I can do better than that. I started as a GS 3, punching trees; most of you haven’t a clue what that means, but it is injecting trees with herbicide.

    I see the biggest failure in the hiring in passing up local talent. Folks who would work for free – or nearly so. Farm boys and girls, local, educated and driven. However, not diverse, so as they eventually tire of trying to “get on” with Uncle Sam, other individuals are moved into areas so different from their expectations they just won’t stay!

    A few observations….. I could go on a spell, but it’s supper time….

    • I do believe that “diversity employment,” NEPA, and EAJA changed everything. Before then, USFS workers were mostly locals. This included members of my own family. Neighbor Rex Wakefield was Supervisor of the local NF for many years. Kids attended local schools and Forest Service parents were on PTA and played on local sports teams. Then lawyers, and now this.

    • Jim,
      A couple briefs remarks on yours (because it is breakfast time).
      I agree with you that the idea of remote work locations shouldn’t be an issue. As long as there is some kind of access nearby for food/groceries/basic goods, and decent medical access within an hour to 90 minutes, then if one doesn’t enjoy life in a remote setting, one probably chose the wrong career and life path.

      Pay – I disagree. There is currently on many forests a trend to not backfill ologist positions, or to offer them at the lowest GS possible, or to just never allow the ability to promote. I know of multiple cases where USFS employees left, as they saw the writing on the wall that they were going to wait around for someone to retire, and then hope that the position didn’t get axed so to speak by the District or Forest. Further, why wait on the USFS, when you can likely do the same work with a County, City, State and make 40-75% more? I know millennials get shat on a lot by society, but everyone else forgets they were handed a crap deal in their early 20s and are in a world that has only become more expensive to be a part of (I’m talking well before the last year or so).

      I feel the attitude of “earn it” is what pushes so many to work a keyboard and mouse in the tech industry and make six figures, which in turn is why so much of the general public is completely tuned out of the forest world.


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