Mapping Career Paths

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Over my 15 years in the adventure education industry, people have often asked, “How do I make this a career?” To paint a roadmap for emerging professionals looking to go full-time in the industry, I started the podcast “Vertical Playpen.” Since “Vertical Playpen” launched, I have interviewed more than 75 professionals who have taken their love and passion for outdoor adventure and turned it into full-time work as adventure educators, operators, course designers, and many other roles.

In this article, we will look at five of those pros, examining their respective career paths and a few of the lessons they learned along the way. While these folks all work in the experiential field, a lot of the advice and takeaways apply to the recreational side of the industry as well.

Challenge Course Trainer ­— Phil (me)

I don’t have any formal education in this industry. My undergraduate degree is in English literature and sports science (an odd pairing, I know), and I fully intended to become a public-school teacher when I graduated. In my last year of college, though, I took a job at a summer camp in the States. (I am from the UK.) That job ultimately led me to my current role as a full-time trainer at High 5 Adventure.

From point a to point b. Of course, there were some twists and turns along the way. I spent seven years as a facilitator at that summer camp/outdoor education center, which had a reasonably sized ropes course and offered year-round outdoor education programming. While this position gave me a full-time job and healthcare (a rarity for most outdoor educators), the work included many tasks that didn’t involve challenge courses, such as teaching forest ecology, ornithology, survival skills, etc. And I knew I wanted to find full-time challenge course work. So, while attending a summer camp conference one year, I pulled High 5’s then-training director Chris Ortiz aside to ask how I could move into a role like his. He suggested several steps—which I followed:

Attend professional trainings (ACCT Level 1, Level 2, CCM). >>

– Acquire certifications (ACCT Level 1, Level 2, CCM, Wilderness First Responder).

– Attend conferences, like those of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, Association for Experiential Education, AORE, and American Camp Association.

– Present at conferences.

– Connect with other adventure professionals for advice.

Takeaways. When I consider how I went from seasonal camp counselor and outdoor educator to full-time year-round staff trainer, there were a few key steps that helped me along the way. Perhaps they can help you, too:

1) Find a mentor. Ortiz’s advice was instrumental in helping me build the career I wanted. This industry is full of friendly folks who want to help and provide guidance to newbies. Just ask. Then be prepared to listen. 

2) Attend and, more importantly, present at conferences. This, I believe, was an important step, as it got my name out there. No matter how green you are, you should look for opportunities to present. Even filling out the presenter application can be a learning experience.

Often, the most challenging part can be thinking, “what would I even present?” My advice would be to consider those aspects of your work you are most excited about, and then add your own authentic lens to it. Example: You value organizing gear in your gear shed and think that it has a direct impact on your clients’ participation and experience, so you’d like to share how you do this, and why.  

The cost of attending conferences can be a barrier, so talk with your employer about subsidizing the cost as an investment in your education, or consider volunteering for the host organization in exchange for free or discounted attendance.  

Challenge Course Engineer and Inspector — Rich

Rich has been in the challenge course business for 32 years, beginning in 1990 as an intern at Project Adventure. After spending a year as an intern—knowing he wasn’t willing to be an intern forever—he asked to be taken on full-time as a trainer/installer. Rich gained technical training experience on the job, and used his degree in mechanical engineering to reverse engineer and then design challenge course technology.

From point a to point b. Rich worked at Project Adventure until 2007, when he founded his own organization offering concept and design services, program development and planning, professional reviews, technical drawings, and standards and regulations development as well as serving as an expert witness.

Rich demonstrated a tenacious desire to stay in the industry by not only specifically asking to work full-time, but by also being willing to dip his toes into each department that Project Adventure had, diversifying his skill set and allowing him to discover which things he enjoyed doing more than others.

Takeaways and advice from Rich:

1) Utilize previous experience or expertise to enhance your value to the industry, just as Rich used his engineering degree to help design and improve challenge course hardware. 

2) Persevere. When I interviewed Rich, he told me, “If you are in this industry, stay in it; there is a career for you.” I think that speaks to a message that most industry professionals would echo: To find full-time work, you need to stick at it. 

3) Raise your hand to ask for opportunities, even—especially—if you are just an intern. Many people I’ve interviewed claim to be lucky—they were in the right place at the right time when it came to finding an awesome industry job. But all of those people, like Rich, created that “luck” by doggedly seeking out the work they wanted to do.

Outdoor Center Program Director — Ross

Ross was a summer camp camper from Brooklyn who became a camp counselor, moving through the ranks of CIT (counselor in training) while in high school to counselor and eventually to full-time program director at an outdoor center. As program director, Ross is responsible for educational program design, client communication, scheduling, staffing, and the development of those staff.

From point a to point b. Ross held several other roles on his path from camp counselor to program director—all at the same organization—including outdoor instructor, school consultant, leadership trainer, wilderness medicine instructor, wedding coordinator, and camp director, all over a period of seven years. The diversity of responsibilities he’s had at this organization shows Ross’s willingness to step into different roles, which benefitted his professional growth. This pathway likely contributed to his landing full-time employment, and made him the obvious candidate for program director when the position became available.

In an industry with quite a large amount of staff turnover, being patient can often be to your advantage.

Takeaways and advice from Ross:

1) Embed yourself into the culture of the organization you want to work for. Demonstrate your desire to be a valuable member of the community by working in whatever roles are available to you at any particular time. This gives you a wide skillset to be able to pull from when applying for full-time employment.

2) Find people who you respect in this industry and work alongside them to support your growth and development. In Ross’s particular case, the organization he worked for was willing to send him to professional development opportunities, and he also had a role model whom he was able to emulate. Ross is an outdoor educator who is also Black, and having a role model who is Black, too, made this work seem more possible.

3) Get experience. A summer camp job is often the jumping-off point for the industry professionals I’ve interviewed. Working a few seasons at a summer camp challenge course (or an aerial adventure park) is a great way to gain work experience: You get, on average, about 500 hours of experience in one summer. That certainly gives your resume a healthy boost as you look for that next step in your career journey.

Adventure Therapist — David, Ph.D.

David began his career as a high school teacher, teaching social skills to students in a special education program. He liked to create lesson plans that combined educational objectives with adventure games and challenge course programming. Eventually, his dual passions for special education and outdoor adventure led him to become a full-time adventure therapist. Adventure therapy approaches psychological treatment through experience and action within cooperative games, trust activities, problem-solving initiatives, high adventure, outdoor pursuits, and wilderness expeditions. 

From point a to point b. David found the experiential education industry through research he was doing to build his high school special education programming. After spending a decade working in secondary and post-secondary education in Texas, he earned a doctorate from the University of North Texas in counselor education and then joined the faculty at the University of Arkansas as an assistant professor of counselor education. He specializes in school counseling, adventure therapy, and family interventions aimed to improve the parent/adolescent relationship. David is now the director of the Adventure Therapy Lab at the University of Arkansas, where he teaches his counselor education students about the benefits of adventure-based counseling.

Takeaways and advice from David:

1) Build your knowledge base. David was bullish (and I say that positively) with his professional development and growth, a recurring theme among those who have successfully built a career in the field. He actively sought out answers to his adventure education questions and expanded his knowledge through readily available resources such as the great adventure therapy book, “Islands of Healing.”

2) Be bold. According to David, courage and creativity are the key to effective adventure therapy. They are also key components to finding full-time work in our industry. David built his career in adventure therapy by taking creative risks when he was a public-school teacher and striving to solve the issues he was finding in trying to educate his students.

Arborist — Kirsten

Kirsten, a recreational rock climber and backpacker, originally planned to be a nurse and an outdoor medic. After assisting her partner with his tree service during a particularly busy season for him, she made the decision to channel her passion for health into tree health and become an arborist. 

From point a to point b. Initially, Kirsten’s experience in recreational rock climbing and her connection to her partner were the two things that aided her in entering the world of arboriculture. After that, she gained hands-on job experience and developed her skills over a number of years before eventually becoming an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) certified arborist.

Takeaways and advice from Kirsten:

1) Don’t limit yourself. Kirsten initially believed that because she didn’t study arboriculture in school, she wouldn’t be able to enter her current line of work. This proved to be untrue, because she sought out opportunities to gain experience and followed her curiosity to develop the necessary knowledge to become an arborist. 

2) Embrace your passions. A continuous theme in Kirsten’s career journey is leaning into areas of work where she felt most passionate. It’s important to both seek out the gaps in the industry that your skills could fill and the areas of work that excite you the most.

3) Take your time. Try different things in the industry to see which jobs you actually enjoy. Give yourself time to figure out what you like the most. One season is never enough to fully understand the work.

4) Reach out. If you have questions about possible work or a job, reach out and ask people. So many people in the industry are willing to help up-and-comers. And since there is so much diversity of work in each field, reach out to companies to find the one that best aligns with your values.

Make Your Own Map

There is no single, replicable career pathway for emerging professionals in the adventure industry to follow if they want to become full-time. Despite the incredible work we do as adventure practitioners, it can be a struggle to find stability in this industry. Many who enter the industry work a season or two and find no viable path forward. But as Rich said, “If you are in this industry, stay in it; there is a career for you.” The longer you stick around, do good work, and make good impressions, the more doors will open. 

I believe that the industry will continue to grow, flourish, and diversify in the coming decades. There are already organizations out there doing great work to encourage staff retention (I work for one), and I look forward to seeing more intentional cultivation of the next generation of adventure professionals. 

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