Lytia Solomon had never met a park ranger or taken a family vacation to a national park. And growing up in Philadelphia as a "complete urban city girl," she never knew what a park ranger did.
Yet the rising college sophomore with an interest in criminal justice discovered that such a career path could be right up her alley, thanks to a new initiative that's recruiting college students to help combat a looming shortage of National Park Service rangers.
"I like doing right and helping people," said Solomon, a 20-year-old Temple University student and an intern this summer at Baltimore's Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. "I don't want to sit behind a computer."
Hundreds of rangers who specialize in law enforcement in 13 states stretching from Maine to Virginia are set to retire in the next five years under federally mandated age guidelines. That's about half the force. And as one generation of rangers steps down, the park service is struggling to lure a new one to the mostly outdoor, often physically demanding work, which blends police investigative skills with emergency medicine, search-and-rescue missions and firefighting.
Law-enforcement rangers staff 34 of the region's 76 national park units, which can be memorials, military parks, recreation areas, parkways or seashores. In Maryland, those include Fort McHenry, Antietam National Battlefield, Catoctin Mountain Park, Monocacy National Battlefield and Assateague Island National Seashore, among others.
It might seem counterintuitive to be grappling with worker shortages at a time of record-high unemployment. But waning interest in park ranger jobs combined with tough requirements that weed out many candidates has led to a smaller pool of candidates, park service officials said.
"It used to be we'd have hundreds of applications for every position. Now it's sometimes difficult to find a person," said Greg Jackson, deputy chief of operations for law enforcement, security and emergency services for the park service.
He said camping might be on the decline "in these days where everyone wants Wi-Fi."
"Many have not been to a national park and seen what a great place it is," jackson said.
The park service has been re-evaluating recruitment and training, and this spring launched a new approach with an internship program called ProRanger in partnership with Temple. The park service chose Temple because of its highly ranked criminal justice program and diverse student body, said Steve Clark, chief of law enforcement for the park service's northeast region.
Architects of the regional program, which has 13 interns in its first year, anticipate that it will grow and become a model for the park service nationally as well as for other federal agencies facing baby-boomer retirements and looking for innovative ways to find qualified workers.
"Our hope is to replenish them now with a new generation of rangers as our older generation retires," Clark said.
The program, open to any student with any major at Temple, places students in paid 12-week summer internships at park service sites and then pays for 13 weeks at a law-enforcement academy after graduation. Once commissioned with the park service, they are guaranteed permanent placement as a ranger, a federal job category that ranges in salary from $33,829 to $55,413.
Program interns Solomon and Owen McDaniel, a 22-year-old Temple University graduate student, have been working at Fort McHenry, the star-shaped fort that defended Baltimore against the British in 1814 during the War of 1812 and inspired the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Solomon grew up in Philadelphia and attended a performing-arts high school, where she played viola and violin. She admired her elder sister, whom she calls her hero, for joining the military and serving in Iraq, and soon began thinking of how she could help protect people. She began thinking of a career in law enforcement.
At Temple, she took a couple of criminal justice courses and discovered something besides music she could be passionate about. When a professor told her about ProRanger, she jumped at the chance, though she still had no clear idea of a park ranger's duties.
"I thought of a park ranger as someone who rode horses and gave tours," she said.
In some parks, rangers do just that. But the internship at Fort McHenry has given Solomon experience in several enforcement duties, including directing traffic and enforcing the no-bikes rule.
As part of the program, she also has worked in "interpretation," where rangers dress up in period garb to bring history alive and give talks to visitors, as well as maintenance, where she has helped weed and maintain the grounds.