Conservation groups struggle to find staff
Many Island conservation groups that rely on college students for summer labor have found it difficult to attract young job seekers this year. The nonprofit organizations, most of which offer modest wages combined with outdoor work, must compete for help with Island businesses that offer higher pay.
As the cost of summer Vineyard housing continues to soar, the number of college students applying for work on the Vineyard appears to be diminishing. Conservation groups able to provide staff housing have the advantage.
The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a private conservation organization that owns several popular properties on the Island, including The Long Point Wildlife Refuge, The Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge, Mytoi, and the Menemsha Hills Reservation, is among the conservation groups struggling to find enough staff this summer. TTOR provides a variety of activities on its properties including history tours, kayak and canoe tours, fishing tours, and access to trails.
Last week Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional supervisor, estimated that his organization is unable to fill approximately five seasonal positions. "We're scrambling at this point," he said. "We're due to open at Long Point on June 15, and we have some key ranger positions still vacant. What we're hopeful for is that as potential summer rangers come to the Island looking for jobs, this will be an attractive alternative."
Mr. Kennedy explained, "The Trustees have relied heavily on seasonal labor to help us fulfill our mission. In the past, we have hired upwards of 40 seasonal rangers." Mr. Kennedy noted that most of the seasonal positions are made up of either retirees or college students.
"In the past," he said, "we've had very little difficulty filling these positions." He described the jobs as appealing because they are mostly outdoors. "We still have a fair number of retirees, but we're not getting the response from young people we have in the past."
Mr. Kennedy speculated that the decrease in prospective college students was due to economic factors. "We're probably not as competitive with salaries as other organizations and private employers, and we don't have available housing, so we've got two strikes against us."
TTOR pays their seasonal employees $8 to $10 dollars per hour, and they offer positions of 10, 20 and 40 hours per week.
Chris Egan, TTOR superintendent at Long Point, echoed Mr. Kennedy's concerns. "I'm hoping that we get enough bodies on board here so that we can get our services up and running," he said, "but it could potentially be an issue. The more positions we have left open, the more we have to trim in terms of services, and the more programs we have to cut back."
Mr. Egan agreed with Mr. Kennedy about the financial factors in the decrease of interested college students. "It's difficult to find summer housing for your average college kid here for the summer," he explained. "The days of stuffing ten college kids in a rental house are very far and few between now. Landlords aren't interested in that any more. Rents have gone through the roof. You could leave here in debt as a college kid."
Mr. Egan said that there is a potential that TTOR could someday provide housing to its employers. However, he added that "that's all planning that's in the works, but it's not going to occur this year."
Sheriff's Meadow Foundation (SMF), a private Island conservation group that owns or manages more than 1,780 acres of land throughout Martha's Vineyard, has also been feeling the intern pinch.
SMF offers paid, 10-week internships to high school or college students. Jennifer Smyth, officer manager for SMF, said, "I don't think we got as many responses this year. It's been declining for maybe the last two years."
SMF internships include field work and office work. Ms. Smyth added, "We haven't been able to increase what we pay for our internships. Most students who are here for the summer are looking to make money."
The Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary (FNWS), one of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's 41 field sites, which owns 350 acres of land in Edgartown and runs a children's summer day camp, is another conservation group that has experienced a decrease in prospective college student employees.
Pilar Redmond, day camp director and education coordinator, said that there were fewer applicants for summer positions this year than in the past. FNWS provides on-site housing for staff, and pays $8.50 to $10 dollars an hour, depending on the experience of the employee. "I don't know why it's been easier in the past," Ms. Redmond said.
Despite the difficulty of hiring students this year, FNWS is now fully staffed for the summer. Ms. Redmond noted that conservation work and summer camp jobs generally don't pay as much as other Island jobs, and that many recent college graduates now look for year round employment, as opposed to seasonal positions.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international conservation organization with offices on Martha's Vineyard, which owns about 300 acres and manages another 2,100 acres on the Island, hasn't felt the decline in college student employees.
Matt Pelican, Island program director, said TNC's summer labor demands are minimal, and the search for college employees is helped by the fact that housing is available.
The Hoft Field Station, a large, renovated barn located on Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury, can house up to 16 employees and is also used for research. Mr. Pelican said the housing is an enormous asset and one that helps attract prospective employees and interns.
He said that although TNC pays interns less than what they might receive in other summer jobs, the low pay is offset by the prospect of Island housing and what he described as "an amazing educational experience."