They are golf course superintendents and park rangers, managers of health clubs and YMCAs. They direct municipal recreation programs, water parks and ski resorts. They are the people who help us play. Each year, dozens of them graduate from MATC with a two-year associate degree in recreation management.
"It's not the same as working in a normal job," says Peter Vlisides, director of MATC's Recreation Management Program. "People think, 'Oh, you're getting a job in recreation, that's gonna be a lot of fun.' It's also a lot of work."
Spearheading the program's launch in 1981, Vlisides has since invested a lot of effort to steer it through shifts in the recreation job market. In 1994, the program was split into two tracks - one tailored to students pursuing careers as activity and fitness leaders, the other to those specializing in facilities operations.
The activity/fitness leader curriculum grounds students in basic anatomy and exercise physiology, public relations, administration, human-relations psychology and other subjects that boost their prospects for entry- and mid-level recreation management positions.
Students opting to specialize in facilities operations, meanwhile, study turf and lawn management, landscape design, commercial equipment and other subjects that lead to positions developing and maintaining facilities such as ski areas, pro shops, parks, campgrounds and golf courses.
The two fields attract distinct groups of students, Vlisides notes. "In the facility management option, the types of people who are successful are very self-motivated, able to work on their own, mechanically oriented," he says. Working in parks or at a golf course, he adds, "you may well be out doing something totally alone for hours and hours and hours on end." Students who enroll in recreation activities management, in contrast, have to be very people-oriented.
Annual salaries for graduates of both programs climb from about $20,000 for entry-level management positions up to $30,000 and more as they rise through the ranks.
Vlisides estimates that 90% of the broad recreation industry is composed of small businesses. Part-time high school and college students make up the bulk of their employees. The challenge for those who want to build a career in recreation is to accrue sufficient knowledge and certification to move past low entry-level wages into management positions where they can make a decent living.
About 60 students were enrolled in recreation management at MATC last year. Half followed the activities management track, he adds, explaining that this reflects recession-driven changes in the job market.
"The opportunities in parks have lessened," Vlisides says. "If you pick up a newspaper you can tell why." With government agencies confronting tight budgets, parks departments from the municipal through the federal level have been cutting back on new hires.
In contrast, "the commercial side has been fairly strong," Vlisides says. "Golf course employment is still good. Health club employment is still good."
MATC's Recreation Management Program has responded to shifts in the job market by introducing certificate programs that can be completed in one year instead of the two required for an associate degree. One such program, debuting this fall, will certify senior activity directors.
An attentive analyst of trends in the field, Vlisides links the new certificate to a dominant factor driving employer demand for qualified recreation managers. "If you look at the demographics, more and more people are starting to retire. They want to work out at a health club now more than the last generation, and they want to play some golf and stay healthy, so I think that's what's keeping the opportunities there in those commercial areas."
Vlisides has watched this pattern emerge over the 28 years he has overseen the recreation management program at MATC. "That's why we started the senior program director certificate," he explains, "because baby boomers in particular are oriented toward being proactive and staying physically active."
This has spurred demand for recreation activities in residential communities as well as activities geared toward older adults at YMCAs and health clubs, and accounts for the recent introduction of "wellness centers" at some health clubs, where regimens such as yoga and equipment like low-impact elliptical trainers are emphasized.
Recreation management attracts a comparable range of students. "I have people in the program who are late 50s, early 60s sometimes," notes Vlisides, 64.
David Volkmann was one of the program's earliest graduates. Now a Dane County Parks ranger, he says the program was critical to establishing his career. He cites Vlisides for being "really conscientious about getting people connected with employers and helping people find jobs."
Chad Grimm, the golf course superintendent at Blackhawk Country Club, says that MATC's Recreation Management Program "got me the opportunity to get in the door here. It also put me into a position where I could move forward."
Vlisides notes that the demands of the work are leavened by constant contact with people at play. "If you're on top of everything and you have the knowledge to be successful, you're going to have a very pleasant job, work with people who are pleasantly oriented and really enjoy yourself," he says. "The people who go into recreation usually stay in recreation for that reason."
Madison Area Technical College, 3550 Anderson St., Madison 53704
For more info, call 608-246-6003 or see www.matcmadison.edu/matc/offerings/programs/recreation-management.