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Explore careers in the great outdoors and the outdoor recreation economy

A person holding a green clipboard points at data on a spreadsheet while standing in a forest.

Oregon State University leadership members discuss the need to develop clear pathways for students to build outdoors careers

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Techniques, a publication of the Association for Career and Technical Education.

In the recent past, the U.S. has seen a steady increase in visitors to outdoor spaces. Families, including youth, have rediscovered the outdoors as a place to enjoy leisure activities. And as a result of this boon to the outdoor recreation economy, there are more career opportunities.

When most people think of the outdoor recreation economy, they think of frontline workers in familiar places: a ranger at a national park or a retail associate at their favorite gear store. But many might be surprised to learn that the outdoor recreation economy encompasses everything from private industry (manufacturing, retail, services) to the public sector (government agencies, tribal nations, community development) and nonprofit, advocacy, and trade groups.

The outdoor recreation economy currently employs 4.5 million U.S. workers

The future of the outdoor recreation economy is dependent on making clear educational pathways available for students. Educators are starting to address this growing opportunity. Oregon State University’s Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy is working to fill this gap as part of a growing workforce education solution — both in Oregon and across the nation. CORE serves as the convener of the National Outdoor Recreation Workforce Development Consortium, a group of universities focused on creating solutions for this workforce. And CORE currently offers courses like Foundations of the Outdoor Recreation Economy, Ski Lift Maintenance Technician Training, and Elevate Outdoors, which is designed to foster more inclusive and accessible experiences.

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More and more, people are looking for meaningful jobs, and many find meaning in the outdoors. And from a very young age! The outdoor recreation industry can foster authentic connections to the outdoors and help local economies thrive.

Invest in the future

The state of Washington recently invested $10 million in an outdoor education program designed to “help children catch up on their learning and cope with the social and mental obstacles that came with being stuck at home and learning on screens.” And in 2017, Oregon launched an even larger outdoor education initiative, with voters approving lottery funding for every fifth or sixth grade student to attend a weeklong learning experience outside. This statewide program also provides opportunities for high school students to engage by serving as leaders for their younger counterparts.

“Outdoor school is the reason I want to teach science, and I think it’s why I finished high school,” commented a former high school leader. “I got to be a field study assistant and a cabin leader. And then, at outdoor school as a senior, I asked about how to do this as a career.

“There were staff that looked like me. It was the first time I felt comfortable and proud of my Mexican identity. And I remember that the leadership training was the first place, in a school situation, where we learned how to deal with situations that might be hurting other students — like racism or ableism.”

High school students involved in mentoring build important applied CTE skills in agriculture, natural resources and education. They assist or lead science field studies, manage groups of younger students as cabin leaders, and lead extracurricular activities. And many will choose to return as field instructors during college.

Develop career pathways

Students may have to choose a related cluster and pathway. For example, a student interested in ski lift operations or design would most likely need to choose the architecture and construction cluster and follow the maintenance/operations pathway. Similarly, a student interested in leading whitewater expeditions might choose the hospitality and tourism cluster, following the recreation, amusements and attractions pathway.

In order to connect students to the myriad opportunities in the outdoor industry, more relevant and clearly defined pathways should be established. Many students express an interest in pursuing a career in the outdoors but don’t necessarily know what that would look like or how to pursue such a career. We must explore ways to connect our classrooms to a growing number of career fields and ensure our existing frameworks reflect industry trends.

Outdoor recreation and education pathways

  • Natural resources systems
  • Operations maintenance and safety
  • Operations management
  • Teaching/training (formal and informal)
  • Outdoor gear and apparel design
  • Marketing and merchandising
  • Recreation, amusements and attractions
  • Maintenance, installation and repair
  • Travel and tourism


Spirit Brooks, Ph.D., is director of the Oregon Outdoor School Program at Oregon State University.

Kristopher Elliott, Ph.D., is associate vice provost for Extension at Oregon State University.

Kate Porsche is director of the Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy at Oregon State University.

Oregon State University’s Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy offers innovative workforce development experiences to meet the demands of the vast, entrepreneurial and rapidly growing outdoor recreation industry and maximize its impact.

Learn more about CORE

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