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Four skill sets identified for outdoor program administrators

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Program Administration by Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Geoff Harrison, and Mat Erpelding


If you’re an administrator and would like to learn how to improve your skills and enhance your program, read more from Outdoor Program Administration.

Skill Sets for Outdoor Program Administrators

The road to becoming an effective outdoor program administrator is challenging. With responsibilities ranging from paddling a class III river in a dry top to donning a tie for a meeting with upper management, the position of outdoor program administrator is arguably one of the most complex positions in the recreation industry. Paul Nicolazzo’s seminal work Effective Outdoor Program Design and Management (2007) states that “program administrators must have a strong field based background, and should develop human, educational, and outdoor skills concurrently to be a quality field leader.” Thus, prior to becoming an administrator, appropriate field experience—as a participant, as a leader, and as a personal adventurer—is a requisite. An outdoor program administrator should be competent in all three areas before advancing to an administrative role.

The three skill sets identified by Nicolazzo (2007) represent the essential skills of an outdoor field professional. However, to account for the transition from field-based work to administrative work, we have added a fourth skill set—management skills. This book focuses on the management skills necessary for effective outdoor program administration.

Isolating skills into a category can be challenging; many times there is significant overlap. Figure 1.1 indicates the interdependent relations among the four skill sets that make up outdoor program administration.

Complex abilities such as leadership, decision making, and judgment are represented by effective integration and application of each skill set. The more the skill sets overlap, and are applied in coordinated unison, the better an administrator will perform.

Outdoor Skills

Outdoor skills comprise the unique job qualifications required for positions in the outdoor recreation industry. The discipline-specific competencies needed to effectively guide, lead, and train others are becoming increasingly complex because of the endless variety of adventure-based activities offered to customers. For example, an outdoor program administrator might offer trips that demand instructor skill in rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, caving, bicycle touring, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and sea kayaking.

Although administrators need not be competent in all activities, they must be able to make accurate program assessments for each outdoor activity their organization offers. Ultimately, these assessments will form the basis for risk-management strategies, training plans, and program offerings.

Nearly all of the aforementioned discipline-specific skills have a common set of basic outdoor skills that are needed to facilitate successful outcomes. Thus, at a minimum, competency in basic outdoor living skills is essential to being an effective outdoor administrator. However, identifying a concise and complete list of essential outdoor skills has been a subject of debate among outdoor professionals, with no uniform agreement. See figure 1.2 for the authors’ listing of minimum outdoor skills required to be an effective outdoor program administrator.

Human Skills

Human skills are complex and not limited to outdoor programming. Rather, effective human skills are required for employment in any industry. These skills are the essential intrapersonal awareness and interpersonal relationships skills necessary to engage and lead others. Engaging supervisors, staff, and participants requires an ability to recognize how others are interpreting situational factors and then to react appropriately. Figure 1.2 includes a list of the minimum human skills needed to be an effective outdoor program administrator.

Additionally, human skills include the development of ethics, or morals. Developed through life experiences, ethics drive individual behavior and decision making. Effective human skills allow administrators to construct a workplace environment that honors individual differences by creating a culture supportive of civil dialogue.

Educational Skills

Similar to human skills, the educational skill set is not limited to outdoor recreation. Educational skills are essential for effectiveness in any workplace setting. Outdoor program administrators need educational skills so they can effectively adapt teaching styles and selection of course content to meet the competency levels exhibited by participants. Educational skillsinclude the ability to demonstrate detailed content knowledge of the topic, design appropriate lessons, verbally articulate information, design a logical progression, and either formally or informally mentor others.

Many times, educational skills represent the difference between success and failure on a trip or program. Whether the administrator is teaching a participant, a subordinate, or a superior, the ability to effectively deliver information to others is essential. Educational skills require content mastery, which can represent a significant challenge if an administrator is operating outside of his or her area of competency. Administrators should have content mastery in basic outdoor skills as well as in other technical skills such as climbing, kayaking, caving, or mountain biking. This is why past and present field time is important to the effective development and maintenance of outdoor skills. Figure 1.2 includes a list of the minimum educational skills needed to be an effective outdoor program administrator.

Management Skills

Management skills include the business functions and duties that comprise the inner workings of outdoor administration. The nuts and bolts of outdoor program administration are not glamorous, but these skills are necessary for programs to be successful, financially viable, and incident free.

Common outdoor program business models require administrators to oversee a variety of onsite and offsite businesses, such as outdoor equipment rental centers, challenge courses, indoor climbing walls, retreat centers, trip and education programs, summer camps, and leadership development programs. Management skills are often grouped by their seemingly similar duties, but in practice they regularly require distinctly different approaches and applications (see figure 1.3).

Business acumen is key in this skill set. Administrators are responsible for managing an organization’s resources and achieving goals and directives. Fiscal management must be an area of strength for an outdoor program administrator because the combined budgets of outdoor programs can easily range from under $20,000 a year to well over $2,000,000 a year. The varied facilities and equipment managed by the outdoor program administrator requires an understanding of facility design and maintenance, technical outdoor equipment, and vehicles. Administrators need competence in human resource practices to effectively hire and train staff. They must also be able to accurately assess their employees’ skills because there is always a chance an employee will need to make critical decisions about the health and safety of participants. Competency in program design, developing policy and procedure manuals, and marketing are all skills that administrators should possess because they need to be able to develop programs that participants want and that their staff is competent to lead.


Read more from Outdoor Program Administration by Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Geoff Harrison, and Mat Erpelding



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