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Getting Paid to Start Fires: How a Park Manager Landed His Dream Job

Alex Mahadevan

In his dream job as a Florida park manager and “burn boss,” Tony Clements wears a lot of interesting headgear.

A Florida Scrub Jay bird mask when entertaining kids, a gorilla head while goofing around pretending to be Bigfoot, and, on a more serious note, a flame-retardant helmet when he’s scorching patches of earth during a prescribed burn.

Clements is also janitor, ecologist, meteorologist and construction manager — all while overseeing the 1,400-acre Oscar Scherer State Park.

But long before Clements landed his dream job, he worked as a paperboy, dishwasher, landscaper, car washer and air-conditioning installer, among other occupations.

It took a lot of persistence and perseverance to get him where he is today, but his wide smile  and infectious laugh behind a beard with a touch of grey tells you it was worth it.

Here’s How to Land Your Dream Job (Whatever it May Be)

Tony Clements volunteered at parks to get his foot in the door. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Clements’ fondest memories from his childhood in Wales are exploring the forest behind his parents’ barn, digging for insects and tracking birds. He conjured these memories after a bad breakup in his 20s led to the existential dread that he needed to find a real job.

“All the jobs I had were great,” he says. “But I needed a career.”

So, he looked to the Florida State Parks system, which seemed like the perfect fit for someone enamored with the outdoors.

“I knew I wanted to make a difference and do something that I wake up every day excited to do,” Clements says.

One problem: They weren’t hiring.

So, he did what he recommends anyone trying to land their dream job should do and started volunteering. After a couple years, he applied for an assistant park ranger job and got turned down. Then he was turned down again. And then a third time for good measure.

“You have to be persistent,” said Clements, who got the job on his fourth try. Now, he’s been park manager for 14 years. He even met, and married, his wife in the park.

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But what if you don’t know what your dream job is?

John Sheehy, Career Development Coordinator at Stetson University, says first think about the things you absolutely don’t want to do for a career and work from there. Start with a wide view: Don’t want to work outside? Consider occupations that are indoors. Then refine that: Can’t stand sitting down all day? A desk job probably won’t be a good fit.

Now think about your specific talents and interests and create a list of fields that tap into those skills but still avoid your “not gonna do it” criteria.

“Talk to professionals in multiple areas of the fields you have interest in,” he said.

Here are a few ways to feel out a career or company:

  1. Job shadow days and informational interviews: You can use LinekdIn to reach out to a company to request a day to shadow someone on the job. The firm will likely allow it even if they’re not hiring. Use a networking cover letter for this purpose.
  2. Internships: These may be unpaid — or offer crummy wages — but will help you get your foot in the door at a company. Actually digging in and doing the work should help you decide whether a particular path is for you. Here’s a guide to land any internship.
  3. Co-ops: These are similar to internships, but are usually paid and last for multiple semesters while you’re in college. They also generally provide college credit.
  4. Volunteer positions: Clements credits his years of volunteering at Oscar Scherer for helping him land his dream job.

Now that you’ve zeroed in on a field, you need to meet people in the industry. Networking can help you refine your knowledge of a certain field and forge connections that could yield a job one day.

Thinking about a career move? Check out The Penny Hoarder’s list of the Best Jobs of 2019 that Don’t Require a Bachelor’s Degree.

Sheehy compares it to starting a fire.

“Work on getting multiple pockets of embers glowing in several areas and then when it’s time, fuel the fire, add the kindling to get the fire red hot,” he said. That means you need to keep up regular communication with your network; you can’t let these relationships get cold.

And finally, remember to be patient. You’re not going to fall right into the dream gig. But once you get that first job in your chosen field, you can start climbing the ladder.

“Dream jobs are rarely the first job one acquires, and knowing that will assist in working your way to it in the future,” Sheehy said.

Facing Reality — and Maintaining Perspective

A member of a Florida Park Service fire unit works on a prescribed fire. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Surely some folks dream about working on Wall Street and making boat loads of money. But, for many people, a dream job is more about the work and less about the cash — and that can require sacrificing some comforts.

For Clements, who makes $46,000 a year, it’s meant making meticulously planned trips to the grocery store. Every week, his family knows exactly what they’re going to eat, and therefore exactly what to buy.

“They say we throw away a third of the groceries we buy,” he says. “Which is crazy.”

Clements is lucky on one front, though: He doesn’t pay rent or a mortgage while living in a house at the edge of Oscar Scherer park.

Even if your dream job doesn’t pay much in general, you should always advocate for yourself and push for fair pay in the hiring process. Do your research on what the job pays in similar markets, and use these tips to help negotiate a better salary.

Above all, if you’re lucky enough to land your dream job, remember to focus on both the “dream” part as well as the “job” aspect. You’ll have to work hard and make some sacrifices, but you’ll be doing what you love.

Starting Fires and Living His Dream

Clements checks in with his colleagues. Done properly, prescribed fires restore natural habitats. “To be able to be a difference in nature… really makes my day.” Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

On May 31, Clements got a call at 5 a.m. A storm had torn through the park and landed a branch on a tent in the camping area.

He rushed to the scene, chainsaw in hand, to remove the tree limb.  But Clements’ best days at work are when he gets to be the burn boss, overseeing prescribed burns. These are man-made fires that support the forest’s ecology by mimicking natural wildfires and burning up dead leaves that could send a wildfire out of control and into surrounding neighborhoods.

The weather has to be perfect for a prescribed burn, and Clements has to think through any scenario in which something goes wrong. He puts together a 40-plus page manual that outlines each event.

“You need to be ready for the fire to bite back,” he says.

When he’s not overseeing prescribed burns or asking — extremely politely — that a patron puts his dog on a leash, he relaxes with his wife, son and daughter (when she’s not away at college), along with their two chocolate labs (Mocha and Brady), bunny (Bun-Bun), fish, chickens and Leopard tortoise. The family spends a lot of time rehabilitating animals they’ve found injured in the park.

As a kid, Clements would spend afternoons climbing trees and weaving through the woods in Wales trying to track down robins or goldfinches. Now he spends his days exploring his own forest in his own backyard.

“I take great pride in being the steward of this land,” Clements says.

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.