Work the Outdoors: Careers in the Recreation Economy

The Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) partnered with Oregon State University’s Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) to look deeper into the career paths, workforce, needs, and future opportunities across America’s Outdoor Recreation Economy.

The outdoor recreation economy, which accounts for 2% of U.S. GDP and 4.3 million jobs (3% of all employment in the United States) connects people to high-quality outdoor experiences in environments from local parks to expansive backcountry lands and waters around the country. This sector helps develop economies and create jobs, increases rural prosperity, improves public health outcomes and quality of life, and promotes environmental stewardship and conservation. 

The backbone of this thriving sector is a growing workforce that meets the dynamic needs of today’s fast-paced industry. While professionals from across the country are craving roles in this exciting industry that supports a conservation ethos and and enables high quality of life, we also know that there is a growing skills gap in the outdoor workforce and that there are thousands of open jobs (31,000 in the marine industry alone) available for people seeking life-long and meaningful careers.

Despite these wide-ranging positive impacts to society and opportunities to work in the industry, there are lingering misconceptions in the public, and with policymakers, about the types and diversity of jobs in the outdoor recreation economy. To illustrate the wide array of career opportunities for workers with and without higher academic degrees, the skill sets required to excel in them, and the successful career paths that other professionals have followed, ORR presents this report.

Background: The Outdoor Economy is Taking Off


The $689 billion outdoor recreation economy — and its 4.3 million jobs around the country — has never factored so importantly into the American identity. A convergence of factors have made this the case: 

  • New national conservation and recreation investments and initiatives.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The growth of remote work.
  • Increasing equitable access.

“Time outside isn’t just a crunchy, nice to have, granola thing. Outdoor recreation is a true economic driver, as well as creating a higher quality of life. “These jobs are part of our sustainable future.” – Marc Berejka, REI

The Outdoor Workforce

As a newly organized sector including well over 110,000 small, medium and Fortune 500 businesses across America, much of the professional and technical careers in the outdoors are simply unseen or unknown by the public. Most participants in outdoor recreation activities only interact with consumer-facing employees, including retail and hospitality staff members, guides and outfitters, parking and campground attendants, and concessionaires who sell food, beverages, supplies, and souvenirs at recreation hot-spots. While these important jobs certainly make up a segment of jobs in the outdoor recreation economy, there are also millions of professional and technical, full-time positions across the sector that provide competitive wages and meaningful careers.

Meet Real People in the Outdoor Industry

To capture the real people behind these statistics and trends across the industry, we’re sharing a wide variety of industry career paths in this Career Path module. Dive in to stories from real people across the outdoor industry.


A wide range of outdoor jobs offer pay to sustain lifelong careers. A 2019 survey from Outside Business Journal which collected data from over 1,400 respondents detailed an average base salary of $75,000, with 40% making over $75,000. The highest salaries were found in fields like Management, Sales, Marketing, and Product Development, and in large, publicly owned companies.

Why the Outdoor Recreation Industry?

Many workers gravitate towards work in the outdoor industry to align with colleagues that share similar conservation values and work on products and places they care about. Outdoor workers frequently describe the outdoor recreation industry as “value-led,” meaning that ideals like outdoor recreation access, environmental protection, or “a life outdoors” are shared by a wide breadth of workers.

“It’s a quality of life decision for most – ‘I want to work outside’” – Pitt Grewe, Director, Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation

Workforce Challenges

Like many other sectors, the outdoor recreation industry also faces urgent challenges with its workforce. The baby-boomer generation is retiring quickly, and taking with it a wealth of institutional knowledge and wisdom, creating a skills gap in maintenance, manufacturing, and management careers across the industry. The industry itself is also changing rapidly, with skilled workers and innovators needed for fiberglass, electric and next generation technologies. For these reasons, filling the workforce with qualified talent presents the biggest supply chain issue for the outdoor industry.

Jobs of the Future

As the world becomes more digitally connected, more marketing and digital engagement will be needed. Several managers in our research stated the need for marketers, website technicians, social media professionals, and other creators to engage through these platforms.