Compensation Matters

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We get paid in sunsets! That’s always been the insider joke for people who work in parks, forests, nature centers, marine sanctuaries and other outdoor settings. It’s another way of saying, Don’t expect to get rich here. You will start low and slowly move up, some day making a good living wage or salary if you can stick with it long enough.


Many people may think the current discussion about the U.S. minimum wage applies only to food service and retail jobs, but it has direct implications for the heritage and tourism fields as well. I worked three jobs for a period of several years in an effort to support my family, when the professional salary I received was little more than the minimum wage. Despite requiring college degrees or even advanced degrees, many jobs in our field do not pay well.


Here are five things to think about when considering compensation for your staff:


  1. Every worker should be sustainably compensated. If your entry level workers cannot support themselves for the pay you offer, they may have to find a second or third job, which means they may get less sleep and come to your job tired and trying to balance schedules between two or three places of work. At best, productivity suffers, but at worst, imagine sending your customers or their children out into field, forest, or ocean environments with a tired or stressed worker. It’s an accident waiting to happen.
  2. Your investment in training may not pay off if a better paying job appears for your worker. Turnover is a great indicator of poor pay and benefits and the hidden cost is continual retraining. Unfortunately, many employers use this as an excuse to do no training at all rather than understanding that training AND competitive pay with benefits are crucial to holding onto valued staff members.
  3. Health insurance, disability and other benefits are critical components of a balanced compensation program. Benefits can and should include enrichment opportunities such as support for professional memberships, assistance with tuition for advanced education and renewal costs for certifications.
  4. Staff loyalty revolves around more than the paycheck and sunsets are a part of that. Quarterly performance reviews are a great opportunity to have serious discussions with employees about balance in their workload. “How can I help you perform better?” can be a good question to initiate a discussion rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong. Do they need a schedule that creates access to advanced education? Would working four ten-hour days work better with their commuting situation? There are many ways to improve work compensation that are not reflected in the base pay.
  5. Openness, transparency and respect can all be considered part of the compensation. Those regular staff meetings, discussions of the potential for raises and/or improved benefits, and staff involvement in decision making also matter. Being treated respectfully is part of the compensation in a great work environment. Open, transparent work cultures encourage collaborative work and entrepreneurship.


As a manager, what are your indicators for sustainable employment practices? Level of use of workmen’s compensation, tenure of service, use of sick days and many other subtle indicators let you know how your staff feels about where they work. Real conversations on a regular basis may help you understand worker satisfaction, but they may not tell you if your style is repressive or punishing, especially if your workers have any fear of retribution if they lodge a complaint.




We do get paid in sunsets to some degree. It’s great to work in the outdoors, but sunsets will not repay student loans, build retirement funds or help you weather a severe illness or recession. Sustainable management practices include a thoughtful approach to total compensation of talented staff.


– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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