The job pays below minimum wage, includes minimal benefits and sends employees to work in some of the more remote stretches of Colorado and New Mexico.
Yet people with masters and law degrees, years of work experience and full college résumés all want it.
This year, more than 180 people applied for 25 open spots with the Western Hardrock Watershed Team, a nonprofit that does environmental conservation work in rural mining communities. The watershed team is one of several local organizations that employ Americorps members in their work, and all have seen a similar flood of applicants for those positions as the economy has spiraled downward.
Across the country there has been an uptick in applicants for Americorps positions, said Toya Nelson, executive director of the Colorado Governors Commission on Community Service, which manages and distributes state Americorps funding.
The general economic climate means more people are looking for opportunities, Nelson said.
Existing in some form since the 1960s, Americorps is a network of programs that connect people with service opportunities in education, public safety, health and the environment through local and national nonprofits. Americorps members are compensated with an educational award and are usually given a small living stipend.
But while the program is based on service, people have flocked to Americorps in recent years for reasons beyond goodwill. Members said the experience is a golden opportunity to acquire valuable job training and career development that are becoming harder to get, but increasingly crucial to compete in todays cutthroat job market.
An unemployment solution
The job market is rough, and especially for young people. In 2010, 15.5 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds were unemployed.
The opportunities for that age group to go directly into chosen careers are few, said Peter Tregillus, programs developer with the Southern Ute Community Action Programs, which employs 13 Americorps members.
You come out of college and youre going to go look for a job but its very tough out there in a lot of fields, so whats your choice? Tregillus said. You could get a job that isnt related to your education where youre not advancing the skill set in your resume, or join Americorps where youre using those skills right now.
The community action programs, which focus on social work for families, saw the number of its applicants per position increase from 8.5 last year to 23 this year.
Similarly, the Southwest Conservation Corps, which does environmental conservation work in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, had 2.35 applicants for every one open position in 2006. In 2009, there were 4.46 applicants for every position.
Americorps is a way to get their foot in the door, especially in fields where entry-level jobs are hard to find, members said.
Its a chance to take a position that would be really hard to get because the organization cant afford the position or its a position you may not have all qualifications for, said Alex Brooks, an Americorps member working with the hardrock watershed team. Nonprofits, for example, dont usually have the funding to hire and train inexperienced employees. Americorps provides professional development trainings that cover everything from grant writing to team building.
Because theyre thrown into organizations that are probably understaffed, Americorps members also get a range of experiences and more responsibilities than they would working somewhere big enough to actually afford them, Brooks said.
When he worked with the Grand County Water Information Network near Steamboat Springs, Brooks developed education programming and field trips about water science for different grade levels, managed a volunteer water monitoring program on Grand Lake and helped write grants for a watershed information project.
Members also cited the networking opportunities from Americorps work.
A $15- or $16-an-hour salary would have been great, said Darcy Cole. But the Americorps position she holds at the Boys & Girls club gives her an in to the national nonprofit that will be invaluable when shes looking for jobs in social work, she said.
For some, Americorps led directly to a job.
Teal Stetson-Lee was looking for something other than a restaurant or landscaping job during her last semester at Fort Lewis College. She applied and was accepted into an Americorps position with San Juan Basin Health Departments Lasso Tobacco Coalition. After her service, she was asked to join the program full-time. Lasso created the position for her because she built that extra capacity during her Americorps time, Stetson-Lee said.
And even if the experience wouldnt have led to a job, The skills and training can translate to any career, she said.
The Americorps program also has become more valuable to the organizations and government entities employing members as they face deeper and deeper budget cuts. The matching funds that sites have to provide to receive an Americorps member are minimal compared to paying a full-time salary and benefits, said Cathy Cowles, the Americorps coordinator with Regional Substance Abuse Prevention Partners. For $6,000 that Prevention Partners pays, for example, an organization will get $30,000 of work value.
The school-based intervention program Check and Connect, for example, wouldnt exist in Montezuma-Cortez schools without Americorps, Cowles said.
The city of Durango employs two Americorps members to complete surveys about the benefits of the arts and work on multimodal transportation projects. The work they are doing would otherwise have fallen on the shoulders of city employees who already have their plates full, said Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the city manager.
For the recipients of Americorps volunteers at least, the economic climate has its benefits, Cowles said.
When the economys slow, its good for service, she said.