August 2022

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium aiming for more diverse staffing through RISE program

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Dean Narciso
August 19, 2022

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium officials are promoting a new scholarship program to encourage minorities to consider careers in the zoological field.

The zoo, along with The Wilds, Zoombezi Bay and Safari Golf Club, announced last month the RISE Scholarship program, with the goal of creating a more diverse workplace. The acronym includes elements of respect, inclusion, success and education.

The program is offering 15 scholarships of $5,000 each to offset expenses or be paid hourly. In exchange, applicants must commit to 12 weeks in animal care internship positions or 240 hours of work in other non-animal areas from September through December.

The non-animal pay is the equivalent to about $21 per hour. Those support jobs could be in a variety of areas, including finance, nutrition, marketing or operations.

A study by career analyst company Zippia found that about three-fourths of zookeepers nationally are white, with Hispanics comprising about 16% and Blacks 4%. In Columbus, those numbers are even less diverse, said Carman Wirtz, the zoo’s senior vice-president of human resources.

“When people come to the zoo, they want to see that they can work there,” said Wirtz, noting that many inner-city families often associate employment with teachers, firefighters or occupations they regularly see.

“But they don’t see zookeepers when they’re in the inner city,” she said. “We want to show people that there’s all sorts of opportunities at the zoo.”

The zoo’s board of trustees has discussed concerns about diversity at meetings earlier this year. And this pilot program is a way to gauge interest.

The zoo typically has about 320 full-time positions, with another 2,000 part-time, seasonal jobs, Wirtz said.

“This is really a passion project for us,” said Nicole Racey-Gomez, the zoo’s vice president of communications and marketing.

But more than passion will be needed, one minority advocate and community leader said.

The zoo must be committed to diversity and have an “intentional strategy,” said Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League and a zoo board member.

“People don’t know what career paths they can take out at the zoo,” Hightower said, citing the financial and transportation barriers to get there.

“And if the culture is unwilling to accept diversity, that’s a problem, too. Are people going to be accepting? Is the zoo environment going to be welcoming, or are there going to be micro-aggressions?”

The RISE program will focus on racial/ethnic groups, gender, and low-income/underserved populations. But others can apply for another two-dozen unpaid animal-care jobs.

The program’s goal is to remove financial barriers that may be caused by unpaid internships.

β€œTo create access you have to identify barriers and then remove those barriers to create opportunities that are equitable. Our family of parks are for everyone and educational opportunities should be no exception,” Wirtz said.

Tom Schmid, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said he’s excited to start the program.

“These internships will provide valuable exposure, and we hope spark interest in careers in animal care, conservation education, and related fields. Students will have the opportunity to learn from and work with our talented staff. The end goal is to inspire these students to join the zoological profession and better reflect the communities we serve,” he said.

To qualify for the RISE program, students must be enrolled in college and be at least 18 years old. A committee will review applicants. Those interested in applying or learning more can do so here.

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