Job Fairs . . . Standing Out in the Crowd!

by Billy Cuddihy

The world of resident camp recruiting is a competitive one!

Job fairs — the necessary bane of existence for any camp administrator looking for summer staff. How often have we stood among the rows of camps and eagerly scanned the fresh young faces of college students — looking for the faintest glimmer of interest in their eyes as they peruse our road-weary corkboards covered with camp photos (most of which taken last decade). As soon as we see that glimmer, we pounce upon that unsuspecting individual like a hungry mountain lion.

The world of resident camp recruiting is a competitive one that very few people get to see. We have come up with so many small and perhaps unique things to make our camp seem better than the one recruiting six inches away from us. Have you ever taken a minute to step away and walk through the gym or hallway where you are set up? I do — every chance I get — and every time I am amazed (and often amused) by the resemblance it has to the midway at your county fair. There are boards with lights on them — people getting prizes from some booths, candy from others. There are so many smiling and bubbly people around; it is almost as if I have been thrust into the Barnum and Bailey Circus tryouts. Now I hate to say that all this enthusiasm and hoop-la is fake, but have you ever noticed the change in demeanor when you walk up to a booth and they find out you are representing another camp? It is at that time that we go deep into the dark side. The silent measuring up like two bucks competing for a doe.

Personally, I like the fact that some camps give out little flashlights or carabiners to anyone who wants them. At every job fair, I take off my name tag and wander around checking out all the little trinkets from camps across the country — a letter opener in tie-dye colors, a highlighter with three tips, a bottle opener, pens and pencils of all sizes and shapes, water bottles, and much more. They all have one thing in common. They are cheap. Actually, the cheapest — closeout specials from all of those weird vendor catalogs we get in the mail — freebies from vendors who want to do large volumes of business with us.

Why do we do all of this? At what point did the world of recruitment get so out of control that now we are starting to need portable power stations to set up our displays? When a camp job fair starts up, I swear the nearest city goes dim for a moment before the nuclear power plant can catch up. There are lights on display boards, thirty-two-inch televisions with camp videos, laptop computers with interactive job applications. It is like a three-dimensional MTV video. Enough!

What are all of those glassy-eyed college students looking for in a summer job? Unfortunately, the answer is usually not a summer camp. We don’t pay enough or party enough for the average college student. We ask for a complete commitment from somebody who can’t decide whether or not to go to Bob’s party on Friday or Jen’s. No, the average person who walks past your booth isn’t looking for a camp. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change their minds. And for the ones that truly are looking for a summer camp, it is pretty easy to hook them if you go about it the right way.

The first mistake most camps make is they send only their administration staff, usually the program director or equivalent. These people tend to lose their enthusiasm easier than general camp staff. They have been traveling for months, and they are trying to plan a summer camp while on the road recruiting. The best trick of the trade is to use those two or three staff members who absolutely love camp and can’t say enough good things about it. These staff members consider it an honor to be asked to help recruit for next year, and it is a way to recognize veteran staff when you aren’t able to reward them with a raise or promotion. It looks great to prospective applicants, too — giving a feeling of community involvement and a chance to talk to employees with whom the applicant may actually be working.

Once you have the people in place and are registered for the job fair, it is time to get ready for basic training. It is the basics of summer camp recruiting that will get you fully staffed for next summer — Casual, Active, Measured, Personable. Yes, that spells CAMP for you mnemonically disposed readers. And it works!

A lot of “executive directors” are manning the booths on the job fair circuit — and a lot of camp directors. Guess who is more successful? The first thing to remember is that you are not running a Fortune 500 company. You are running a camp — a place where kids come to get dirty and smelly and have the best time of their lives. The suit and tie bit won’t work. Neither will the over serious attitude of some recruiters. Your plaid-clad, bearded woodsman may not be the best to recruit, but a fleece-vested, khaki panted program director and several camp T-shirted staff will do great.

After 64.2 days of recruiting, you get so tired that you start sitting behind the table. You can’t do that. Get up. Walk around. Act as though your booth is the busiest station even if the movement you are doing is dusting off the cobwebs from your stack of applications. Shake hands, be animated, and have fun. This will show your potential arts and crafts director that you are a fun person to be around even when camp is not the subject of conversation.

Ever had a booth next to the camp director who is just too much? Everything he or she says or does is big — the laugh, the voice, the excitement. Look at the person to whom he is talking. More than likely that person has the same look as a three-year old seeing a clown for the first time — astonishment mixed with fear. Don’t be this guy. Be casual, active, and have an outgoing personality, but do it in moderation. Make sure you measure out an appropriate dose for each person.

This is the most important basic component of recruiting staff. Most staff recruited will choose a camp based on the personality of the owner or director of the camp. Let this part of you shine. You work at a camp for a living. You get paid to play. You are cool now! A recruiter has to be able to do the other steps, and they have to do it with a great personality. You don’t have a great personality? Bring along someone who does and have them do the fishing for you. Then you can decide whether to throw them back in the lake or take them home.

New Challenges

There are lots of little things you can do to improve how your camp looks among all the other camps recruiting for staff. Custom-printed folders are an inexpensive way to make your application stand out. CD-ROMs are cheap to make and can have a photo slide show with music, your staff handbook, and your application on it. We need to cater to the computer-driven culture in which we are recruiting.

The new millennium has brought several new challenges to resident camps across the country. Young adults are not looking at camps as a beneficial way to spend their summers as much as they did in the past. It’s not that camps have become less fun to work at. It’s really not the fact that we don’t pay as much as McDonald’s. It’s the fact that we aren’t conveying our message in the appropriate way. If you stick to the basics of CAMP and enter into the technological side of recruiting, you will enjoy a fully-staffed summer with quality people who are there for the right reason — the same reason we all go to camp every summer — to be a kid again and to have an impact on those around us.



Billy Cuddihy is a twelve-year veteran of resident camping (both as a camper and a staff member) and a former YMCA program director and recruiter for YMCA Camp Gorham. He is a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo and is currently working on a master’s degree in education. He is also writing a book, Work to Play: A Guide to Seasonal Jobs in America, which will be published late next year.


Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.