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Why Won’t My Support Staff Come Back to Camp? How to Increase the Return Rate of Your Behind-the-Scenes Employees
While my job is almost impossible to describe to anyone outside of the camp universe, those that understand it are incredibly jealous. Unlike most professionals, I have the privilege of interacting with phenomenal young people from around the world who are looking for the opportunity to work at a U.S. summer camp. While I enjoy my job all year, the most rewarding moments come in July. Each summer, I visit my participants at camp and see how the cultural exchange program that we (and they!) have been preparing for all year actually plays out. I first meet many of these participants the previous December or January in their home countries, where we talk about their goals for the experience and what they can expect at camp. I see them again at their arrival orientation, when they are jet-lagged but excited, amazed that the summer has finally arrived. By the time I see them at camp, some of them have only grown more excited about this opportunity. Others, however, have lost all passion for the program.
A few years ago, we knew why support staff weren't returning to camp. The U.S. Department of State limited the number of returning support staff in any given summer to 10 percent of the total number of support staff from the previous summer. (For example, if one international cultural exchange organization brought over five hundred support staff in 2001, that same organization could only bring fifty second-timers in 2002.) No support staff participant could work more than two summers. In theory, these regulations allowed more students to have the experience of coming to the U.S. at least once. In practice, camps found themselves having to train almost entirely new groups of support staff every summer. Now that these regulations have been lifted, have you seen an increase in your number of returning support staff? If not, you may want to take a closer look at your camp culture.
Last summer, arriving at one camp, I was met by an enthusiastic participant who could not wait to show me around. Our tour of the camp grounds ended at the laundry room, where she introduced me to all of her co-workers and her supervisor, then proudly explained her responsibilities.
At another camp, I found another participant who was eager to show me her camp. She, however, wanted to show me how unappetizing the food was and how cramped the living conditions were. When we ended the tour in her workplace, the kitchen, she shared only complaints and criticisms with me.
I visited many camps this summer and found myself trying to pinpoint why, concretely, some support staff found camp to be such a rewarding experience and others could not wait for their nine weeks to be over. On the surface, the two camps I described above were extremely similar. I couldn't discern any real difference between the quality of the food, the space in the cabins, or the working conditions in general. But when I thought back to the two participants' motivation for participating in the program, I realized only one had the opportunity to create the experience she had envisioned for herself months before. The difference between the two camps really lay in each camp's attitude towards participating in a cultural exchange program. Their level of commitment was reflected in their hiring choices, orientation setup, daily schedule, and overall policies. These elements directly affected whether or not each participant was able to accomplish the goals she had set for the summer. While the first participant had found exactly the growth opportunities she was seeking, the second was disillusioned to learn that camp would not be the life-changing experience she had heard about from past participants.
As you begin hiring for summer 2005, think carefully about why staff would want to come to camp in the first place. If you are able to provide an environment where staff can meet their objectives, you'll find yourself with a happy group of workers who can't wait to return. When we ask potential participants why they are interested in our program and what they hope to accomplish this summer, we hear the same responses over and over:
You are not, of course, solely responsible for determining whether or not your staff enjoy the summer. As we tell our participants at orientation, each of them has the power to decide if they will have a good experience at camp. You, however, are in control of your camp environment, and you can decide whether you are going to make it easy or difficult for participants to accomplish their objectives. If you encourage your employees to take advantage of their time here and work towards their goals, you are going to find yourself with a happier and more productive staff. And because happy participants are returning participants, you are going to make your job far easier in the long run.
Gail Siegal is the program manager of InterExchange Camp USA. Prior to working for InterExchange, Siegal spent fourteen summers at camp as a camper and staff member. She has also lived abroad and served as an advisor to international students. For more information contact Siegal at 800-597-1722 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.InterExchange.org/campusa.
Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.