by Gwynn Powell, Ph.D.
An understanding of the changes that take place throughout a summer camp experience can prove extremely beneficial in the recruitment of staff members. The following studies were presented at the 2005 Camp Research Symposium held at the American Camp Association National Conference and provides practical applications for camp directors and staff to consider for the current season and beyond.
Camp administrators face many issues limiting their recruitment of quality camp staff every year. Some issues include the trend of declining birthrates; the growth of the temporary employment industry; the multiple responsibilities of camp administrators; and the location, living arrangements, and daily schedule of summer resident camps. Previous research indicated the need for more information regarding the motivations of camp staff. Hoff, Ellis, and Crossley (1988) concluded that there is a need to understand how to attract, motivate, and retain seasonal recreation employees. They suggested that leisure agencies might use Herzberg's Motivation Hygiene Theory as a basis for designing strategies for recruitment, job design, and development of seasonal personnel. Counselors (n=190; male=57; female=132) of Illinois resident camps accredited by the American Camp Association participated in a study to examine the degree to which motivation and hygiene items influence personal decisions to become summer resident camp counselors.
What are you doing this summer? Many prospective summer employees, some of whom are being recruited for summer camp positions, hear this question each spring across the United States. A question many camp administrators ask is, "What motivates counselors to choose summer resident camp employment?" The findings of this investigation may offer a better understanding of why some choose resident camp positions. The following recommendations may assist camp administrators with recruiting prospective counselors.
Administrators should market camp counselor positions using the top five most important considerations. The top five most important considerations to camp counselors for choosing summer resident camp employment, according to this study, are ranked as follows: 1) Personal satisfaction and enjoyment; 2) Opportunity to be a role model for youth; 3) Opportunity to work with youth; 4) Opportunity to meet people and make new friends; and 5) Opportunity for personal growth. In regard to these top five considerations, counselors want camp positions that offer an opportunity to exhibit altruistic qualities, expand their social network, and challenge them personally.
Administrators should design programs that are challenging and successful by training and allowing staff to teach activities that are familiar and unfamiliar resulting in the personal growth of staff. For example, performing a camp skit with which they are familiar, as well as those that are not familiar, will keep them oscillating their psychological comfort and growth zones, providing them with opportunities and personal challenges for psychological success.
Intentionally build community among staff. Staff, as a whole, want to have a sense of belonging in their camp community. It is important for staff to build community among themselves by reuniting and sharing their experiences with other staff. It might benefit camp administrators to intentionally provide time during the summer for these staff interactions to occur. Staff swims, craft night, ultimate Frisbee®, movie night, or a cookout are examples of staff activities that could be implemented.
The opportunity for advancement was more important to twenty-two to twenty-three-year-olds than to eighteen to nineteen-year-olds. This implies that the goals of twenty-two to twenty-three-year-olds are more focused on developing career skills while eighteen to nineteen-year-olds are not as career focused because they are in an earlier stage of personal and professional maturation. Accordingly, administrators should design programs with positional progression allowing for personal growth to occur for staff and specifically tailor job responsibilities to match career goals for twenty-two to twenty-three-year-olds. In the case when progressive positions are not feasible, camp administrators should support their staff in future career endeavors with employment references.
Despite the fact that parental influence on a counselor's choice to work at camp was ranked last, it was significantly more important to third-year staff than to any other staff. This implies that parental influence plays a role in the choice for a second-year staff person to return for a third year to work at camp. Contributing to this may be the fact that parents typically believe it is time their child should get a "real" job and earn money to begin gaining "real" life experiences. It would behoove camp directors to send a letter of appreciation to the counselors' parents who may be returning for their third year. This letter should deliver the significance of their son or daughter's professional and personal development they are acquiring through summer camp experiences.
Camping has a long history within 4-H. However, most research in the camp field has focused on camper outcomes. Considering the amount of resources invested, significance of the counselor's role, and concerns for accountability, this study sought to identify the contributions of 4-H camp counselor participation to positive youth development. The study was designed as a census of the population (N = 2,575) of youth who served as volunteer camp counselors at 4-H residential and day camp programs. There was a 30.25 percent response rate of camp counselors (n = 779). The findings provided a snapshot of who Ohio 4-H camp counselors are through the demographic data collected. It told us that three-fourths of the counselors were female and one-fourth was male with the average age of 15.7 years. The median grade was tenth grade. The counselors reported an average of nearly eight years of 4-H membership and four and one-half years of previous 4-H camp participation as a camper.
Data were collected with two instruments, one developed by the researcher, which described the duration, intensity, and breadth (Chaput, Little, & Weiss 2004) of the camp counseling experience, and the Youth Experiences Survey (YES; Hansen & Larson 2002) was used to measure the extent to which 4-H camp counselors experienced personal and interpersonal development through their participation in the camp counseling experience, as well as the extent of negative experiences they may have encountered.
The counselors reported a high level of teamwork and social skills, initiative, identity, and interpersonal relationships. To a lesser extent, they are reported having experiences related to developing basic skills and adult networks. They reported a very low level of negative experiences, although several items had a higher frequency — presence of cliques, stress, unfair workload, interference with family activities, and presence of controlling adults. There was a significant positive relationship between the number of years as a camp counselor and the development of leadership and responsibility. The longer teens were camp counselors, the higher the mean score was on the YES Leadership and Responsibility scale.
This study was unique in describing the experience in terms of a multifaceted view of participation that reflected significant intensity, duration, and breadth. This view of participation is important because Bronfenbrenner and Morris (1998) argued that if such activities are to be effective in enhancing development, they must take place on a regular basis over an extended period of time and become increasingly more complex. This certainly was evident in the camp counseling experience. Accordingly, positive outcomes related to adolescent development were demonstrated. This research suggests several important implications for those who work with camp programs:
Based on: McNeely, N. N. (2004). The Ohio 4-H camp counseling experience: Relationship of participation to personal, interpersonal, and negative experiences. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.
Over ten million children experience the independence of summer camp each year (American Camp Association 2004) because of the dedication of individuals who devote their summers to supporting a positive experience for young people at American summer camps. These camps currently employ more than 1,200,000 professionals, college students, and others as counselors, program/activity leaders, unit and program directors/supervisors, and support services (American Camp Association 2003). Some of these employees maintain a faithful bond with their camp, returning year after year. For the most part, camp staff turnover is high (Waskul 1998), which poses a series of challenges for any program. A greater understanding of camp culture and how it leads to staff retention and attrition rates will allow camp directors and administrators to address the issue and importance of staff quality. Indeed, research within the positive youth development field (Yohalem 2003) has shown a direct correlation between low staff turnover rates and high program quality. Thus, understanding and addressing issues of staff turnover and staff development should be a critical component of any camp director's mandate. Unfortunately for employers, the temporary job market for people ages eighteen to twenty-four is growing and their expectations for higher wages are rising (Crossen & Yerkes 1998; DeGraaf 1996).
Camps are reconsidering how they can market their program to potential staff despite immense responsibility for marginal salaries. To address the issue of staffing, this exploratory study sought to understand the organizational culture and attachments to a place that influence former campers and employees to return as staff members for multiple seasons. A summer camp in the Northeast was chosen for this study because of the high number of staff who consistently return each summer (in the year of this study 90 percent of the staff were returning). The camp defines itself as a traditional residential camp emphasizing positive youth development and offering programs for youth aged 8 to 17, accommodating approximately 460 campers per year. Camp sessions range from one to four weeks in length. Twenty-six staff members were interviewed individually at a time convenient for each of them. Each interview was taped and lasted between forty-five and ninety minutes. All interviews were transcribed verbatim. Furthermore, field notes were recorded daily throughout the summer to gain an understanding of the culture and identify emerging themes. The field notes were used to add context to the interviews and aid in developing new questions as new themes emerged. Observing daily events allowed the researchers to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and to add to the richness of the data.
Four prominent themes emerged out of this study relating to the cultivation of a culture by the staff management that facilitated a high staff retention rate. One of the most prominent factors was the degree of time and investment placed upon staff training and development. Staff were thought of and referred to as educators rather than camp counselors. This gave staff more of a sense of making a difference in the lives of the participants they were serving as well as a feeling of professionalism. Staff discussed being impressed at the amount of professional development and training that was offered and how much thought and effort went into training.
One of the main motivating factors for most of these staff was the increasing professionalism communicated throughout their experience (from the hiring process right through to the end of the summer). This gave staff a greater sense of credibility and for many they talked about how this helped them to translate many of the skills acquired to future careers. The second theme was the philosophy and consistency exhibited by key staff in full-time leadership positions who continuously modeled the youth development framework throughout all aspects of the program. This began during the hiring process and continued through staff training and also throughout the summer, with built-in educational reference groups while camp was in session so that the camp directors and leadership could use "real examples."
The third theme was the importance placed upon the development of healthy relationships between staff and how staff felt supported through these relationships. Staff discussed how they felt physically and emotionally safe throughout their time because these relationships helped them to experiment and grow professionally. Finally, staff felt empowered because they were bestowed with a sense of duty to create and build the community in which they lived. Thus, many staff constantly discussed feeling "ownership" over the community they lived and worked in.
How can we get those staff to come back next summer? Many camp directors, after wrapping up another successful summer, have little time to relax before thinking about the following year. Having spent months recruiting, training, and developing a cohort of staff, directors wonder what they might do to entice staff to return. The findings of this case study may offer some insight as to how directors can create a culture that encourages staff to return. Undeniably there are organic factors that make camp an attractive environment for social groups of young people (the majority of whom are between eighteen and twenty-four years old) with similar values. These factors (such as the social nature of camp, socializing with like-minded individuals, etc.) are often not a biproduct of direct management action but rather a naturally occurring process.
How can some of the findings be useful to camp directors? First, communicate your organization's philosophy through both actions (e.g., staff training) and messages/marketing (e.g., hiring process, brochures) so there is minimal disconnect between expectations and reality. In the battle to attract quality staff, inconsistent messages are sometimes received resulting in attrition of staff or weak attachments to place.
Second, set aside time throughout the summer to communicate and reaffirm critical principles and philosophy of organization. In this case, the directors firmly believed in the positive youth development framework and would communicate the principles throughout staff training, discussing how implementing the framework leads to success for children both in a camp environment and beyond. Throughout the summer and while sessions were in progress, reference groups were held with staff to revisit key components of staff training, seeing how they were playing out "real" situations. This notion of setting aside deliberate time during camp sessions was surprisingly one of the most popular and valuable aspects that staff discussed.
Third, present staff with real opportunities to attain skills (both tangible and intangible) that staff can use in future careers. Although in many cases, camps cannot compete financially with other job opportunities available, staff discussed the valuable skills that they could use (such as expensive certifications, access to workshops during staff training, opportunities to try out/learn new skills, and continued staff mentorship and growth throughout the summer). Indeed, the relationships cultivated between summer staff and full-time directors was one of the factors that elicited stronger attachment. Finally, offer sequential job challenges to entice returning staff. Often directors would communicate potential opportunities for the following year before staff left. That way, staff they wanted to return might be enticed and could plan ahead of time, especially if returning would mean other personal and/or professional sacrifices (delay of full-time job, moving to a different location, juggling other employment/education opportunities).
Gwynn Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia.
Originally published in the 2005 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.