It was the middle of May, and I was sitting in my office following another Saturday morning of interviewing counselor applicants for the summer camp season. Three interviews total: one ghosted, one would have to miss three and a half weeks of camp, and one was a solid prospect. Not a great day, but still another potential candidate for the summer — and fairly typical for today’s world. I was two weeks from the beginning of Staff Week, and if I needed to start the next day, I could have. While we would still add another 20 seasonal employees for the summer, I knew I was better off than some of my colleagues who were really hurting for staff.
It hasn’t always been that way. Not too many years ago, we would have coasted through the fall and started interviewing in earnest around the winter holidays. There would have been a slight lull right after the New Year, and after returning from the ACA National Conference, we’d conduct interviews every Saturday and Sunday (8–10 per day) and be fully staffed by May 1. We would have had at least 150–200 applications per season for 40–50 staff openings.
A pandemic, tough market conditions, and shifting perspectives changed all that — and big issues loomed for camps trying to staff their programs. So while camper registration remained high, recruiting the staff to give those campers unforgettable summer experiences would prove to be a challenge.
In anticipation, we created a benefits packages meant to convey the value of a camp job regardless of future occupations. We stressed the value of a camp job to employers across many industries given that the skills learned working in camp have far-reaching impacts. We sent out employment contracts almost two months earlier than normal. We communicated with the previous year’s staff about referral bonuses for new staff and bonuses for returning signed contracts early. We even offered swag incentives with some really nice sportswear.
However, despite all our efforts and a roughly 4-percent increase in staff pay from the year before, the response from staff who we invited back was tepid to say the least. To make matters worse, we received few applications heading into the winter holidays. I took a hard look inward and asked myself what else we could be doing. What were we missing? And why suddenly was my almost 80-year-old camp having difficulty recruiting and hiring seasonal staff?
I never really thought that the compensation we provided for our employees was an issue. For seasonal staff, we were slightly above the norm in salary for camp jobs (although at least 20-percent less than other part-time jobs in our area). We offered some flexibility for staff to miss time from camp, and during the pandemic we provided paid sick days so staff could take care of themselves without losing income. Our overall compensation seemed pretty solid — and in several years of surveys in which staff were asked directly about compensation, nobody ever listed money as a concern about working at camp.
Then I sat in on an impromptu American Camp Association National Conference session organized by younger camp professionals. It was eye-opening. In the most professional way, they expressed their concerns and frustrations with regard to compensation for both seasonal and year-round staff; housing quality for resident programs; and how the value of working at camp and making a difference was the key to keeping them engaged in the industry. These young camp leaders wanted to be in the business and to do the important work of camp every day. Yet most of them shared that they were tired of working long hours for little pay, sometimes less-than-adequate living conditions, and often antiquated personal-time-off policies.
The comments about monetary compensation weren’t new — it has been a somewhat unwritten rule that nobody goes into camping for the money. But that meeting felt different. Here was a group of 50 or so young, ambitious camp professionals — the very kind of people who we should be building up and mentoring to carry our profession into the future — and they were discussing whether or not it was in their best interest to remain in camp, because they needed to make a decent wage. It was a proverbial elephant in the room moment.
Not long after that revelational session, I was waiting in line at a local drive-thru where I saw a sign advertising $12–15 per hour for part-time workers, with a decent signing bonus after working for an extended period of time. Retail stores were also paying $12–15 per hour. Some restaurants offered up to $20 for certain positions.
I was an employer of young adults who were entrusted to provide safe and valuable life experiences for children — and they could make almost $5 more per hour working in a fast-food joint.
Why would someone who is personable, empathetic, and kind, among other traits, ever want to work at camp when they can earn significantly more money almost anywhere else? What does camp offer a young worker who is not yet aware of all the amazing experiences camp employment provides that is going to incentivize them to work in a summer camp?
Five to 10 years ago, camps paid around $6 an hour, and the minimum wage was $7.50. But minimum wages are rapidly increasing, and while the “they don’t work at camp for the money” theory worked back then, when camps are paying $9–10 an hour and the minimum wage is $12–13 (and going to $15 soon), that theory no longer holds water. Prospective employees might stick around for the “experience” for a $1.50 less per hour (maybe). For $3–4 per hour more, they will go somewhere else.
We raised our starting staff salary for first-year counselors roughly 35 percent. We gave the same increase to our returning staff and added a little extra for their years of service. We made it retroactive, so that staff who had already agreed to work and submitted their signed work agreements for the next summer automatically received the increase. We also gave our leadership staff more money (although not quite the general staffs’ 35-percent increase).
When we sent this new info out to previous staff who had not yet communicated their intention to continue to work at camp, more than a dozen submitted their intent to return within a few days — and even more did so within the week. Of the 130 staff we invited back in the fall, over 100 returned.
After raising our counselor compensation, we saw a 50-percent increase in the number of job applicants, and at least 30 more applied during the summer — some of whom we hired to fill in for absent/ill staff.
We also saw a significant change in the diversity of our applicant pool — with individuals applying from a much wider-reaching geography demographically and economically. I couldn’t help but think part of the reason for these changes was that the pay increase meant applicants could actually afford to work at camp.
While we conceived our new staff compensation policies after we announced our camper pricing structure for the summer, the hit to our budget was manageable, because we had made small, regular price increases every year. Regular camper fee adjustments are key to maintaining a higher level of staff compensation without pricing ourselves out of the market.
While today’s staffing challenges may (hopefully) fade in the coming years, the pressure on camp employers to pay higher wages won’t go away. Our young-adult workforce is savvier now and has a greater understanding of what constitutes a competitive wage. The camp experience alone is no longer enough to convince young adults to sacrifice dollars in the name of hard, albeit rewarding work. We are in a labor-intensive industry, and it takes good people — and lots of them — to make the magic happen.
So what’s the hiring practices roadmap to future camp sustainability?
Assess and adjust your camper pricing.
Where are you with your budgeting for next summer, and are you charging enough for camp to accomplish what you need in order to make the business work? If not, start catching up. Whether yours is a nonprofit or for-profit camp, an annual modest tuition increase will help you sustain your program into the future.
Offer appropriate compensation to camp employees.
Take a hard look at what pay (both monetary and nonmonetary compensation) you offer your staff, including seasonal staff, year-round staff, and leadership staff. The world is moving to $15 per hour, and we need to keep up to attract the kind of staff we want to deliver our programs.
Look at other nonmonetary benefits.
Housing quality is a key issue. If you’re going to convince someone to take a job that requires them to live away from home for the summer, decent accommodations could be the deciding factor.
What is your absence policy for the summer?
The days are long gone when we can expect an 18- or 19-year-old to be available for 40 days or more without a day off. College orientations, long weekends with the family, and music festivals are big temptations. Consider offering a couple days of paid absences for college orientations, high-school trainings, and illness. It shouldn’t break the bank and goes a long way to build trust with the staff.
Pay incentives for additional training days or evening meetings.
As a day camp, we pay the staff a “bonus” for attending a mandatory meeting one evening during the summer and order in an ice cream truck with the silly organ music. They love it, and paying them for a few extra hours demonstrates that we value their time and that the time they spend at the meeting is important.
Recognize good work day to day.
Do you recognize staff contributions in a tangible way? Try to catch staff in the act of doing well and reward them with a $5 gift card. It’s only $5 — but to be recognized publicly is priceless.
Get creative with additional bonuses.
Reward staff for perfect attendance for the summer. Give your leadership staff an extra end-of-the-year paycheck. Give your year-round staff a little something extra at the holidays. Everyone wants to be appreciated.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. We’re not living in the 1990s anymore, and we must adapt to today’s staff needs and expectations. Yes, some people will always work at camp because of their love of youth development and the camp experience. But it should be possible to love what they do and be appropriately compensated for their work.
In the long-term, camps won’t attract the best and the brightest without making compensation equal to the market rate for other part-time jobs. Amazing growth experiences for young adults entering the workforce should not come at the cost of competitive wages. The correlation between low wages and a lack of competent camp staff is clear. It’s time to address the elephant in camp.
Dave Thoensen and his wife Lucia have owned and directed Tamarak Day Camp in Lincolnshire, Illinois, for 24 years. Dave has been active in ACA from the beginning of his camp career.