Just like crowdsourcing helps solve medical mysteries (Forbes, 2014) and open source has advanced technology at a highly accelerated pace (Harvard Business Review, 2021), sharing promising practices around staffing challenges has been a cornerstone of the American Camp Association’s Staff Recruitment and Retention Committee’s work.
Participants in the Staffing Summit and Staffing Summit Follow-up Conversations have furthered this collaborative effort. Highlighted here is a curated collection of great ideas about how to recruit and retain staff — a direct result of the last two years of conferences and various collaborative brainstorming sessions focused on addressing the summer camp staffing crisis. The owners of these ideas are too numerous to acknowledge, and the list is not ordered in a ranking system but rather grouped thematically. We encourage you to join the conversation at upcoming events.
Update Your Job Titles
Being more specific about the level of professionalism you expect from prospective staff accomplishes two things: it affords the applicant a better idea of what you are looking for and gives them stronger titles when listing experience on resumes and in future job searches. Many camps are switching from recruiting camp counselors to seeking childcare professionals, youth development workers, and sports coaches. They align these titles with training that instills a deeper sense of professionalism and responsibility.
Adjust job descriptions to the structure and language necessary for a student’s job at a summer camp to qualify as an internship. Many students need internship experience as part of their college requirements. Some universities and colleges offer class credit for certain majors (education, recreation, etc.) if the student does research, authors a paper, or produces some other academic product from their work at camp.
Be Brutally Honest
Advertise what you are really offering. Is it actually “the best summer ever,” or is it a real job that happens to have amazing benefits like working outside and developing transferable skills? It is hard work that will develop new strengths through continuously practicing leadership, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving. Staff unlock the best versions of themselves by being great role models every day, but this doesn’t come without its own challenges. Both the applicant and employer must be honest from the beginning to determine if the employment is a “fit.” Camp is not for everyone, and not every camp is for every person.
Have Current Staff Evaluate Your Recruitment Tools
Make sure your recruitment materials don’t feel old-fashioned. Find current staff who are good with a camera and let them create some recruitment content for you. They will ensure authenticity; young people can spot content that isn’t genuine a mile off. “Work at our camp” videos that are overscripted or too highly edited by your senior teams may feel insincere and have the opposite of your desired effect.
Start an Ambassador Program
Camp ambassadors can amplify your staff recruiting efforts by activating their network. Engage already hired staff as ambassadors by offering special bonuses and training. Camps that are successfully doing this have created ambassador kits, which include camp swag, stickers, flyers, and materials for them to do a presentation about the joys and values of their time at camp. Have them cocreate an outreach strategy with you to recruit friends and classmates, at on-campus clubs, fraternities, sororities, and department of education classes. Include assets they can use on their social media.
Position Working at Camp as the Summer Job for Young People
Partner with local high schools and colleges to promote the experience gained by working at camp as the logical choice for gaining and strengthening life skills. A successful partnership is more than just sending a flyer to the career center or having a table at a campus job fair. Connect with the campus representatives who recognize the camp experience’s value, and help them promote working at camp as the best option for those they serve.
Competition for entry-level workers is steep. Camps have found that they need to meet or exceed what other employers are willing to pay and magnify the benefits of working at camp over retail, delivery, or food service. It is important to remember that summer staff have expenses even while working at camp. For example, they may need to pay rent to keep their apartment despite having lodging at an overnight camp, or use their summer earnings to pay for school-year expenses.
Diversify Your Recruitment Efforts
As colleges and universities report a decline in male students, many camps are wondering where to recruit male candidates. Trade schools, community colleges, and certificate training programs may provide the solution. Look for new opportunities in your recruitment strategy for hard-to-find staff. Moreover, how diverse is your staff? If it is looking homogenous, that means you need to diversify where you recruit from and make your camp a place that reflects the country rather than the country club.
Offer Referral Bonuses
More camps are using referral bonuses. While in the past, some camps mentioned these informally, many camps now vigorously promote them. Create a detailed flyer about the incentives offered for recruiting new applicants and post it for staff members to view in person and on the human resources section of your website. Be creative with added benefits, such as extra free time for relaxation or recreation, first choice of cabin, and special camp swag. Consider carrying forward the bonus to future summers. If a staff member recruits a friend, they not only receive a reward at the end of the summer, but they also get an additional bonus if that referral returns for another summer.
Review Your Online Presence as an Employer
Reviews on platforms like Indeed, Glassdoor, Facebook, and Camp Leaders matter. You can monitor these to make sure they reflect the work environment you strive to create and encourage your veteran staff members to post positive reviews. Applicants want to know that other employees of your company feel valued and that they have positive feelings about the time they spent working for you.
How easy is it for prospective employees to find you? It may be time for a search engine optimization evaluation with the staff recruitment lens. Is your social media presence engaging, current, and cool? Do you have good reviews from customers and staff? Is it easy for a prospective employee to find information on staff salary, dates of employment, your application and hiring processes, and what the staff experience is?
Host Open Houses for Prospective Staff
Invite prospective applicants for a tour and opportunity to try some of the camp activities. Have them meet with current staff to learn about the realities of the job and the great things about your camp’s culture. If invitees are showing high interest, have them complete the application right then and schedule an interview.
Precede the Staff Application with the Staff Interest Form
Get people through the early stages of the hiring process by using an interest form to gather essential details. Once you’ve determined they are a qualified applicant with regard to availability, experience, and their statement of interest, invite them to complete the full, formal application.
Meet potential staff where they are — on their phones! Improve communication by depending less on email, and use texts and phone calls to connect with applicants and staff. We all live on our phones, so your most successful efforts may be through leveraging that attachment to screens.
Frontload Details about the Job and Camp Lifestyle
Answer questions about your camp before applicants ask them in the interview process. Take the opportunity to give them all the information you want them to know about your program and what a job with you will look like. If you ask if applicants have any questions and they say, “No,” that may mean they don’t know what they’re “signing up for,” or they don’t know what they should ask because of lack of experience.
Be Clear with Expectations
Take the time to explain what words mean and how that looks at your program. For instance, if you mention “supporting campers with personal care,” an applicant may know the words but not what they mean in the context of your program and the campers you serve. Be clear, and give as much information and specific examples as you can. Check for understanding of these details to create mutual agreement of your conversation and expectations.
Improve Transportation Access
Are you missing out on great employees because they lack transportation to your site? Can your camp assist with getting applicants to interviews or site visits? Can you assist employees if they don’t have transportation?
Review Interview Questions
When was the last time you reviewed your interview process and questions? It is important that human resources professionals routinely review interview structures and content to ensure compliance with regulations and determine if the interview is gathering the correct information to meet your organization’s hiring goals. This audit should also consider relevance, appropriate personal details, and if scenarios are realistic and authentic.
Engagement and Retention
Communicate for Engagement
Once a prospective staff member has accepted the job offer, keep them engaged and excited about their new job until they join you for on-site training. Camps that do this well have created online community groups, check-ins with specific members of the leadership team to discuss specific topics, one-to-one connection with mentor/buddy experienced staff, or virtual learning opportunities. Consider an onboarding series of emails that provide important information and an introduction to the camp community. New employees are eager to learn what to expect about living at camp — what their housing will be like, technology policies, meals, and access to camp recreation. Staff are very interested in learning about how their travel will be managed, all things payroll, camp lingo, and traditions. New staff want to connect with other new staff and returning staff before the summer. Social media platforms make this easy. And a new staff receiving a “care package” with a welcome note and unexpected camp swag from a new peer is always a pleasant surprise. New employees also love hearing testimonials from former staff, for example: “Because of working at camp, I am now a better pediatrician.”
Create and Share Videos to Build Excitement for the Start of the New Job
Ask returning staff to record a fun staff walk-through video of camp. Show the cabin layout, the bathrooms, dining hall, camp food, and staff break room. Have the returners describe how much personal time they can expect and what staff like to do on days off. The video can also describe what must-haves to pack, tips and tricks, and the daily schedule from a counselor’s point of view.
Use Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
When people do something because they enjoy it or it makes them feel good, they are intrinsically motivated. A well-developed program of coaching, feedback, and educational supervision can help staff understand how their work is helping them grow and increase intrinsic motivation. Staff also enjoy the financial rewards, additional benefits of employment, and other extrinsic motivators that encourage retention. Many camps invest in returning staff incentives and traditions for multiyear staff, as well as ongoing staff appreciation, recognition, gifts, and outings.
Demonstrate How Camp Staff Skills Transfer to Future Careers
Leverage staff training and describe for staff how to apply their skills and experience to future jobs. Staff training and talent development can be described both for the current summer and specific program and additionally refer to future employment. We often talk about camp as a skill-building experience and like to say that we help staff develop soft skills. However, do we really train for this? Or do staff “figure it out” because there are many variables when working with children. It’s important to design staff training to truly build skills — and then continue training over the summer to take them beyond camp.
Leverage the Full Camp Network on Behalf of Your Staff
Involve your board members and camp partners to help staff develop their post-camp careers. Boards often have influential individuals from multiple industries who can act as mentors or help young staff make valuable connections.
Get Them Ready with “Couch to Camp”
Once a staff member is hired, engage them weekly to create belonging, buy-in, and build enthusiasm for summer. A “couch to camp” guide is a process to help individuals transition into the new culture of camp — one that may have less access to technology and the creature comforts of home. For example, one camp is using a Slack channel that starts the process by describing how to detox from phones and social media. The Slack topic might suggest getting an alarm clock and waterproof watch that has a face. These weekly notifications help staff adjust to life in the analogue world of camp.
Use Flexible Contracts
Offer shorter session contracts to new staff members. They must commit to staff training and a certain portion of the summer season. For returning staff members, allow them to arrive later in the summer provided they finish the season. These returning staff members often bring positive energy and can boost morale for the second half of the season.
Assign a Staff Wellness Coordinator
Designate a member of the leadership team to organize staff events and day-off trips. This does not have to be a full-time job. Also consider creating a “wellness space” where staff members can step away and recharge. Include attention to healthy eating and drinking habits, appropriate rest, and mindfulness programs.
Visit ACA's Project Real Job page to peruse additional resources:
- Custom assets
- Recruitment and retention tool kits
- Videos to help with recruiting efforts
- Summer camp staff recruitment handouts
- Social media resources
- @workatcamp TikTok
- Blog posts and articles
- Job descriptions
We hope these ideas help you as you plan your next staffing cycle. ACA’s Staff Recruitment and Retention Committee is grateful to the many thought leaders who have contributed to the Staffing Summit brainstorming, conversations, and strategy sessions. We would like to thank the presenters, bloggers, and article authors who continue to identify the promising practices that address staff shortages and improve staff experiences and retention. By working together, we will continue to assist camps with this critical issue.
Photo courtesy of Camp Brave Trails, Los Angeles, CA.
Bergeson, L. (2014, August 5). How crowdsourcing solves medical mysteries” Forbes. forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2014/08/05/how-crowdsourcing-solves-medical-mysteries
Lifshitz-Assaf, H. & Nagle, F. (2021, September 2). The digital economy runs on open source. Here’s how to protect it. Harvard Business Review. hbsp.harvard.edu/product/H06K24-PDF-ENG
NOTE: Special thanks to the following contributors — Kim Aycock, Kimspiration; John Beitner, ACA; John Carter, Camp Schodack; Julie Knapp, Indiana University; Kendra Perkins, Roundup River Ranch; Jordan Pugh, Camp for All; Lauren Reichstein, Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee; Dave Schiff, Camp Manitou; Shane Woods, Girlstart.