The clock is ticking. Camp is approaching. I’m sitting here without anyone to call this afternoon and hardly anything scheduled for the rest of the week. I’m ready to put in the hours and the effort, but where are all the excellent applicants for me to share the magnificence of Cobbossee with? In a time of increased demand, the supply of appropriate, domestic, staff applicant numbers are low, and the weeks are quickly counting down.

I can sink money into Indeed, Handshake, LinkedIn, WayUp, Coolworks; the list goes on, but we all know the investment in these posts doesn’t always translate to quality applicants. They’re impersonal, expensive, and anyone can apply — precisely the opposite of what I need in my final staff hires.

Fortunately, we’ve been piloting a few things at Cobbossee this past year that have boosted our referrals and leads through an increasing network of mission-aligned people at universities, colleges, and seasonal workplaces. I now can reach out to these people when the leads run dry.

My year-round experience at Cobbossee, as well as working prior seasonal jobs at camp and in the French Alps, opened my eyes to the general ethos of seasonal recruitment. Get the bright--eyed, bushy-tailed staff in for one year, train them, and throw them into an incredibly intense work environment and hope they last the season (with minimal retention the following year). I saw this fail in ski resorts and semi succeed in summer camp settings, where the culture and community made the hard parts less hard.

A lot of people can pessimistically think about summer camp jobs and seasonal job markets as throwaway jobs that use and abuse their staff. We need to do a better job as an industry of living our “community values” in the off-season. This means doing our best to develop referees’ understanding of the skills and challenges that camp will provide as well as the overwhelming support and fun these young people will have with us. This is paying dividends for us this season by having invested in a higher quality connection between the hiring professional and staff applicant references, which need to be checked as a condition of hire anyway.

Professors, former staff, and coaches are all excellent sources for referrals, and we must realize that they are receiving emails from every recruiter and summer employment opportunity under the sun this time of year. We want to curate some real relations with them, starting now, to set our camps ahead for this and future summers. This means making an intentional effort to connect person to person in a couple of different ways with the goal being to build relationships with potential referral pipelines. We want them to see that we are as genuine with our staff as we are with our campers.

Here is how you can start doing this now — call or video chat with all references pre-summer! At Cobbossee no potential staff member has a job offer extended to them until two or three references have been contacted and a conversation has taken place. Applicants need to feel like they didn’t just get the job for turning up to the interview and more importantly, and the reference feels like this is a professional camp that cares about the staff they hire.

We prefer to have a Zoom call with all references. Zooming with a referee puts a face with the pending camp experience of the staff member and is the first touch point in developing a relationship for future recruitment. It is a much easier to ask if they are willing to pass your opportunities along to other young people or connections if a relationship has already been established. Approach these high value references like a three-way interview. You want to know more about the reference as well as the staff member. Additionally, you want the reference to learn more about your camp in this process.

For references you have already checked, including last year’s, an easy way to share a genuine throwback is to send them a few pictures of their referral in action from last summer. At Cobbossee, collating our summer media into staff specific albums takes up some time post- season but pays dividends throughout the recruiting season. We send the best of these pictures to last year's staff in the hope they stick them on their fridge in their college dorm in addition to emailing the photos to their references with a personalized description of the staff member and where they succeeded. When we reconnect closer to summer asking for some support to share the camp opportunity with their network, they are more than happy to oblige.

This has also made former references more likely to recommend someone else to work at our camp because they have met the recruiter and seen a favorable snapshot of the summer work experience. The intent in this process builds a passive referral network through sharing the success of your previous hires. If you have great new staff hired from earlier in this season, now is the time to revisit the best references for additional help spreading your job opportunities.

This, of course, takes extra time but benefits you and your camp in several ways. Your jobs are seen as safe and positive developmental experiences for young people that get recommended by faculty and coaches. Your jobs become legitimate within an organization. You are building trust with other youth mentors, and these same folks will continue to interact with more emerging leaders in future years. These references will have a strong influence on whether applicants choose your camp or someone else’s summer job.

Work smarter, not harder. By extending your reach beyond the typical pre-hire reference check, you can avoid burning unnecessary money by casting a huge online net with unknown applicants applying to join you at camp. Instead of putting child safety into the hands of strangers, you can increase the number of referrals coming from trusted sources who already know the quality of people your camp needs. At Cobbossee we see this as nothing to lose and everything to gain!

This blog was written on behalf of Project Real Job whose purpose is to support camps in their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff.

Matt ”Jonesy” Jones has worked eight summers at Camp Cobbossee, including five as the year-round staffing director. In season, his title shifts to the ‘Head of Adventure’ where he manages all overnight trips and Adventure Programs. Fire-building is Jonesy’s favorite camp activity to teach. He can be contacted at:

Photo courtesy of Camp Cobbossee