Camp Creates Job Magic

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD
March 2020
Campers hiking on a mountain ridge

By the time camp staff decide what their chosen field of work is going to be, they have unknowingly benefitted from some amazing transformative experiences. Even if they decide not to stay in the camp field, the skills they obtain during their rise through the camp hierarchy will serve as a foundation for work readiness. What originally started as a random camp entry-level job, or possibly a place to work because of a specific skill, now becomes a platform to learn what employers are looking for when it comes to job skill requirements.

Work or job readiness is a term used to describe an individual who possesses the foundational skills needed to be minimally qualified for a specific occupation as determined through a job analysis or occupational profile (ACT, 2019). In other words, most jobs have a common set of skills that are universal, such as being on time, dressing appropriately, being able to take direction, etc., and camp specializes in teaching these fundamental responsibilities. In addition, each occupation also has specific cognitive and behavioral requirements that are unique to that job. Camp once again is the leader in providing a forum for staff to learn valuable skills that reflect a mental process of perception, memory, judgment, or reasoning.

Casual conversations with people who are outside the camp industry eventually lead to questions like why don't you get a real job? Why don't you look for a job that pays more money? Or my personal favorite, what do you do during the rest of the year? This is especially amusing when you are explaining camp to them and they are asking you in the winter. These questions, and many more like them, reflect people who do not understand the complexity of how camp creates powerful social-emotional learning opportunities through high-quality experiences (American Camp Association, 2019).

Getting staff and employers to appreciate the unique skill set offered at camp is challenging. If a staff person has never worked at camp before, some of the philosophical concepts camp teaches will be abstract. The only way for some of these important connections to be understood is through experience. Even after working at camp, some staff do not fully understand how to incorporate what they learned with the confidence to succeed at new tasks. This critical omission may hurt a candidate's chances of getting a job due to a lack of awareness in describing their ability to perform.

When crossover skill sets between camp and other industries are examined, a staggeringly strong comparison is revealed. Camp owners/directors know this better than anyone because they are already ambassadors of the American Camp Association's vision of enriching lives and changing the world. Most camp professionals do a great job of instructing staff on what it takes to run their programs by teaching the hard and soft skills needed to get through daily routines, program activities, and challenging personnel issues.

To help staff articulate their experiences as they pertain to a broader understanding of skill implementation, it is critical camp professionals intentionally incorporate how and why the general skills being learned become useful in the business world. It is not enough to mention transferable skills in passing and hope some of the concepts are perceived as useful. The implementation must be conveyed in such a manner that the staff member can duplicate it away from camp. Some opportunities for skill development may not be possible to recreate, but at least staff will have a basic awareness of how to apply familiar techniques to new situations.

Some work/camp examples might include:

  • Understanding the importance of communication in a group or community setting both as a leader and a participant. This means knowing how to listen, take your turn, or to potentially be willing to negotiate a position. Camp examples: discussion with group or cabin rules, being responsible for announcements, or interpreting directions.
  • Participating in activities with a great attitude even if you disagree with part of the plan or directive. Being able to use strategies to turn negative attitudes into positive ones by showing consistent leadership. Camp examples: doing activities on a hot day, being creative on rainy days, or showing personal vulnerability by trying new skills.
  • Exhibiting outstanding teamwork ability by showing how workplace success is proportional to how well each person understands their role. Camp examples: getting big chores done, putting equipment away when no one else wants to, working with other staff to create special events, or volunteering for tasks outside of comfort zones.
  • How to show problem-solving and critical thinking in the workplace. Knowing how to communicate praise, criticism, and feedback with the ability to suggest strategies for improvement. Camp examples: using performance evaluations to learn that constructive criticism is a gift or working with activities to show how camper perceptions can increase or decrease program outcomes.
  • Being professional. Knowing how to act in a variety of situations that support company policies. This can be in the office, during meetings, or dealing with staff problems. Camp examples: displaying proper behavior with regular activities, mealtime, in the cabin, during special events, on parents' visiting day, or with alumni events.

Because applying for jobs can be very competitive, staff need to know how to implement the skills they have learned in job situations. This may require some additional camp programming and a user-friendly format for staff to practice. Senior staff need to know how to put abstracts (like conflict resolution or leadership development) into practice by being allowed to experience situations outside of their regular responsibilities.

According to the US Office of Personnel Management, job analysis is a systematic procedure for gathering, documenting, and analyzing information about the requirements of a job. It demonstrates the relationship between the tasks preformed and the competencies/skills required to perform the tasks. (ACT, 2019) The reason camp is a perfect precursor for post-camp employment is the way camp is structured. When I conduct staff trainings around the country, I get a very good sense of how different camps operate and find most camps are already doing the hard work of training staff on several levels. The missing piece is typically finding ways to help staff realize what they are learning and how it becomes applicable in other industries. Staff need to know what type of work skills transfer and how they can equate their camp experience with meeting job requirements.

When staff apply for a camp job, they do not know they will be exposed to other skills such as crowd control, food service, transportation, purchasing, behavior management, construction, teaching, acting, or participating in numerous program activities. In a sense, they view their job through a myopic lens and do not initially understand the complexity of camper development. Good supervisors take the time to explain how procedures work, but often putting context to content is left to chance. For staff to be confident about working with more responsibility, camp leaders need to frame activities so additional skills can be tested.

A critical part of letting staff try new roles is explaining what happens if things do not go as expected. If staff perceive their efforts as failure, then their motivation to try again may be reduced. If you incorporate positive reinforcement in your training, you can add what the anticipated parameters for success will look like. Tell staff they cannot fail. Remind them that all activities have a beginning and an end. Random, unexpected things can happen before, during, or after an event. Sometimes this changes the outcome, but regardless of what happens, significant learning takes place. You should explain there is no such thing as failure, only opportunities to learn. Then debrief each scenario by talking about what happened and how they can improve their process moving forward.

This task becomes easier when you examine how the business employability framework reflects crucial skills taught in camp. Typical career readiness skills include an evaluation of interpersonal skills, technology use, systems thinking, communication skills, critical thinking, personal qualities, etc. Think of these topics as an outer rim to a big wheel surrounding the concept of employment.

Camps can further divide these topics into three main areas that form a smaller inner circle around employment just inside the outer rim — think archery target. The areas that form the inner circle are building effective relationships, workplace skills, and applied knowledge.

The easiest way to target a skill is to first draw a line from employment to the inner circle, then draw another line to the outer rim. Each topic on the smaller rim will relate to several skills on the outer rim, so your lines may end up being diagonal (see Figure 1). Once you know how each skill relates to employment, you can include opportunities for staff to practice by allowing them to expand on traditional roles.

For example, let's say you want staff to work on "interpersonal skills" from the outer rim. Your activity is a camp-wide special event that is usually only organized by administrative staff. Because interpersonal skills fall under the heading of "building effective relationships" (from the smaller circle), you simply add the responsibility of promoting teamwork, resolving conflicts, or teaching staff how to respect each other's differences to the program outline. This way, you can help staff work on gaining the valuable skills needed to help with career advancement.

Work readiness is what employers seek, and all too often employees are applying for jobs without these skills. Research from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service backs up this finding by listing some of the skill deficiencies lacking in entry-level employees. While critical thinking and positive work ethic head the list, other topics in the top five were initiative/self-direction, time/task management, and speaking/listening (Crespin, 2018). It is clear from the results that employers believe integrity, work ethic, reasoning, and good communication are the most important skills needed for entry-level workers.

Part of the challenge for camp professionals is to address these needs knowing staff have different types of personalities. No dream team is made up of people with the exact same skill set, so you need to look beyond the type A candidates and incorporate staff who can contribute to a team. Camp leaders need to pick out the following personality traits and find the parallel camp/work responsibilities that will coincide with each task.

Introverts are often good listeners who have focus and can stay calm under pressure. People who like to encourage others can support everyone around them by being the glue of the group. It is nice to sometimes get a friendly gesture at the end of a meeting because it puts value with purpose. Some staff are straightforward in their delivery, and this can be helpful when deadlines are approaching or you need more resources. Flexible personalities are adaptable and open-minded about accomplishing tasks.

One of the megatrends now is how employees get along with their employer. Camp can improve the employment landscape by helping staff to practice job-ready skills in a controlled environment. Start your camp staff small with easy tasks that have low consequence. The goal is for each staff person to be able to manage a task in the workforce because they have already practiced in a low-stress situation.

Camps produce professionals in all aspects of life. Sometimes staff come to camp with inherent leadership abilities and other times they learn to be great. With intent and purpose, camp can teach many more staff how to be ready for employment. Finding ways to articulate camp-work crossover skills will benefit all staff regardless of personality type. When this is done effectively, staff will feel empowered to lead others in new situations because of what they learned at camp.
 

Questions to Consider in Teaching Crossover Skills at Camp

  • What does work readiness look like to you?
  • What camp-work crossover skills could be easily implemented into your program?
  • What types of skills are you camp staff exposed to that they may not recognize as valuable?
  • What happens if staff try new leadership techniques and they are unsuccessful?

References

  • ACT. (2019). ACT college and career readiness. Retrieved from act.org/content/act/en/college-and-career-readiness.html
  • American Camp Association. (2019). Strategic plan. ACA. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/about/who-we-are/strategic-plan
  • Crespin, K. P. (2018). Framework for the future: Workplace readiness skills in Virginia. Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia. Retrieved from cteresource.org/wrs/wrs_summary_report_2018-08-31.pdf


Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, of GC Training Solutions, is a certified camp director, former ACA National Board Member, 29-year ACA section board member, and author. With more than 35 years of staff training experience, he works with camps, schools, churches, and businesses nationwide. Contact Greg at gregcroninva@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Overland Summers, Williamstown, Massachusetts.