Camp Staffing: We Can Avoid a Crisis!

Joanna Warren Smith
February 2019

Over the past few years, directors all over the country have reported struggling with the fact that good staff are harder to find. They also indicate that it is much more difficult to convince quality applicants to accept summer camp jobs and stay for the entire summer. In the late spring of 2018, with minimum wage issues, the shortage of male candidates, low unemployment rates, and the increased number of internships, we heard more urgency. In some circles, the staffing situation was being labeled as a “threat to our industry.”

Early in the summer, in an effort to get a handle on what’s really going on, Camp Consulting Services designed a Camp Director Survey, which went to 200 random, geographically diverse resident, day, nonprofit, and private camps throughout the country. We also asked the directors who responded to provide their counselors and staff members with a second survey link that would help us better understand the outcomes derived from working at camp.

The Director Survey requested five-year comparisons of applicant pool numbers and the quality of candidates. We also inquired about the level of concern for staffing in 2019 and discovered that 22 percent of our 140 responders were significantly more concerned about next season’s staff recruitment and 47 percent were slightly more concerned. That means 69 percent of our respondents see staffing for 2019 as an issue.

Regarding the number of applicants, 39 percent of the surveyed operators reported slightly and significantly fewer applicants for 2018 than in 2017, while 55 percent indicated slight and significant decreases in applicants over the past five years.

It appears that most summer camps are feeling the crunch of fewer and less-qualified applicants, but they may be taking it in stride, considering the uphill battle another “given” challenge of running a quality camp.

When asked if the number of staff members who quit before orientation had increased from 2017, 29 percent said more staff members had broken their contracts prior to the summer in 2018.

So, is there a staffing crisis? The response rate of 70 percent of the surveyed directors at least suggests that the topic is concerning. If not yet facing a full-blown crisis, then to avoid one, directors must be innovative, aggressive, and proactive to identify a substantial enough applicant pool from which to hire competent and committed staff for 2019 and beyond. It’s counterproductive to keep perpetuating the same routines in an environment that is populated by potential candidates who may not see the need to work (Carns, 2018).

The New Normal

With an abundance of available jobs, and $15/hour becoming the new normal in many regions, directors must also have a credible and convincing rebuttal for applicants whose parents prefer internships or advocate for higher-paying summer jobs.

To be sure, the traditional methods of staff recruitment no longer apply. The prevailing January to June staffing timeline is being replaced by a continuous 12-month effort to avoid in-season hiring, which is complicated by background checks, onboarding, training, and group dynamics.

A number of camps actually began identifying “staff to be asked back” early last summer and then offered positions before the close of the season, some with “signing bonuses” to be paid at the end of summer 2019. These camps’ directors were acutely aware that some staff will change their summer plans, but they continued, confident that the advance hiring had the potential of establishing a strong foundation — even with cancellations.

One day camp that could not officially hire before the start of the New Year sent their staff “invitations to return” in the fall and have secured verbal commitments to mitigate the imposed late start.

Three counselors who were asked back for 2019 in the closing weeks of camp in 2018 indicated that they were thrilled to have a confirmed position for next summer because they suspected that the certainty of a job would positively influence their somewhat dubious parents.

If indeed there is a threat to our business model, then action is required. We cannot assume that everything will turn out OK. Directors need to take charge and attack the staffing crisis with the same intention and commitment that they use to enroll campers. And equally important, the retention of counselors must become a priority to maximize the significant investment that directors make in staff recruitment, training, and mentoring.

Staffing must now be a year-round, full-time effort to leverage the camp’s family, alumni, college/university connections, staff, and job fairs. Most important, the promotional approach needs to feature the astounding outcomes for young women and men when they work in the unique environment of summer camp.

Anecdotally, directors report that they have begun the practice of over-hiring (from 12–25) because so many counselors abruptly leave during the summer. Many operators lament that departing staff have no regard for the commitment they made, the impact on their colleagues, or the emotional upheaval for the children in their care.

This reality dictates that directors must have different conversations with staff applicants and more precise onboarding techniques to make counselors less likely to bail when the work gets harder and the pressure mounts.

The input secured from 734 counselors last summer provides directors with data to fine-tune recruitment approaches that will resonate with today’s applicants and their parents.

Touting the Benefits of Working at Camp

Ninety-five percent of responding staff members reported that working at camp helped them improve critical personal and professional skills that will be assets in their future careers. Both anecdotally and qualitatively, significant improvement was cited, most notably in the areas of leadership and initiative, followed closely by problem-solving, communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making.

“My position at camp has given me more responsibilities than any other job would trust me with, and it has allowed me to show myself and others that I can be and am accountable.”

“Camp has taught me to engage a group, solve complex problems in a short amount of time, and enjoy conquering challenges.”

“Working at camp has given me confidence to speak to my superiors. When I interview for jobs, I’m not afraid of my interviewer because of all the confidence I’ve built.”

“At camp I was able to see myself become the best possible version of me.”

These direct staff quotes validate our premise that working at camp is likely one of the most life-impacting internships in the world. However, the reality is that first-year applicants are often discouraged from working at camp because some parents think it’s a frivolous job and suggest that their children will be wasting their time. Worse still, solid, passionate staff who want to return to camp are often told by their parents that they must get a “real job.”

So, it appears that to counter the negative trends in staffing, we must mount a multilevel awareness campaign to intrigue college students, convince applicants, satisfy parents, and assure human resource departments that a candidate with summer camp experience is better qualified than someone who has flipped burgers.

If McDonald’s is intent on being “America’s best first job,” then the camp industry must be committed to extended youth development that empowers young adults with solid life and job skills to give them measurable advantages in today’s competitive workplace.

Equally important is a revitalized onboarding process that engenders staff loyalty plus an awareness that a commitment binds them to the camp and its children for the full term of the contract. Consider appealing to potential staff’s emotional importance and sense of self. “Make a difference in a kid’s life” can be very alluring. If the population enjoys working with kids, that might hook them, but then you have to give them more.

Define What’s in it for Them

Beyond their job description and compensation details, feature their likely outcomes in your “benefits package.” Confirm for them that camp is more than playing with kids in Neverland. Help them visualize themselves inspiring, motivating, and enticing children and teens as they unplug at camp to escape the pressures of today’s world. Be clear about your methods of staff training that will empower them to become confident leaders who are able to make and communicate decisions and resolve conflicts.

Information in the chart (see below) may be useful in providing applicants (and their parents) with motivation to do what’s best for their professional development rather than focusing solely on a more lucrative summer option.

Work All of Your Networks

Each member of your camp family and alumni likely has connections with young men and women who would excel in your environment as counselors or specialty staff — if only they knew how to connect with them on your behalf. Mount a positive and intentional year-round campaign to secure internal referrals. Provide the promotional tools by which your stakeholders can introduce your camp. Outline successful strategies and keep your networks engaged. Avoid the one-shot, perfunctory request that gets minimal reaction, and consider incentives for those who work on your behalf.

Leverage College/University Connections

Identify two or three schools with which you have a good track record, and take it to the next level. Distinguish the benefits for their students from the hundreds of other camps hawking summer jobs. Personally connect with the placement officers and nurture those relationships. Confidently present your win-win opportunity for their students to develop solid life and job skills that will complement their academic studies. Become a presence at each school, ideally by utilizing your staff who are students there. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect with likely candidates throughout the year. Scrutinize your presentation and zero in on the messaging, visuals, and/or display format that will draw candidates to you.

Ensure Attention for Your Camp

Presentation matters. Whenever you are presenting with other camp directors, it’s essential in a sea of sameness that you stand out in the crowd. Scrutinize your presentation and zero in on the messaging, visuals, and/or display format that will draw candidates to you.

The Magic Is in the Relationship

The magic of camp results from the unique relationship between campers and their counselors. To protect the sanctity of the experience, directors must be intentional about their year-round efforts to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of competent staff.

The 2019 season is on its way, and then the hiring cycle begins again. Based on the data and recommendations, it’s imperative that you influence what, or who, you can now. Be prepared to hire for 2020 during the upcoming summer to kick off your most successful staff recruitment year ever.

Photo courtesy of Camp Kupugani, Leaf River, Illinois.

Reference

Carns, A. (2018, July 13). The virtues of a summer job. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2018/07/13/your-money/summer-job-students.html

Author’s Note: Thanks to Katie Duffy, director of camps, Asphalt Green Summer Day Camp; Matt Kaufman, associate director, Camp Ramaquois; Gabrielle Raill, director, Camp Ouareau; Michael Thompson, US director, Smaller Earth; and Jeanne Yoa-Reese, HR director, Asphalt Green, for insight and encouragement.

Joanna Warren Smith, president of Camp Consulting Services, has assessed hundreds of nonprofit and private camps, working to develop new programs, assist troubled businesses, and ensure the success of premier camp operations. Passionate about the positive impact that a quality camp experience can have on a child, her ongoing focus groups with parents have enabled Joanna to understand their expectations of camp and what motivates families to inquire, purchase, and return. For more information, visit camp-consulting.com.

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