Yes Only Means Yes Until Something Better Comes Along: Making Camp the Best Offer for Gen Z Staff

Kim Aycock, MST
March 2018

Staff sign a contract, then inform you the week before camp begins that they won’t be coming after all. Or staff commit to working the entire season only to tell (not ask!) you they are leaving for six days to attend a family reunion. Does this sound painfully familiar? Unfortunately, in today’s world, signing on the dotted line for this generation of camp staff often means only a temporary commitment until something better comes along.

With internships, travel, and other opportunities competing for the staff we desperately need, we must rethink how to make camp the best offer so we can run our programs with optimal personnel numbers to provide the best possible camp experience. A camp director colleague describes the staffing challenges that many camps are facing as a “crisis” and a top priority for the upcoming camp season. The good news is that by zooming in on the needs of Gen Z (and their parents), there are ways to promote the many benefits of working at camp this summer.

If we step back to see the bigger picture, it is important to realize that other factors may also contribute to the frustration of staff who “bail” on their contract. According to Pam Louwagie of the Star Tribune, the Minnesota resort industry had difficulty filling seasonal positions in 2017 because of a shortage of workers. This deficiency was attributed to “a major shift in demographics, particularly in parts of the region that are popular tourist destinations, where baby boomer workers are retiring faster than they can be replaced” (Louwagie, 2017). As a result, Minnesota resort employers need to be creative to attract workers through marketing efforts on social media, offering incentives and bonuses, and providing competitive salaries and flexible hours.

The summer camp industry is no different in that a large number of seasonal staff is hired every year. Studies show the number of teens who are working is vanishing as well. While there are several theories as to why this trend is occurring, Ben Steverman, a Bloomberg reporter, offers that “education is eating up teenagers’ summers. Teens aren’t going to summer school just because they failed a class and need to catch up. They’re also enrolling in enrichment courses and taking courses for college credit” (Steverman, 2017). Having a smaller pool of prospective employees to begin with makes it even more challenging to find qualified staff. A lot of time and energy goes into recruiting and hiring each staff member, so, understandably, it is a hard pill to swallow when a staff member quits three months or three days before the camp season begins.

To attract the staff we need for our camps this summer, we need to know what makes this new generation tick. Camps are in a transition period of phasing out the millennial generation being the majority of college-age staff as this group now largely belongs to Gen Z. While the Millennials were born roughly between 1980 and 1995 and have “boomer” parents, Gen Z came into the world around 1995–2009 with Gen X parents. The youngest Millennials will be about 23 years of age in 2018 and out of college, while the earliest of the Z generation are in college now and will represent a large group of camp staff this coming summer and beyond.

Common defining experiences of Gen Z include:

  1. Our nation has always been at war
  2. The fear of disasters and tragedies
  3. Financial worries as a result of the economic downturn around 2008
  4. Having information at their fingertips since they were old enough to hold an iPhone or iPad.

Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, the authors of Generation Z Goes to College, share the personality characteristics of this group as being (2016):

  • Loyal — support issues that affect everyone and apt to change careers less often
  • Compassionate — war, disasters, and tragedies have been “close to home”
  • Thoughtful — concern about issues facing others
  • Open-minded — last generation where Caucasian is the majority
  • Responsible — grew up having chores
  • Determined — will not give up

What’s not to like? You’re hired!

The Best Offer

How do we apply this information to position camp as the best offer amidst other opportunities? A camp in Georgia shared a strategy that has worked well for their staff recruiting/retention in recent years. After disappointing findings from an employee satisfaction survey, camp administrators realized that something had to be done. The leadership team created a value proposition that carried a consistent message to every staff member from every camp leader. Not only are the camp expectations disclosed to every staff member, but every potential staff member also knows what will be received in return if employed for the summer. Sounds simple, right? Having parallel expectations is important when speaking to this generation of staff if you want your offer to stand out from other offers that are being explored.

In my experience, camps are pretty good at sharing their expectations for staff. The time commitment for the job (two to three months), energy required on an hourly basis (at least 110 percent), long hours (up to 24/7), minimal smartphone usage and access to technology, and the moral character necessary to be a positive role model are fairly standard for what camps expect of staff. The bigger question then becomes what can camps offer staff in return that speaks to Gen Zers?

Because this generation is more concerned about money as a result of growing up during the economic downturn, having a competitive salary and transparent salary scale that shows advancement for education, certifications, leadership positions, and any bonuses for completing a full-summer contract may be more appealing than in previous years. Resident camp employment may be attractive because room and board, laundry, and other “perks” often make it possible for a good portion of a staff’s salary to be saved. Day camps, on the other hand, depending on geographic location, may find it is harder to compete with hourly pay rates that are hitting the $15/hour minimum wage mark in some parts of the country.

Articulating the Benefits

To communicate expectations and show staff prospects what they will be receiving in return, camps should clearly convey the values of working at camp that go beyond the paycheck. Articulating how skills that employers value in the workplace are developed and practiced at camp can be compelling to both students and their parents.

The “helicopter” parents of Millennials have been replaced with parents as “co-pilots” for Gen Z. Winning parents and families over will be important because of how much they weigh in on their children’s decisions (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). This does not mean that parents should be invited to the job interview; however, showcasing the advantage working at camp provides for overall career readiness will resonate with parents wanting to set their children up for future success.

The National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) listed ability to work in a team, problem solving, communication skills (written and verbal), work ethic, and leadership as the top five attributes that employers are looking for on a resume in the 2017 Job Outlook Survey (NACE, 2017). These attributes are congruent with the 21st-century skills that have been identified for success in today’s complex world according to P21 (2017):

  • Communication — sharing thoughts, questions, ideas, and solutions, both verbally and in written form
  • Collaboration — working together to reach a goal
  • Critical thinking — looking at problems in a new way
  • Creativity — trying different approaches to get things done

Let’s not underestimate the power of how the very traits that draw employers’ attention to a job applicant’s resume are what staff demonstrate on a daily basis during their experience working at camp!

There is also something to be said for the leadership experience staff get at camp because it is not contrived or made up. Everything has to have meaning beyond the surface for Gen Z; using fictitious or unrealistic circumstances will not fare well with them (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). Supervising between seven and 15 others, engaging in decision-making, behavior management, and living ethics, and instructing various activities provides a real-life context for leadership to be learned. Staff are not reading about these skills or watching a video of someone else performing them — valuable real-world experience that is critical for developing essential career skills is obtained by actually doing it firsthand.

Writing letters of recommendation for staff that speak to this experience is a great benefit camps can offer. The time that camp directors and leaders take to know each individual and the ability to see staff in action daily makes for very specific examples of skill development when giving references to admissions personnel or employers. Helping staff describe their camp experience on a resume before they return home or to school is another step beyond the paycheck that shows investment in their future success.

Camp can set the stage for networking opportunities to occur that are beneficial for staff down the road. Because camp often provides a global experience without the expense of long-distance travel, it is not uncommon for staff to be from a variety of places and cultural perspectives around the US and world. Staff organically interact with and learn from each other, the adult mentors and professionals leading programs as well as those in supervisory roles. These relationships often open doors to further interactions once the summer is over. Providing a global and diverse experience that is accessible to more than just affluent students may grab the attention of this more open-minded generation (Seemiller & Grace, 2016).

Additionally, paving the way for staff to make connections with alums and parents can positively impact staff. Alums already understand the camp schedule and can be good internship resources for your staff. Some camps are already taking advantage of this avenue and experiencing success with this partnership. With a little creativity and flexibility, staff can start an internship prior to camp, work at camp, and then complete the internship before (or into) the school year.

A fairly simple way to connect staff with alums is to host an online video chat via Zoom (or another platform). Facilitating this call in such a way so that staff hear how specific skills learned while working at camp translate into the job arena will speak volumes. It is important for staff to recognize the marketability the camp experience offers for most career paths. A North Carolina camp accommodates this learning opportunity and invites alums of various professions to speak to staff throughout the summer. An Alumni Career Day offered between camp sessions could be an alternative way to bring staff and alums together for the same purpose.

Another Southeast camp utilizes their parent network to connect staff to possible job opportunities. Through staff profiles on the camp blog prior to the start of the season, parents can see the quality of the young men who will be caring for their camper(s) and then have the opportunity to meet them during father/son weekends in the spring. The forum for having a conversation about career interests between parents and staff is an intentional part of the schedule during meals and other opportune times.

Be Creative

Other ways to combat the “flake factor,” as one camp described the challenging staff phenomenon that is being felt around the country, require a “George Jetson” mindset and getting past “we’ve always done it this way” mode. As schedules continue to get busier, finding staff available for the full season is not going to get any easier. There are day camps hiring international staff and providing housing so they can use their weekends off to travel and explore. The “when to work” app is utilized by a day camp in the Nashville, Tennessee, area to find coworkers to cover when someone has a doctor’s appointment, is taking a test for school, or needs to attend a family function, etc. This requires over hiring and training a larger number of staff, but the reality is that different times require different measures.

In the resident camp world, camps finding creative ways to be fully staffed all summer are starting camp with a surplus of staff and making exceptions to allow staff to be employed for a partial season. I realize it seems unrealistic to hire more staff when it is hard enough to find the minimum number to safely run programs! However, getting top-notch, quality veteran staff to return is the upside for this way of thinking. Hiring two part-time staff who can cover the full season, or having “floaters” who can teach or lead just about anything, can actually provide an overall boost when energy is starting to run low. Yes, this does require more training for more staff, but it could be worth it. Camps are also looking at ways to make it possible for quality folks to be part of the staff team yet provide flexibility for schedule availability. One way to accomplish this is to have a process for requesting time off prior to the start of the summer (with a firm deadline) as a way to alleviate getting told mid-summer that someone will be away for five days to attend a wedding.

Stay Connected

For day and resident camp alike, it is vital to keep both new and veteran staff engaged throughout the months leading up to camp. If staff have little to no connection with you after they have been offered the job, it is easy to lose interest and quit before the summer begins. This new generation of staff brings many traits to the table that will enhance camps in positive ways. Take the time to understand Gen Z’s world and be open-minded to solutions that are different from what has been done in the past. These are steps in the right direction for making camp the best offer. Happy hiring!

In a Nutshell — the Biggest Career Benefits of Camp

The real-life context and real-world, firsthand experiences working at camp foster the leadership skills companies and other organizations are looking for, such as the abilities to work as part of a team, solve problems, communicate clearly, and demonstrate a strong work ethic.

Letters of recommendation by camp directors/leaders are sure to provide specific examples of skills that will be valued by prospective employers and/or universities.

In addition to creating vast numbers of alums over decades, camps draw employees and leaders from across the country and around the world, making them a great networking opportunity for connections beyond the boundaries of camp.

Additional Resources

For more resources on Gen Z and staff hiring, visit https://pinterest.com/kimdaycock/yes-only-means-yes/.

Photo courtesy of Camp Chippewa and Retreat Center, Ottawa, Kansas

Author’s note: While internships are also in competition with camps for summer staff, this issue was addressed in a previous Camping Magazine article, “Meeting of the Minds: Camp Directors, Higher-Ed, and College Students” (Jan/Feb 2018, ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/meeting-minds-camp-directors-higher-ed-college-students).

References

Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gray, K., & Koncz, A. (2017, February 16). Employers seek teamwork, problem-solving skills on resumes. Retrieved from naceweb.org/about-us/press/2017/employers-seek-teamwork-problem-solving-skills-on-resumes/

Louwagie, P. (2017, May 28). Minnesota resorts scrambling for summer help have extra hurdle. Retrieved from http://m.startribune.com/minnesota-resorts-scramble-for-summer-help/424837573/

National Association for Colleges and Employers. (2017). Employers seek teamwork, problem-solving skills on resumes. Retrieved from naceweb.org/about-us/press/2017/employers-seek-teamwork-problem-solving-skills-on-resumes/

P21: Partnership for 21st Century Learning. (2017). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved from p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

Steverman, B. (2017, June 5). Why aren’t American teenagers working anymore? The decline of the summer job. Retrieved from bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-05/why-aren-t-american-teenagers-working-anymore

Kim Aycock, MST, has more than 30 years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found on her website: kimaycock.com. Kim may be contacted at kimdaycock@gmail.com.

Kim is co-leading a Camp Staff Task Force that will examine issues related to summer camp employment to see how ACA can support camps efforts to recruit, hire, and retain summer staff and position summer camp employment as a valuable workforce readiness experience.