Are We Thinking Too Small About How to Recruit More and Different Staff for Camp?
Chris and Briana ran a session at our The Summer Camp Society retreat that I can’t stop thinking about. The goal of the session was to leave with a marker of progress for action steps for building a more equitable camp or camp industry. First of all, it was fascinating how thoughtfully they moved us from high-level ideas to tangible takeaways. If you haven’t explored their offerings please check them out.
Now, we are in a group brainstorming an idea Jared Wood from Opequon Quaker Camp brought to the table. He is looking for how to make the camp counselor job more accessible. Of course, can we pay more, but what else can we do? We start talking about questions like: What if fewer staff members had to sleep in cabins? What if they got more time off? Could they sleep in cabins only some nights?
Every camp is different and there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, but this got me wondering:
Are we thinking too small about how to recruit more and different staff for camp??
I will admit, when I think about recruiting staff for camp I mostly think about how I can help folks learn about the opportunity, build some trust around the idea, and see how fun and rewarding it is to work at camp. But this is very self-centered. It comes from a really good place but it is also me saying, “I have this awesome job opportunity…I just need to convince other people to take it.”
AND, if I am being honest, I don’t want to be a camp counselor for the whole summer. Maybe it’s not 100% as awesome as I make it sound. Jared’s prompt made me think, if I could get paid the same as a director to be a camp counselor for the whole summer would I do it at Stomping Ground, the camp I helped start? The answer is no. Would I do it for a couple weeks? Hell ya! So, for me, the length of time is the dealbreaker. For others, it might be the sleeping arrangements, the pay, the daily schedule, or the time off setup. If I could figure out what other dealbreakers for folks were, could I try to eliminate those and get people who would be great additions to our team and camp communities to apply?
In other words, what could I change to make the job more attractive to me and more importantly, to folks that might actually take the job?
HERE ARE SOME IDEAS
1. Pay More - At Stomping Ground we pay new senior counselors $400/week (up from $300/week in 2021). How can we raise that? At Stomping Ground we could add more kids. We could raise the price of camp. We could fundraise more. We could give away fewer scholarships. We could hire fewer staff and pay the staff we hire more. We could spend less money somewhere else.
2. Not Have To Sleep In The Cabin - Sleeping in the cabin all the time is drag. Not for everyone, but when I pitch the job to a lot of people this is the first thing they roll their eyes at. We have two staff members sleep in every cabin, but do we need to? Could we have 1 staff member sleep in every cabin and the other staff sleep close by? Could they rotate? This goes against all the current common practice, but 9 times out of 10 the second counselor doesn’t do anything all night long. Nine times out of 10 counselors don’t anything after like 10pm. My big concern around only having one staff member sleep in the cabin is what are the implications around child abuse prevention? What if no counselor slept in the cabin with the kids, but two staff per village stayed up all night in the middle of the village? These staff could be hired specifically for this job. What if they were local nurses or hospital techs that already have night shifts? What do my licensing, accreditation and insurers actually require, and what is a reasonable alternative that is still safe but more sustainable?
3. More Days Off - At Stomping Ground, we currently have two counselors in every cabin for two week sessions. Each counselor gets a full 24 hours off on Saturday or Sunday during the session. Then everyone is off between the sessions (Friday afternoon through Sunday at noon). What if we could give staff more days off? One way that could work would be to add a third counselor to every cabin (which does cost more money). However, with a third counselor we could basically rotate one counselor off every day. I think I would keep all three counselors on for the first 3 days then start the rotation and have all three counselors on for the last day.
In the past we have had 10 campers per cabin. Adding an 11th camper would easily pay for the third staff member per cabin and let us give everyone a raise. Would better paid, more rested staff be happier with one more camper?
4. Change the Daily Schedule - Can we change the schedule to give more staff more hours off during the day? At Stomping Ground we run basically every hour 4 or 5 options plus Downtown Stomping Ground (DTSG). DTSG is basically a free space where kids can wander between different activities (see the video below).
It requires less staff to just run DTSG and all of camp can hang out in DTSG and be happy for an hour. What if for the first activity every day we just ran DTSG and no activity options? We could run that with just the ad staff and give all of the counselors the first hour of the day off. I bet at most camps there are kind of free play spaces that could be staffed with less people if we got creative.
5. More Flexible Full Summer - I said above that I would be happy to work a few weeks in a cabin, but all summer would be hard. How could we build some systems that let folks only work a couple weeks? Maybe work a couple weeks in cabins and a couple in the kitchen? Training would be hard, but solvable especially with returning staff. I know YMCA Camp Ernst hires a ton of first year counselors and they each work only a few weeks each summer. How could we mimic this? It is always hard to keep staff through the end of the summer. Part of that is school and other commitments, but part of that is because it is the furthest from staff orientation. Could we run ongoing training like typical businesses? The reality is seeing camp actually running is great training. How could we combine that with some in-service direct reflections, mandatory meetings or workshops, etc.?
I am not sure all these changes make sense this summer or if they are even possible. I just suggested adding more staff when recruiting is already hard. This wouldn’t be easy and I think it is worth looking at what the actual job is asking for. In other words, How can I change the actual job to make it easier and more appealing to potential staff?
Take all these ideas with a grain of salt, but please if nothing else think for a second about what we are asking our counselors to do and what systems we can change to make their jobs easier.