Picture the scene: A camp director makes a job offer to a counselor and receives a response of outrage that he has not been offered the job he wanted and, additionally, was not placed with his friends. The applicant has spent the previous eight summers as a camper and has now graduated through the system with certain expectations about what he prefers his job to be. Such is the epitome of the struggle in hiring former campers as staff members for the first time.
One of the most wholesome aspects of day or overnight camp is witnessing the growth and maturation of young people over a number of years. The camp experience has the power of offering incredible continuity for a child during his or her adolescence. Families feel secure in sending their children to a place that invests in their continued development through carefully crafted programs, skilled and sensitive staff, and friends they would not have made in their home communities.
It is rewarding for a camp director when children come full circle and make the transition from camper to counselor. But some sure do test us in the process! Why? The reality is that for many years these children were in a place where they were the consumers. They had the ability to choose which activities they signed up for and which friends they shared a cabin with. Any conflicting issues were dealt with by their parents, who inevitably struggle with the camper-to-staff transition as much as their child does. Setting the right expectations for your incoming junior staff and their parents has additional challenges beyond those faced with other prospective staff because it requires changing a culture and collection of attitudes that have existed for some time.
We demand maturity and professionalism from our applicants while balancing that with the need to continue nurturing their development and allowing for mistakes. Following are tips for the job process that will help frame the mindset of your campers turned counselors.
Typically, the job process begins with an invitation to apply for the position of a junior counselor, precounselor, counselor- in-training, or whatever terminology your camp uses. Prospective staff are required to complete a full application accompanied with reference letters to be returned by a given deadline.
Herein lies the first set of problems. It is all too common to find individuals treating the application like a trivial survey, returning it with poorly constructed sentences, stain marks, or worse, very little detail to answers at all. Applications are returned late, under the assumption that the deadline was simply a formality. We find ourselves sending out reminders through social media and reaching out to specific individuals who we hope will apply (those golden campers who we always imagined would be great staff members one day). We become the ones chasing after prospective applicants rather than them chasing after a job that they should be desperate to grab. C
reating a culture where first-year counselors treat their applications seriously is not achieved overnight. This kind of work ethic and professional approach to the job needs to be trained early, preferably while these individuals are still campers. Teach these kinds of lessons as part of hands-on workshops during a summer leadership program. Create activities and exercises that train these habits. Using this proactive measure certainly helps build seriousness among your applicants, but it is unlikely to work for every young person. Hold an applicant accountable if he still submits an application that shows little effort. Follow up with a stern phone call that addresses the issues you have with his application. Explain that unless you are able to see a level of commitment to this process, you will not be able to have him continue. Invite him to reconsider his application, and see how he responds to this proposal.
After the applications comes the interview process. Prospective staff are now asked to call to schedule interview. The phone rings: “Hi, this is Mrs. Smith, David’s mother. I’m calling to schedule David’s interview to be a camp counselor.” We sit at our desks amazed and think to ourselves, “How can I hire this young man to look after children when he clearly is not ready to look after himself?”
After taking time to process our frustrations, this scenario begins to make sense. Parents have spent the past years handling every aspect of their child’s camp life — medical forms, cabin requests, packing their duffel bags, labeling their clothes. It’s a matter of habit, and one that is not easy to break. Besides, what happens after this summer? Their child returns to high school where, once again, the parents are likely to continue taking care of many aspects of their child’s life. This continues into the college years and long after. Results from a recent study by the Pew Research Center (2013) reveal that 36 percent of eighteen- to thirty-one-year-olds in the U.S. live with their parents, which is “the highest share in at least four decades.” This trend seems to indicate that parents are in no rush to alleviate themselves of their caregiving duties.
On interview day, we deal with lateness, excuses, lack of preparation, and lack of effort to make a good first impression. Responses are dry, some applicants look as though they just rolled out of bed (not to mention smelling like it, too), and you continue to wonder what you have to do to send the message that this is a job interview for a paid position.
It is important to assess the information that you are providing applicants in preparation for their interview. Don’t assume that they will naturally know how to dress, present themselves, and understand job interview etiquette. These are areas that need to be coached. Perhaps design an attractive “How to Interview” or “Interviewing for Dummies” information sheet and circulate it on social media forums or via e-mail. Think of engaging ways to disseminate training and information.
The next step is placing your transitioning first-year staff members. Like a massive jigsaw puzzle, you seek to put the people with the right skills in the right positions while still taking into account individual preferences, merit, and peer groups. This process takes time and much deliberation, but once complete, you send out job offers to your prospective junior staff. Their response? “Why didn’t I get what I want? I’ve earned this for being a camper for X number of years.”
Whatever the process you use to determine job offers, there is definite value in showing a level of transparency. Provide the all-necessary disclaimer that “you might not get the exact job offer that you want,” but mention that there is good reason for every decision. If you are able to foresee that a certain offer may not be received well, it might be worth making a follow-up phone call to discuss the decision further and explore the possibilities that might come with the position being offered.
As much as you will want to create buy-in from your future staff, it is still important to stand by the decisions you make. Be consistent and don’t falter. Not all of your applicants will be pleased with their job offer, and while you may be able to coach them through this disappointment, you may also have to let them go at a certain point if you are unable to come to an agreement.
Six Tips for the Camper-to- Counselor Job Process
In addition to the suggestions for applications, interviews, and placement processes described previously, here are some broad strategies for your program.
1. Build Foundations
Attitudinal changes do not happen overnight. If you want your prospective firstyear staff to respect the process and the job, this needs to be ingrained in them long before they start applying for a paid position. A solid leadership-training program built into your camp’s structure specifically for teens promotes necessary skills for growing mature and inspiring camp counselors. While leadership is a buzz word within any personal-development training program, teaching leadership skills to young people is essential for their future endeavors, whatever those might be. If we want to produce future visionaries, we must start by honing their skills in communication, group work, delegation, and planning. Like any camp activity, we teach these skills through participation and offering practical experiences. First, create an interactive setting for teens to learn, incorporating role play, discussions, games, and simulations. Then provide a framework that allows them to put these skills into practice either with their peers or younger campers.
2. Set Expectations Early
Knowing a lot of the problems that are typically encountered with the transition of campers to staff, be proactive in trying to prevent many of these situations from arising. A summer teen-leadership program is a perfect forum for this. As well as the skills building already mentioned, it can also include training on topics such as completing a job application, interviewing, and making a good first impression. As with everything, the clearer and earlier the expectations are set, the easier it is to meet transitions.
3. Make Parents Partners
Parents need as much nurturing through this process as their children do. Parents have always been our customers, but when their child becomes a future employee, their role must change. Typically, we find them getting in the way and involving themselves unnecessarily, and we resent them rather than utilizing their efforts and desire to help. Be proactive and set up phone calls or in-person meetings to talk them through the process. If you gain their buy-in as partners, this will help them cope. It will also help their child adjust to his or her changing role. If you can build the correct relationship with parents, they can actually help your cause rather than work against it.
4. Walk the Walk
One of the most enjoyable parts to being a camp director is doing a job that is fun (and not having to wear a suit to work each day). At the same time, it is vital that our prospective junior staff see us own the level of professionalism that we expect from them. We lose credibility when we bend rules and don’t hold applicants to the professional standards that we dictate to them in orientation.
There are many ways in which this message can be delivered. Require a letter of recommendation for every applicant, and refuse to accept an application unless this letter is attached on letterhead paper. Follow up by calling every reference and asking a template of questions. This should be standard protocol for hiring any staff member, but with junior counselors, show greater diligence to set the right tone. For applicants who arrive late, require them to reschedule their appointment for another date. Your time is important, and the applicant needs to understand that good time keeping is a prerequisite for the job. For any missing deadlines, require applicants to follow up by calling you. Your conversation should then be firm, holding the applicant accountable and explaining that you will need some time to decide whether to still consider his or her application. Before the interview, inform the applicant you’ll be checking his or her social media networks as a type of background check, and show evidence during the interview. Make him or her aware that you invested time in investigating his or her proposal to work for you.
5. Find Teaching Points
For the mistakes that your applicants do make during this process (which they all will) — use it as an opportunity to teach a lesson. The applicant who responded with disappointment to his job offer at the start of this article will likely change his mind later. Use this as a trigger to teach your applicants the adult lesson of taking time to think things over and sometimes hovering over the send button before responding reactively to an e-mail. This whole transition is full of learning opportunities. Your goal in making this process demanding should be to produce a more capable and better equipped staff member at the end of it.
6. Show Patience
Being firm and providing the reality checks needed are important, but the necessity to continue nurturing their development is equally important. Expect mistakes to be made and anticipate them. Meet these mistakes with calmness, and be ready to wear your educator hat and offer a lesson. (These experiences will probably provide you with some great stories to use for future staff training purposes.) Remember that the role you play in your applicants’ personal development is part of their larger growth into a career professional one day. These are the campers who you have seen grow up and do incredible things each summer — the campers who have shown great potential. Continue to guide them and help them learn. Perhaps one day they will take your place and provide the same lessons to others.