Teens and college students who think they’ve outgrown summer camp and need a “real job” may be missing out on the best job of their life. Human resource managers value camp counselor experience. Thousands of counselors have met lasting friends and even spouses at camp. Counselors work in outdoor environments where healthy physical activity is built into every day. Best of all is the opportunity to be a positive influence on children: the chance to make a difference.
Skills for life
Employers know that counselor jobs build life skills, says Cheryl Magen, a former camp director and educational career consultant who is president of the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Section and coordinator for a new master’s degree program in Camp Administration and Leadership at Touro University, NV. “Counselors practice leadership, teambuilding, supervision, mentoring, communication, cooperation, problem-solving, conflict resolution and program development. Parents and career advisors can help students build a resume that communicates how these skills are valuable in any work environment,” says Magen.
The counselor experience also promotes healthy emotional and social development in adolescents and young adults by fostering autonomy, according to a 2009 study by University of Connecticut researcher Sara K. Johnson, who says, “Camp is a unique place where counselors can experience responsibility while still feeling the safety net of supportive relationships.”
Simply applying for a counselor position can move a teen one step closer towards self-reliance.
Glenn Smith, director of Camp Tall Timbers, suggests that while parents may gather information for their children, they should step back and allow their child to gain valuable experience through the application process. “One thing people sometimes miss about a camp job is that it is a tremendous responsibility to care for someone’s most valuable possession.”
Most camps now post applications on their websites. Erika Ninos, director of the Music and Arts Day Camp at Chatham University, says prospective counselors can email the camp office to request information on open positions and an application. She will also accept emailed resumes with a note explaining why the applicant is interested in the Chatham program.
Like Ninos, many camp directors receive too many inquiries to interview every applicant, so it’s important to have good communication skills, whether speaking or writing. “I do try to have brief conversations either via email or phone with many of our applicants just to gauge their interest and enthusiasm for camp work,” says Ninos.
Last summer, camps nationwide received their highest number of applications for counselor jobs ever–a trend that many camps attribute to the economy. Although teenage jobless rates soared to record highs in summer 2009, ACA says that more than 1.2 million people still found jobs at camps as bunk and activity counselors and administrative staff.
While many traditional camps hire counselors year-round, the season really heats up from January to May, when camps are aggressively seeking summer staff. Aiming to have her core staff hired by late February, Ninos starts accepting applications and resumes in December. But Smith says many camps will have staff openings even in late spring, so it’s never too late to apply.
Depending on age, experience and expertise, day camp counselor salaries can range from minimum wage to about $15 an hour. At overnight camps like Camp Tall Timbers, where room and board is included, seasonal pay can range from $1,400 to $1,800 for the summer. Lifeguards and activity counselors with special skills in the arts, nature, horseback riding or sports, or certifications in fields like aquatics, boating, ropes or archery, usually earn bonus compensation.
Chatham’s Music and Arts Day Camp typically hires counselors who are age 18 or older, and who have previous camp or child care experience. “It’s important that our counselors have previous experience working with children,” says Ninos. “It doesn’t need to be camp experience, but volunteer or paid work in pre-schools, day care centers, any informal education programs or as a nanny is always great preparation.”
Both day and overnight camps often offer supervised Counselor in Training (C.I.T) programs to help prepare high school students for counselor positions. Because Chatham gets so many inquiries from high schoolers and former campers, this summer its day camp will launch a C.I.T program for young people who will enter tenth or eleventh grade in fall 2010.
“The C.I.T. program can be a great learning experience where future counselors will receive training in mediation, curriculum development, first aid and CPR, team-building and mentoring. C.I.T participants will also engage in special events and field trips that are tailored to their interests and needs throughout the course of their camp experience,” says Ninos.
Being a camp counselor requires maturity, a high energy level and good interpersonal skills. Most of all, counselors must demonstrate enthusiasm. Ninos says, “You can have tons of experience working with kids but if you aren’t excited to commit to the job, then you won’t stand out as a counselor applicant.”
Prospective counselors should emphasize their camping background and their enthusiasm, be ready to adapt to any available job and be persistent. They should also expect camp directors to check Facebook profiles and phone answering messages to see if their content is wholesome and appropriate.
“The willingness to work with children and the ability to work in a team environment is what separates a good counselor from a great one,” says Smith.
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section.