Spotlight: What I Do As a Summer Camp Director
Summer camp work seems like a pretty relaxing experience. You can spend a lot of time outdoors helping kids learn and have fun, right? Of course, the logistics of running an entire camp are complex and challenges add up, as does the recruiting effort required to keep the kids returning year after year.
To learn a little about what it is like to be a camp leader besides being a young counselor, we spoke to the Hawaii camp director. Of course, this is the usual setting for absurd comedy films, but the day-to-day work related to the safety, education and employment of hundreds of children in the summer is up to 80 hours a week. And yes, there is a lot of work to be done in the offseason as well.
First of all, tell us a little about your current job and how long you have been doing it.
I am the director of Hawaii lodging, which is located between the ocean and the mountains. In the summer, I run a 10 week coeducational night camp program with + 30 counselors and over 700 children. During the non-summer months, I anxiously plan the coming summer. I am looking forward to summer 2016 as this will be my second summer at my camp.
What prompted you to choose your career path?
A series of random events took me to where I am now. Two years ago, I graduated from Teach For America as a special educator in Baltimore. After a strenuous two years of teaching and postgraduate studies, I took a year off to travel to sort things out. When I was picking grapes in a vineyard in New Zealand, my friend, the director of a camp in Hawaii, asked me if I wanted to be the assistant director for the summer. I agreed because after much thought I realized that I wanted to work with children, but not necessarily in class. I thought it might be a good gig that could lead to something more lasting.
Last summer, a friend of mine (and my boss) decided to pursue a career on the mainland, so there was a vacancy for the position of camp director.
To be honest, I got this job because I was the only one who really knew the day-to-day work of the camp, and there weren’t that many viable candidates on the island to ensure a smooth transition. I believe the hiring manager appreciated my past experience with children in the classroom, as well as my good performance that past summer.
Unlike most people aspiring to become camp directors, I would say that I was quickly recruited into this role. In most camps, they usually look for directors with several years of camp leadership.
What are you doing besides what most people see? What do you actually spend most of your time on?
I have envious friends who ask me all the time: “So what are you really doing when there is no summer camp?” Actually [to do] the mass! My job is to keep within the budget. The bottom line is, if there are no children in the camp, we don’t have a camp (and I don’t have a job!). So marketing the parent camp is my number one priority. I go to many social events, attend kindergartens after school, send postcards to last year’s camps, record radio ads, and even speak on local morning television to talk about the camp!
In the background, many time-consuming tasks remain, such as interviewing and hiring personnel, planning personnel training, ordering equipment for summer vacations, and much more. It’s a handful.
What other misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Most of the camp is no longer the wild, wild west. If the camps today were like the ones you see at Heavyweights or Wet Hot American Summer , they would close due to lawsuits or low attendance because moms wouldn’t want to send their kids to such an unpredictable environment.
Thus, the camps are moving into a more professional work environment. Many camp directors attend conferences to learn best practices in marketing, program development and risk management.
Yet not all camps are created equal, and every summer camps pop up across the country where children are seriously injured or even killed because the camps have not done their due diligence to ensure the safety of their program areas (think ropes and water sports) … … These almost always preventable incidents embody the idea that the camp is the Wild West.
What’s your average uptime? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
During the summer months, there are many moving parts that provide an 80 hour work week. If I take my monthly salary and divide it by the number of hours I work, I easily get less than half the minimum wage. A camp director is a way of life, not a job.
As a camp director, you consistently put the needs of others ahead of yourself during the summer months. I am responsible for the physical and emotional safety of over 500 children who are attending summer camp. To ensure the quality and safety of the program, you must be at the camp at all times. In other words, make sure employees interact with their vacationers and help them make new friends while having fun. Rescuers scan the water, the archery director uses the correct range commands, and the camp nurse has everything she needs to get the job done. The dollar stops at you. Outside of summer, I tend to work more hours from 9 to 5 because of the 3 month 80 hour marathon marathon in the summer months.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Automating your work as much as possible to increase efficiency while reducing errors is paramount when shortening “oh, s * and!” moments.
I get about 300 summer camp consultant applications a year (again, my camp is in Hawaii) and using SignUpGenius helps a lot when scheduling Skype interviews. After hiring them, I use Google Sheets to keep track of their hiring documents as I work as a hiring and HR manager when it’s not summer.
Google Calendar is also a pretty powerful tool for scheduling interviews and appointments throughout the year. You can also set reminders / deadlines to work with marketing and other initiatives throughout the year. Dropbox serves as our file database. It’s a great place to store staff training resources, weekly camp schedules, vendor contracts, registration details, grant proposals, and anything else you want people to have easy access to.
What are you doing differently from your colleagues or colleagues in the same profession?
From what I have seen, most camps simply have interviews with staff about their work in the middle and at the end of the year. I don’t think this is appropriate given that there is such a short amount of time (about two months) to make sure all children have a great time at camp. It’s too late to tell a distressed employee that he needs a lot of improvement in mid-summer. Plus, you want to compliment employees who are doing well so they don’t lose motivation. Therefore, I try to have weekly one-on-one meetings with all of my management staff so that they know what they are doing well and what they need to work on. Then I expect them to do the same with the staff they manage. By investing in staff, you are investing in children as they will (hopefully) get the best counselor over the summer.
What’s the worst part of a job and how do you deal with it?
Life where you work has its challenges. Many camps provide accommodations for year-round staff, which is good financially as board and lodging are usually free. My path from home to office is a 30 second walk. On the other hand, it really sucks.
In most jobs, if you are having a bad day at work, you can simply drive home and leave physically. Here you are constantly surrounded by people with whom you work in your free time, even in the non-summer months, because there is a simple staff who is left behind.
In order to live where you work, I try to leave the camp whenever possible during my free time from work. I live in Hawaii, so I try to go hiking and explore the island. I also try to avoid communicating with year-round staff in my spare time, because work (and gossip!) Creeps into conversations.
What is the most enjoyable part of the job?
I wouldn’t be in the field if it weren’t for the transformational experiences that children receive from camp. There are very few places in the world where children can disconnect from technology, interact with other children their age, and learn new skills. As a former teacher, it’s great to see the kids feel successful at camp in ways they couldn’t at school. You know how to win the tug of war challenge on the day of a special event or hit the target in archery.
We also provide scholarships and financial assistance to families who are usually unable to provide their children with a camp holiday. I am in charge of providing financial aid and it is always humiliating to read applications. For many families, a week of overnight stay can be the only positive experience their child has throughout the year. First of all, it’s great to help create an environment in which children can become their best versions of themselves.
How much money can you expect at your job?
Earnings vary greatly across camps across the country. I’ve seen executives pay anywhere from $ 15,000 to $ 50,000 a year, depending on camp size and offseason responsibilities. I’m not sure if many parents want to know that some camp directors (responsible for the safety and well-being of their child!) Receive the same annual salary as someone selling hamburgers on the street.
For me personally, as a single guy living in Hawaii, I am doing fine with an average salary of $ 30,000. I can save a decent amount with my in-kind benefits (free housing and meals), but I don’t think that would be an acceptable salary if I had kids or a crazy amount of student loans.
Is there a way to “advance” in your field?
It is a matter of finding your niche in order to “advance” in the camping industry. Some summer camp directors become executive directors of larger camps with multiple sites. This is usually accompanied by a good salary increase (+ $ 60,000) with similar housing benefits. I’ve seen other former camp directors do the consulting, which can be quite lucrative if you have a decent number of camps in your portfolio.
There is also a huge home-based vendor industry that sells various products to the camps, such as registration databases, inflatable pools, visa services for international staff, staff training products, software, etc., which are well paid. If you are talented and ambitious, you can always get ahead in this area.
What do people underestimate / overestimate in what you do?
In my opinion, some parents do not fully understand how important a week of camp has for their child for a lifetime. In Paul Tuff’s How Children Succeed, Krutoy suggests that persistence, curiosity, and other soft skills, not SAT scores or grades, lead lifelong success.
The camp is the ideal outdoor classroom where the kids think they are just having fun (which they are), but in fact they are learning as well. So, for example, if a child is in the archery period, he strives for accuracy in order to hit the target. In life, we strive for precision at university and at work.
There are many transferable skills. Many parents returning to the camp with whom I communicate understand the payback they see with their child in just one short week of camp.
What advice would you give to those who want to become your profession?
Because the work requires long hours at relatively low wages in exchange for huge responsibilities, there is a high turnover rate in some camps across the country. For this reason, finding a job anywhere is not so difficult. I know this might sound a little counterproductive, but I highly recommend someone work in a well established camp as a coordinator / assistant to learn industry best practices before you take full responsibility. I would avoid camps with extremely high turnover because it is usually a red flag for their work environment, and you may not get a lot of professional support despite the great title on your resume.
In terms of education, 20 years ago I don’t think most camp directors required a college degree, but now the trend is to have it. Several years of camp experience in various support positions may be sufficient in lieu of a bachelor’s degree, but try to get it anyway. I highly recommend not getting a diploma associated with the camp, for example, on a specialty “rest” or “sports science”. These programs lack the transferable skills to give you the tools to succeed as a camp director. After all, a camp is a business and you need business acumen to make a camp financially viable. Many camps are closed due to inappropriate business decisions. Earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing, business, or other related field.
On my own behalf, since you live with colleagues in many camps, do not get carried away by politics. Remember your mission and stay true to it – do what is best for the children and good deeds will follow.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.