The hardest decisions to make in the beginning of the summer have to do with the efficient use of staff. There are different ways that camp directors attempt to approach this practice…
Some attempt pre-season direct staff hiring for certain positions. They search for a specific arts and crafts instructor, land sports, archery instructor and so on.
Others attempt to hire great people, train then and place them later. This involves a complicated training week, where every staff person is exposed to all areas and given a taste of what it's like.
No matter what approach is taken -- direct place or universally train -- there are pros and cons involved and two areas of exception: 1) Waterfront and 2) Ranch.
At no time should any director place less than qualified people in these two areas; they are too dangerous and direct staff placement should take place in these two areas.
The Direct Way
Direct placement training involves interviewing and hiring staff for every area and activity area you have in camp. Drama people for drama, archers for archery and horse people for the ranch.
Directors following this method look for the most camp like personalities in the midst of the best people in each area that they are searching for.
If the staff is large enough it is a good idea to hire two for every area. This way the camp has a back up if one gets sick during the course of the summer or anything else unexpected. The cons of this method follow…
"What if I fire or lose my archery instructor?" Well what? All directors should plan for this possible event. Don't forget Murphy's Law, where anything that can possibly go wrong will. This is the essence of summer camping! Try and plan for it no matter what training philosophy and staff selection plan a camp follows.
A Universal Approach
Here in Ann Arbor we follow the universally train method for all areas except waterfront and ranch. It is stressed that the majority of staff will be lifeguards and all staff will be trained in first aid and CPR.
For the most part when you follow this practice staff-training week becomes your deciding factor for where staff start the summer.
You take a few things into consideration as you watch staff during the week: Personality, interest in the subject, background and your first impression of their group control.
Personality is a trait all directors spend the hiring season focusing on. We try and find the best people -- good natured, fun, outgoing, caring and so on.
Now you get specific, thinking about what activities need different personality quirks. Archery is a dangerous sport. It is also generally what staff consider the easiest to become lazy at after four hours a day, five days a week for nine weeks. You don't want to place a low attention span counselor at this area. You need a patient, focused person who is also fun.
When directors follow the universal method they are exposing all staff to training in every area. This way the counselor who gets tired, frustrated or bored with their area can switch out and try something new, and most importantly, a new staff member can fill the hole their co-worker left.
Here in Ann Arbor we assist the process with the curriculum guidebooks (see the February 2001 issue of Camp Business ). These assist a staff member coming in cold on how where to pick up the lessons from.
The con to this method is that there is a lower level of expertise in some cases. Camps might have campers who are coming for tennis lessons. Campers will want a tennis instructor.
What if the tennis instructor is a college student who loves tennis and plays it occasionally during the year, but has no formal instruction? Again, campers will want a tennis instructor. They may not be able to teach the camper who is on tennis teams and looking for some help.
Staff training week is essential under this method of placement. You must create a training schedule where all staff receives instruction on the activity area and a chance to have practical experience in the area before the summer begins.
At this point a director or program director can evaluate the staff person's skill and interest in the area being trained.
It assists in placing staff and it also weeds out staff that definitely have no interest in certain activities. At Camp Al-Gon-Quian we try to set our staff up for success. Placing them in areas they hate will only render a poor performance and a poor experience for campers.
As mentioned earlier, the two areas of exception for the universal approach are waterfront and ranch. All camps should have specific people hired to run their water front activities, like swimming lessons, water skiing and sailing. The state and the ACA have strict regulations that should be followed at all times for water activities.
Horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity. To increase the danger of the sport by placing under-qualified personnel with the animals and children is irresponsible and dangerous.
Only certified, clinic-trained instructors should be allowed to teach children how to work around and ride horses.
Camps operate on budgets. Plan for extra training for your waterfront and ranch staff. Send them to be trained or train one staff member to be a clinical instructor so they can train everyone else at your facility.
The extra cost for training people in these two areas will protect your entire summer operation.
No matter what placement strategy you follow try and mix the two up. All hiring season we camp directors scurry high and low for the best people, best personalities, and best chances for the our campers to have an incredible summer.
Plan for Murphy's Law and don't take the approach that it will never happen. That's when we add to the surprises, unnecessarily, that summer camp already has in store for us! Good luck.
Jeff Merhige is Executive Director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, in Dayton, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.