A Counselor Runs Through It

In a previous article ( Camp Business , October 2005) we talked about how to conduct a behavioral-based job interview. But where do you find your candidates to begin with?

Time for me to share some of my own personal dirty laundry… Each year when I was hiring summer staff, I'd dutifully send out re-application forms to the staff from last year I wanted to come back and asked them to re-apply around December.

Then in late January I hit the road going to camp fairs at major universities. I'd "interview" dozens and dozens of candidates, give them very long applications to fill out and three written reference forms to have returned, and then I'd go home and wait.

If I was lucky, some of the good candidates returned their applications. I'd lay them all out on a table from "best" to "worst" in my grading system, and finally send acceptance letters to the top candidates. When they didn't all reply, I'd call and find out they'd taken jobs weeks ago, often the day after the job fair.

So June first would come around and I'd always have two or three counselor jobs unfilled (always males). Have you been there? What do you do then?

First, you call all the staff that you have already hired and ask them, "Who do you know that might want to work at camp this summer?" In fact, you ask that question of everyone you know. And amazingly, the staffappear!

It turns out that the primary way we get new campers, word-of-mouth advertising, is also the best way to get good counselors. But I'd never really worked it until I'd exhausted all the paperwork I could shuffle.

Fortunately I figured out from the success of others, and my own mistakes, what I could do to turn the odds more in my favor. They'll work for you, too.

Casting Your Line

First, get use to asking, "Do you know a college student who would be a good camp counselor for us next summer?" Post it by every phone. Ask everyone who comes in the door and everyone who you talk to on the phone. Stand up in church and ask the congregation. And do it before February! When someone says yes, ask them for some background information. If they sound good, then have someone call them. Don't wait for them to apply; go after them.

Second, rank your fishing holes. If you already get a few good counselors from one college, then that's a good spot to fish. You know good candidates exist there, and can be attracted to your camp. The word of mouth of those past staff has been working its way through the campus over the year, and that's just like chumming for fish!

Add to it with your own ads in the student newspaper, announcing your arrival on campus. Have your staff alumni meet you and volunteer to help work your table. And when possible, stay away from the noise of other fishermen.

Arrange for a table in the student union on a separate day. Better yet, two consecutive days (as student class schedules tend to change on alternating days and you'll get a whole different school of fish). Just like with marketing for summer camp, you'll have more luck trying different lures on different days at a good fishing hole (your best neighborhoods or zip-codes) than you will moving constantly to unproven spots.

Remember how I waited too long to offer jobs, so the best had already been taken? Much of that was my lack of confidence in knowing a good counselor when I saw one, and worrying that the next one might be even better.

By using the performance-based interview techniques (as found in books like Hire with Your Head by Lou Adler), I was able to score a candidate and know that day if they could do the job. I could let them know that night, "I feel really good about you joining our team. I'd like to offer you this job, contingent on your completion of our HR department's application form, and the reference checks I'll do in the next week."

After sharing in their joy, I've got to follow through. They get an e-mail confirmation letter and forms right away, and I've got to do some digging.

References are of course critical in the hiring process, but don't kid yourself in thinking that the standard "three written references" will give you the most accurate information.

Most employers have policies forbidding the writing of references, so the ones your candidates find are usually not from their best work experience. Employers have found that phone references are more honest, accurate, and quicker.

If you confirm their relationship with the candidate, include their contact information, and take written notes of your conversation, it counts as a written reference in any up-to-date HR department.

But even it it's a great catch we still might lose them if we don't keep 'em on the line. A good fish can bite, but throw the hook because of the fisherman's inattention.

We need to let them know every few weeks that we're really counting on the being a part of our team, and that it will be the experience of their life.

Each candidate gets on a schedule that includes a welcome letter, contacts via e-mail by returning staff, monthly newsletters, and information to send to their parents to help sell them on the idea!

That continues from whenever they accept the job until staff orientation begins, never longer than three weeks in between. None of their friends are getting that kind of attention for the jobs they have agreed to take. No buyer's remorse from our future staff!

Do I hire extra counselors to cover for the ones that may have to change their minds? You bet. Nothing's more important than having great staff, and if I have to settle for second-best in June, the kids will pay for it this summer, and my enrolment will suffer next summer. When you look at it that way, a couple extra counselors is very inexpensive insurance against loss of business.

Another reason some fishermen are more successful? They have better tackle and better bait. So right now, before another month goes by, make sure your Web site is not only up-to-date for campers and their parents, but your summer employment section has great photos, a great message of the uniqueness of your camp community, the benefits of working a summer at camp, and an easy and short way to make an initial application. If you ask for seven pages of text, you're not likely to get the best candidates. They're too busy with life to fill those out. They'll just jump to the next Web site.

Work that bait! Get 'em on the line, and reel 'em in!

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.

Bryan BuchkoComment