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Summer Camp Counselors Are Disappearing...Though Not How You Might Think

Emma Brown
for KBIA

When the first busload of campers arrived at Camp Sabra in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks this summer, they were greeted by more than one hundred cheering, dancing and hugging counselors.

For the first time in four years, Sydney Aaranson was not one of those counselors.

Twenty year-old Aaranson loves Camp Sabra. She’s spent more than half the summers in her life there. It’s where she met her boyfriend. Her Facebook profile still even says she works there.

“I think it’s the greatest place on earth,” she says.

But this summer, things are different. Aaranson is going to be a junior at the University of Kansas in the fall, and her graphic design major there is competitive.

“Anything I can do to help myself get ahead and get prepared for next year really helps.”

So, instead of returning to camp, she landed two graphic design internships—one at an advertising agency and one at a nonprofit.

Credit Emma Brown / For KBIA
Camp Sabra counselor Josh Rudman (left) helps a camper with his bags on the first day of camp this summer.

Aaranson is not alone. Most summer camp counselors are college students, and more and more of those students are choosing professional internships over classic summer jobs like being a camp counselor.

A survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that about 63 percent of graduates in the class of 2015 had completed at least one internship in college—the highest percentage since the survey started in 2007.

It’s a challenging trend for people trying to hire summer camp counselors, like Camp Sabra Assistant Director Ben Panet.

“In the entire camping industry, there’s a struggle finding staff,” Panet says. “The internship game is our biggest struggle.”

Last year, about 34 percent of camps accredited by the American Camp Association reported it was harder to recruit staff members than it was just one year before. Panet thinks a lot of that is because students like Aaranson are feeling pressure from their parents, from their schools, and even from themselves to get a jump on their careers.

Credit Emma Brown / For KBIA
Ben Panet (center) has been Camp Sabra's assistant director since 2013.

“They don’t see the value in camp,” Panet says. “I think the camping industry as a whole has struggled to put the value of camp written into words on paper.”

There are options to fill those staffing vacancies. Panet offers a $50 per head bounty for his counselors to recruit their friends to work at camp. And there are staffing organizations, like Camp America, that help camps hire internationally.

But the ideal setup would be to retain past counselors as they get older, and Panet hasn’t given up on that. He’s trying to compete directly with internships by helping his counselors see the value of this summer job in resume terms.

“You’re organizing, facilitating, developing programming,” Panet says, “you’re managing campers and implementing curriculum.”

Panet’s brought on two staff members to help make that case at Camp Sabra this summer. They’re working with counselors on resume writing, professional development and job interview skills. For a couple counselors, Panet found administrative office jobs so they could still come to camp while doing work that’s a little more in line with their career goals.

And earlier this summer, Panet invited a group of alumni—including me—to speak about how working as a camp counselor has helped us in our non-camp counselor careers.

Credit Emma Brown / For KBIA
Camp Sabra counselors on the first day of camp.

Some of the questions I got from this current crop of counselors included: Was being a camp counselor helpful for your job as a journalist? (Yes.) Did working at camp help you learn to navigate office politics? (Definitely, yes.) How did you know when it was time to leave?

It’s that last question that would-be counselors like Sydney Aaranson are grappling with. Inevitably there comes a time when it’s time to move on. But is that cutoff between the sophomore and junior years of college?

Maybe not, Aaranson says, “I think maybe I hopped on the ship too early.”

At least there’s always next summer.

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