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Hiring, Motivating Seasonal Workers for Day Camp Isn't All Fun and Games

February 19, 2001|KAREN E. KLEIN

Hiring seasonal employees, training them and motivating them to commit to an 11-week job during their vacation from high school or college is a challenge. Eric Naftulin, who has worked in day camps for a dozen years, developed personnel techniques when he started his own camp two years ago. Up-front honesty, team building, feedback and frequent evaluations have proved helpful for his Aloha Beach Camp. Naftulin was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.

In many respects, a day camp business is unique. The operating season is short, and the pace is intense. We have only 11 weeks to accomplish the same amount of work that nonseasonal companies do all year. At the same time, we share many of the same challenges any business does, namely with respect to personnel.

Our staff is composed mainly of high school and college students who come to us for summer jobs that they hope will be easy and fun. Sometimes they have a misdirected notion that being a camp counselor isn't a "real" job. And because the job is temporary--June through August--their commitment level isn't always what it might be, compared with a more permanent job or career endeavor.

This perspective can present problems for us, and for anyone who runs a seasonal business or hires part-time help. There are legitimate concerns about staff attendance, promptness, day-to-day dedication and stamina. Staff burnout is very common in the camping business and in other businesses where the stress level is high and the pace so hectic.

We've taken some creative steps to combat these issues, starting with the interview process. A lot of employers use the interview to sell the company. We don't. We set the tone of high expectations right from the start. It's risky for us to do that, especially with the labor shortage and the fact that many young people are career-focused much earlier these days. Even at 16, they want to take positions that add to their resumes. We've started recruiting through schools that have education programs and teacher credential programs, so we can find counselors who want to work with children long-term.

During the interview, we are very honest. We tell them it's a hard job being out in the sun with little kids all day. We tell them that they could get a far easier job if they wanted, and they might even be able to make more money at it. Some of them come in thinking that it's going to be great wearing shorts and tennis shoes to work all summer, and this will just be a break for them. It's better to find that out at the interview stage, so we can weed out applicants whose individual goals don't match the goals we've set as a company, which include everything from enriching campers' lives to keeping them safe to improving camper retention rates.

Once we determine that we want to hire them, we check their references and do an authorized background investigation. Then we bring the counselors in for an intense week of pre-camp training, during which we do team-building exercises, child-development activities and a lot of goal-setting. We go through the goals that we have for this business and the goals we have for our counselors, and we help them outline their own individual goals. We tie those goals into everything we do during the summer, and they have become our most effective staff development mechanism. When everyone is working together to reach the same objectives, a powerful camaraderie develops that becomes contagious and rubs off on the campers.

During the operating season, our primary attention turns to day-to-day management of our counselors. Because the summer is so short, we develop our supervisory plan long before camp starts. The primary components include staff meetings, evaluations, feedback programs and rewards.

We schedule four evening staff meetings during the summer at my home, during which we provide dinner and pay the staff for their attendance. The tone is relaxed, yet we accomplish quite a bit. We provide time for questions and answers, and we spend time brainstorming ways to enrich the program and kids.

Staff evaluations are conducted twice each season, once at mid-summer and once at summer's end. Because of the shortness of our operating season, we can't make mistakes and still be successful. Our staff needs to be hitting on all cylinders at all times, so we employ organized staff feedback programs that have been effective in limiting weaker job performance and encouraging job performance that exceeds expectations. The counselors get evaluated on all sorts of criteria, such as promptness, attendance, dress code and interaction with the children.

We use bonuses and rewards as much as possible. Last summer, we bought our staff members lunch and dinner several times, took them to a Dodger game, included personal notes of encouragement with each paycheck and took them to the Cheesecake Factory for a season-ending party.

When the summer is over, we try to get a verbal commitment from them to return next year. We shoot for a 50% staff-retention rate, but that's tough when they are all at a transitional time in their lives. If they are interested in returning, we try to get them to sign an employment contract in the fall for the next season.


At a Glance

* Company: Aloha Beach Camp

* Owner: Eric and Teri Naftulin

* Nature of business: Summer day camp

* Address: P. O. Box 570812, Tarzana 91357

* Founded: 1999

* E-mail:

* Web site:

* Employees: 1 full-time, 10 seasonal

* Annual revenue: $45,000


If your business can provide a lesson to other entrepreneurs, contact Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016 or at Include your name, address and telephone number.

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