Tough job market leaves Midcoast summer camps short-staffed

CREA Camp Director Jenny Mueller (far left) poses with (left to right) Gwen Martin, Elise Gillis, Eleanor Young, Eliza Libby and Erin Harty. While CREA managed to hire a full staff this summer, many other local camps struggled to attract workers. Photo courtesy of Caroline Eliot

With a proud history dating back over 100 years and a loyal following of alumni, Camp Chewonki usually doesn’t have to push very hard to convince young people to spend their summers hiking and swimming as as camp counselors in Wiscasset.

Yet this spring, staffers at the nonprofit found themselves cold calling numbers from Chewonki’s 11,000 household mailing list asking for help.

“Do you want a job?” Vice President of Marketing, Registration and Communications Cullen McGough remembers asking anyone who would listen. “We would like to talk to you.”

After sending out a flood of calls, postcards and social media posts, the night camp managed to bring in enough counselors and support staff to operate at full capacity this summer, McGough said.

But many local camps, ranging from expensive overnight options to city-run day programs essential for working parents, have struggled to attract workers due to a tough labor market, camp directors say. .

Wolfe’s Neck Center in Freeport had to reduce its farm camp enrollment this year due to staffing issues, according to Madison Moran, the organization’s marketing and communications manager. The agricultural camp only managed to field 14 counselors this year, instead of the usual 18.

“It was a really unfortunate decision,” Moran said of the programming cuts, which she said were minimal. “Camp on the Farm is definitely one of our most popular programs, and it was truly heartbreaking for us and community members to have to cut back this year.”

While some local camps, including the Cathance River Education Alliance day camp, say they have had no problem filling their staff, finding manpower has been an issue for many programs in across the state, said Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps. That’s troubling for an industry that serves 60,000 children each year and generated $500,000 million in economic activity in Maine in 2019.

One factor contributing to the shortage, Hall said, is the pandemic-induced decline in the number of foreign citizens who typically flock to Maine to spend their summers as counselors, cooks and gardeners in overnight camps. Normally, about 3,300 of the Maine camp’s 13,000 staff come from overseas, but last year that number was just 400, he said.

Maine’s status as the nation’s oldest state also hurts summer camps, Hall said, because there’s a relatively small pool of young people looking for seasonal work.

Yet the biggest hiring challenge, administrators agree, is the multitude of options for entry-level job seekers.

High school students could make $13.50 working for the Brunswick Department of Parks and Recreation day camp, far less than the $15 or more they could make in a fast food job, Sabrina said. Best, deputy director of the department.

“It’s a very hard sell other than you can come and have fun,” Best said. “For that salary, you have to really love and be passionate about working with children.”

The supply of camp workers has plummeted even as demand for childcare has soared.

After two strange years of masking, distancing and remote learning, parents are eager to give their children a chance to spend time outdoors with their peers, McGough said. Demand for a place at Chewonki this year was higher than it has been for two decades.

For parents looking for a job or returning to the office after working remotely during the pandemic, childcare during the summer is less of a luxury than a necessity, according to Best.

Enrollment in Brunswick’s programs, which cover grades 1 through 8, rose to 240, 75% higher than they were during the pandemic, Best said. Despite the best efforts of the Parks Department, which is still hiring counselors, labor issues have kept some potential campers on the waiting list.

“We do our best not to cap summer camp because we understand the need for parents to have some coverage for childcare,” she said. “But we kind of had to keep hiring more campers until we were able to add more staff.”

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Sandy A. Greer