Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

End Game

A different path to workforce development

April draws its name from the Latin word aperio, "to open” (Olde Farmer’s Almanac, 2015). For college students on the brink of summer break, April very well may represent an opening to explore new horizons—at home, abroad, in work, and at play. Surprisingly, it may be that last opportunity that holds the most cachet for the future.

How can that be?

Simply because many of the attributes eventual employers say they’re looking for, such as those related to “noncognitive” skill development, may be best learned in a place you’d least expect: summer camp.

While equating employment as a camp counselor with “play” undervalues the very real responsibility and effort required to be successful, it is certainly the case that much of the work lines up nicely with, well, fun.

For sure, the pull of the “real world” is hard to ignore. Nineteen-year-old Sam Francis, a sophomore at Bates College in Maine and a one-time camper, said, “I am currently in the process of finding summer work and I have just assumed I would get an internship at some large company, just as every other economics and math major does. Then it dawned on me that I have my whole life to wear suits and go to the office 9 to 5. A friend who took the expected route advised me to do something this summer that I may not have the opportunity to do again.”

Sam’s choice? Camp.

Although that may seem a temporary dodge from the path careers are built on, it’s not. In fact, research suggests just the opposite. “The Impact of Camp Employment on the Workforce Development of Emerging Adults,” published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, highlights positive workforce development opportunities for camp staff and cites outcomes related to interpersonal interactions, communication, problem solving and leadership (Duerden, Witt, Garst, Bialeschki, Schwarzlose & Norton, 2014).

Factors facilitating such outcomes were telling.

  • Developing intrinsic motivations for working at camp
  • Being pushed out of one’s “comfort zone”
  • Participating in a supportive community
  • Receiving positive feedback

In his 2012 briefing paper for the American Camp Association, “Workforce Skill Development in Camps,” Mat Duerden, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University and a co-author of the Journal article, said, “For many young people, serving as a camp staff member can be an entry point into the labor market as well as a valuable job skill-building experience.”

He goes on to contrast that experience with evidence that a significant number of young adults don’t feel adequately prepared for a job. In making that case, he cites data from Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies revealing that “46 percent of high school graduates currently in the workforce and 39 percent currently in college reported feeling a gap existed between what they learned in school and what was expected of them to enter the workforce” (Duerden, 2012).

For his part, Barry Garst, Ph.D., an associate professor of youth development leadership at Clemson University, a member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), and a co-author of the Journal piece, recently told me, “Employers are looking for young adults who are well prepared with a range of 21st century skills and an ability to work effectively within a global society. Research supports the contributions of camp experiences, with rich opportunities for responsibility and collaborative decision-making, in building workforce development skills in young adult staff, including problem solving, interpersonal communication, and leadership.”

Even so, many young people struggle with the notion that internships, even unpaid ones, best pave the way to success. And their parents may tow that line as well.

In a seminal New York Times article, “The Camp Counselor vs. the Intern,” Dan Fleshler wrote, “Like it or not, a summer internship—indeed, more than one—has become de rigueur for a college student.” Trying to convince his camp-bound daughter of the efficacy of this approach, Fleshler said, “I tried to sound sure of myself … but my argument was halfhearted ... Nor could I dispute that the [camp] work was incomparable for the future, requiring the skills to manage group projects and motivate individuals, set goals and juggle tight schedules, and stay available 24 hours a day, six days a week, in sickness and in health” (Fleshler, 2012).

Bolstering his case is research he cited from the National Association of Colleges and Employers that showed unpaid internships offer no advantage to young people seeking jobs.

On the other hand, camps may be increasingly finding that they can actually market workforce development as a way to attract and retain staff. For example, 4-H Camp Bristol Hills in New York is quite intentional about training its employees not only for their roles at camp but also for future jobs.

Does it work?

When asked to rate their skills, counselors noted gains in their abilities to speak in front of large groups of people, take initiative, adapt to new situations and to work [with] and support others. Additional gains were realized in managing conflict, planning ahead and organizing, being a positive role model and managing time. One of their counselors said, “I know … how to adapt to new and unpredictable situations … and I’m looking forward to using my new skills in the real world, and next year at camp” (4-H Camp, 2012).

Yet another approach for college students is to seek internships at camp, according to Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., and Shannon Downey, M.S., in their Camping Magazine article “Internships and Camp: Staffing Camps and Developing Future Camp Leaders.” They point to camp/college partnerships that promote summer learning across a variety of domains, including leadership, program development, operations, education, and science (Yerkes & Downey, 2006). Majors include everything from business administration to education and human services.

Regardless, if the end game is finding a job in the “real world,” it may be that camp will prove most helpful. We can ask Sam to let us know.

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2015 All Rights Reserved


Duerden, M. (2012). Workforce skill development in camps. Briefing paper prepared for the American Camp Association. (9 April 2015).

Duerden, M., Witt, P., Garst, B., Bialeschki, D., Schwarzlose, T., and K. Norton. (2014). The impact of camp employment on the workforce development of emerging adults. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration. Spring 2014. Volume 32, Number 1, pp. 26-44.

Fleshler, D. (2012). The camp counselor vs. the intern. The New York Times. May 29, 2012.… (9 April 2015).

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (2015). Origin of month names. Yankee Publishing. (9 April 2015).

Yerkes, R. and S. Downey. (2006). Internships and camp: staffing camps and developing future camp leaders. Camping Magazine. November/December 2006. (9 April 2015).