The Benefits of Camp Employment: More Than Just Fun and Games

May 1, 2014, Department, by Mat Duerden, Ph.D.

Camp employment has the potential to benefit campers and counselors alike.Many employers are concerned about the readiness of the emerging workforce1. Emerging adults themselves share these concerns, as evidenced by results from a nationwide survey in which 46 percent of high-school graduates currently in the workforce and 39 percent of individuals currently in college reported feeling a gap between what they learned in school and what was expected of them on the job2.

The readiness gap appears most pronounced in areas associated with more esoteric skills like professionalism/work ethic, oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration and critical thinking/problemsolving3. While fundamental knowledge of core subjects like reading and math remains important, employers are placing increasing value on these less-tangible skills, and many employers feel candidates who are strong in these areas are scarce. It is important for high-school and college graduates to develop skills that make them attractive to potential employers, as evidence suggests that those who acquire more work experience in adolescence earn higher wages in subsequent years4.

Scholarly attention has shifted to the role out-of-school time (OST) plays in the development of skills valued in the workplace. While research on the developmental impacts of adolescent employment is mixed, a growing body of evidence suggests that organized youth programs in OST contexts positively influence adolescent development5,6. Although not all organized OST programs may directly target workforce development and related outcomes, lessons could be learned from these experiences, which can later be applied in adolescent work settings. 

Camps, which impact the lives of more than 11 million children and their families each year7, are important settings for youth development8-12 and represent an OST context where useful workforce development is already occurring. Emerging evidence suggests camp employment may foster positive workforce development outcomes for camp staff. 

Across the United States each year, thousands of late adolescents and emerging adults work in day- and residential-camp settings, with park and recreation departments providing a wide range of camp experiences. Research findings show that camp employment helps to develop a wide range of abilities, including teamwork, initiative and interpersonal relationship skills13. Working at camp has also been attributed to positive changes in identity, development of a sense of belonging and an enhanced ability to effectively solve problems14. Other research-based benefits associated with working at camp include development of and appreciation for diversity, teamwork, group cohesion, personal growth, leadership and responsibility, acquisition of technical skills, administrative skills and the opportunity to serve as a role model. 

A recent study involving interviews with former camp staff conducted by the authors of this article15 examined how camp employment influenced former camp staff members’ development of skills relevant to the workforce. Study participants said their camp experience increased aptitudes in communication, personal interactions, problemsolving and leadership, all areas that 21st-century employers cite as desirable but lacking among the emerging workforce.

Research on camp employment has also identified negative aspects of camp staff experiences. One commonly mentioned drawback of camp employment was “burnout.” Burnout is produced by a variety of camp-related factors, including daily hassles such as homesick campers and physical exhaustion. Indeed, fatigue can be a contributing factor in a range of staff injuries and illnesses16. Meeting the challenges associated with common daily camp activities creates more stress for staff members than would a major crisis such as an all-camp illness17

Based upon the existing evidence, it appears that working at camp is more than just fun and games. Camp employment provides camp staff with the skills most valued by future employers that are tough to find in the existing labor pool. To best structure the camp experience for staff, administrators need to recognize camp as developmental, not only for the youth participants, but also for the staff who are working with those individuals. This includes avoiding common camp employment pitfalls such as burnout, as well as intentionally promoting opportunities for staff to take leadership roles and other responsibilities that will help them be ready to confidently enter the post-camp workplace. 

Detailed references for this article can be found at www.parksandrecre

Mat Duerden, Ph. D., is an Assistant Professor of Recreation Management at Brigham Young University. Barry Garst and Deb Bialeschki of the American Camp Association contributed to this article.


1.         Jackson, D., An international profile of industry-relevant competencies and skill gaps in modern graduates. The International Journal of Management Education, 2010. 8(3): p. 29-58.

2.         Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work?, 2005, Achieve, Inc.: Washington, DC.

3.         Casner-Lotto, J., L. Barrington, and M. Wright, Are they really ready to work?: Employers' perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century US workforce, 2006, Conference Board, Inc., the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

4.         Pergamit, M.R., Assessing school to work transitions in the United States, 1995, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Washington, D.C.

5.         Mahoney, J.L., R. Larson, and J.S. Eccles, eds. Organized activities as contexts of development: extracurricular activities, after-school, and community programs. 2005, Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, NJ.

6.         Larson, R.W., Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 2000. 55(1): p. 170.

7.         American Camp Association Camp trends fact sheet. 2013.

8.         Pittman, K. Blurring the lines between school and community, prevention and development. 2005.

9.         Bialeschki, D., K. Henderson, and P.A. James, Camp experiences and developmental outcomes for youth. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2007. 16: p. 769-788.

10.       Thurber, C.A., et al., Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 2007. 36(3): p. 241-254.

11.       Garst, B. and F.A. Bruce, Identifying 4-H camping outcomes using a standardized evaluation process across multiple 4-H educational centers. Journal of Extension, 2003. 41(3).

12.       Marsh, P., Does camp enhance self-esteeem. Camping Magazine, 1999. 72(6): p. 36-40.

13.       Ferrari, T.M. and N.N. McNeely Positive youth development: What's camp counseling got to do with it? Findings from a study of Ohio's 4-H camp counselors. Journal of Extension, 2007. 45.

14.       Garst, B., et al. “Growing without limitations:” Transformation among young adult camp staff. Journal of Youth Development, 2009. 4.

15.       Duerden, M.D., et al., The impact of camp employment on the workforce development of emerging adults Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, In Press.

16.       Erceg, L.E., When get-up-and-go has got-up-and-gone: Fatigue at camp, in Healthy Camp Update, 2009, American Camp Association.

17.       Paisley, K. and G.M. Powell, Staff burn-out prevention and stress management. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2007. 16: p. 829-841.