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Faculty Research

Pitching Camp

Marriott School research shows camp jobs teach essential workforce skills

Book smarts alone can’t guarantee graduates success on the job these days. Employers—and even new grads themselves—report that many young adults aren’t leaving school with the twenty-first–century work skills they need, says recreation management assistant professor Mat Duerden.

“Employers are putting high value on applied skills, like communication skills, leadership, and conflict management,” says Duerden, who studies how out-of-school activities supplement the “necessary but not sufficient” knowledge-based skills of the classroom.

His suggestion for parents looking to better prepare young adults for the workforce? Send them off to summer camp—as counselors.

Teaming up with researchers at Texas A&M and the American Camp Association, Duerden interviewed former counselors about what they gained while leading campfire songs and chasing kids through the woods. The results, published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, suggest that counselors come home with more than a collection of friendship bracelets. They get better at leading, empathizing, problem solving, listening, and so on—the same types of skills researchers claim the emerging workforce is lacking.

“Young people are looking for real-world experience,” says Deb Bialeschki, director of research at the American Camp Association and a coauthor on the study. “Those skill sets transfer over into a lot of different occupations and create contributing and valuable members in any kind of work team.”

Camp gives young adults space to learn and practice these skills because it puts counselors on the front line, says Duerden: they supervise activities, monitor safety, and sort out inter-camper drama. More than that, he says, “serving the kids really teaches them to extend themselves when they are tired or stressed, putting other people’s needs before their own.”

Participants in Duerden’s study rarely mentioned money as a motivator—in fact, some took a financial hit. But “at camp they directly see the impact that they have,” Duerden says. “That’s really motivating. It’s important to help them understand that there’s motivation beyond money.”

Camp is, of course, not the only place to develop empathy, problem-solving know-how, and other workplace skills. Duerden suggests young adults apply the principles that make working as camp staff a good experience—leaving their comfort zone, finding purpose and community, working hard for others—to better leverage opportunities like volunteering, traditional internships, or even fast-food jobs.

“Regardless of what type of employment,” he says, “it behooves parents to intentionally help their kids think about what their work means and what they can gain from it.”

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Article written by Sara D. Smith