Winter still has a ways to go but if your teen is interested in a summer job, it’s time to start looking. Being a camp counselor is one option — and don’t rule it out if your teen has never been a camper or isn’t sure he or she wants to work with kids. Camp directors have a lot to say about who makes a good counselor and what they look for in an applicant.

“Between now and the beginning of April is the best time to apply,” says John Zimmerman, director of the Princeton Friends School Camp. “If you wait much longer than that, most positions are going to be filled at summer camps.”

Area camps both big and small have openings for this summer, and camp directors say being a camp counselor can be fulfilling in ways that more common teen jobs aren’t. You get to be outside and active, the pay can be decent, and it’s good for the resume.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while jobs are available, there’s a lot of competition for them.

J.R. Pugliese, camp director at Frogbridge Day Camp in Millstone, says he receives about 1,000 applications each year. About half the applicants are brought in for an interview to fill 30 to 40 jobs.

While it’s true that many counselor jobs are filled by people who already have some connection to a particular camp, and some camps hire exclusively from within, there are opportunities for outside people to get hired. You have to have the right experience, however, and approach the application process intelligently.

There’s a lot to consider before applying for these jobs. Camp counselors shoulder a lot of responsibility involving children. Camps can require a commitment of up to 40 hours a week during the camp season, which starts in late June and continues through mid-August. And while some camps offer flexible schedules, others don’t allow employees to take vacation time, something to consider if your family is planning a two-week tour of national parks or a trip to Europe.

Another consideration is what kind of camp your teen may want to work for. Frogbridge is a large day camp covering more than 85 acres. Among its offerings are adventure sports, traditional sports, arts and crafts, swimming, and an equestrian center featuring pony rides for younger campers.

Frogbridge employs about 300 people, according to Pugliese. Many of Frogbridge’s counselors aren’t students but are working teachers who are, of course, available in the summer. The teacher/counselors work with campers in grades pre-K through third grade, and 9th and 10th grade. College students are employed as counselors for kids in grades 4 through 8, and high school students are candidates for assistant counselor jobs.

“We look to keep our staff here,” Pugliese says. Counselors typically progress from assistant counselor to college-age counselor. And most of those college-age counselors are education majors. Once they become teachers, they become candidates when teacher-level counseling positions open.

High school and college students can also be hired as lifeguards to supervise campers when they swim in the camp’s swimming pool. Lifeguards are American Red Cross, First Aid and CPR certified; many are also WSI (water safety instructor) certified.

Pugliese didn’t share salary information, citing Frogbridge’s policy.

Princeton Friends School’s camp is on the other side of the spectrum, in terms of size and philosophy. With a staff of about 30 to 35 employees, the camp runs from June 18 to August 17. Zimmerman describes it as an old-fashioned summer camp, where kids play and explore in the woods and swim. Weeks are divided into themes, such as pirates, the Wild West, or movies. Stories and games are designed around those themes.

The camp also offers crafts, music, drama, and time spent constructing and doing activities in stick-and-log “villages” in the woods that surround the school.

“When I describe our summer camp to parents, I often say, ‘What did you do during the summer when you were a kid,’” Zimmerman says. “And they say, ‘We played in the neighborhood.’ And I say, ‘That’s pretty much what we do, only we have a hired staff to keep your kids safe and make sure everything’s the way you’d like it to be.’ But basically the kids play in the woods and have a great time on our campus.”

While Zimmerman says the camp hires about six or seven people each year, most of whom are college graduates, there are opportunities for high school students such as being an assistant unit director. They work with a specific group of campers on various activities. “They make sure the unit directors are getting the help that they need to keep the kids going throughout the day in a safe and entertaining way,” Zimmerman says.

Students over 18 are also eligible to be what Zimmerman calls floating counselors. “They get assigned to several different units, and their job is to know what times and for which activities a unit is going to need extra help and then make sure they’re there at those times to provide that extra help,” Zimmerman says. Salaries range from $250 to $450 a week, based on how long a person has been working at the camp.

If your teen has an interest in the arts, then a job with the Arts Council of Princeton’s summer camp may be what he or she is looking for. The Arts Council offers summer camps and classes in areas such as drawing, graphic design, web design, drama, theater, Flash animation, storytelling, and more.

“We’re looking for high school and college students who have an interest in the arts, and children who want to be a part of our summer camp,” says Laura Borawski, program director with the Arts Council.

Opportunities at the Arts Council’s camps include working in the Counselor in Training (CIT) program. CIT applicants must be 14 years old at the start of camp. It’s a volunteer position, but participants earn community service, along with experience that can help lead to a paying job. High school and college students can be hired as counselors, and must be 16 by camp’s start. The pay for counselors is $8 an hour.

One advantage at the Arts Council is that many of its camps and classes run for two-week sessions, which offers flexibility in terms of scheduling. Borawski says some counselors work throughout the summer while some only work one two-week session.

Working there, she says, is a good career step for people interested in becoming art teachers or museum educators.

Chrissy Sibley is a senior at Tufts University, studying art history and French. She’s eyeing a career in museum education and has worked at the Arts Council’s camp for the past two summers.

As a counselor, she helped with the pre-camp program (offered before the camp day begins), worked with kids on art programs, and supervised children during lunch breaks and playtime. She says it was good experience for her career choice, in addition to a mentoring program she is involved with at Tufts.

“This was another way to work on my behavioral skills and learn more since a lot of the instructors are teachers during the school year or are retired teachers,” Sibley says. “You really get a good sense of what it’s like to teach.”

If your teen is not driving yet or doesn’t have access to a car, another consideration is how your teen is going to get to his or her job. Sibley’s family lives near the Princeton Junction train station. Sibley didn’t have a car the first summer she worked at the camp, but she was able to walk to the train station to take the Dinky into Princeton.

Borawski says that working at the Arts Council’s camp is definitely an interesting job. “There’s never a dull moment. There’s always something going on, and it’s different each week, because the kids are different. The learning experience is just fantastic, because you get to work with our instructors and our students, and get your feet in the wonderful world of art,” Borawski says

If your teen is interested in studying education, camp jobs also make for good experience to add to a resume. Not only does the work involve supervising and instructing children it can also offer networking opportunities for the future — because many on the staff are experienced teachers.

If your child is a college student or college graduate and looking for work, Pugliese says Frogbridge hires education majors. This, he says, is beneficial for employees and the camp. The college students get job experience and connect with teachers, who can offer career advice or even write a letter of recommendation. The camp benefits because employees stay on through college and their working careers.

“A large number of those people who were campers here or assistant counselors became counselors when they were in college and are teachers now,” Pugliese says.

Zimmerman says that working as a counselor at Princeton Friends School camp is good experience for anyone seeking a career in education, whether it’s in administration or elementary or secondary education. He also thinks it’s a good addition to a resume for other fields, including business and management.

“You wouldn’t think it, but you’re in effect running your own small organization of campers,” he says. “Especially if you’re a unit director, you have an assistant, you have to manage other personnel and the floaters. It’s actually really good experience, including customer service: Parents can be the most demanding customers you’re ever going to have.”

In addition, Zimmerman says, being a counselor presents an opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility. “You’re responsible for children,” he says. “There is nothing more important that you can take responsibility for. And you get to swim and play and have fun out in the woods, and we pay pretty well too. It’s a great opportunity and, again, that’s why I have very little turnover with my staff.”

Often, the best way to get a paying job at a camp is to work your way through the camp. This can mean starting as a camper, and eventually becoming a CIT (counselor in training), or starting as a CIT. At the Princeton Friends School camp, CITs are students entering the ninth grade or older.

Being a CIT is a good option “for kids who don’t yet have a lot of experience working who need to get that first thing on their resume,” Zimmerman says. CITs are volunteer positions and are also a good option if you can’t commit to working the entire summer. Zimmerman says CITs can volunteer for as little as two weeks or for the camp’s entire nine-week run.

“It ends up being something that when they apply to me or another camp, they have this experience on their resume that instantly puts them above the 15 and 16-year-olds who have nothing on their resume,” he says, adding that about 75 percent of his counselors are former CITs.

At Frogbridge, Pugliese says there are about 40 or 50 CITs who are paying campers who spend part of their camp day training through hands-on involvement. They may, for example, participate in an arts and crafts session, watching how the teachers help kids, learning what an assistant counselor does, and sometimes helping the campers with their craft.

CITs are also good candidates for assistant counselor jobs, but being a CIT isn’t a guarantee of a job because, Pugliese says, there might only be 20 assistant counselor openings at the beginning of a summer. That makes it even harder for people outside Frogbridge to get an assistant counselor job.

Hard, yes; impossible, no. If your teen or college student has weighed the pros and cons and has decided to apply for one of these jobs, the first step is to visit camp websites.

Camp directors recommend approaching the application process with the same professionalism you would use with any serious job. These positions are competitive and involve responsibility with children. So prepare a professional resume. Then, if you are fortunate enough to get an interview, be prepared for something more involved than what applicants to a store or fast food joint might experience.

“When we meet with these people, we look for the three key qualities: energy, enthusiasm, and a great personality,” Pugliese says. “We look for people who are going to be very upbeat, very friendly. We try to make Frogbridge a camper’s home away from home, so we want that warm feeling. You want that caring, compassionate person who is going to create an environment to really make the kids feel at home.”

Some previous experience, even as a camper with a day camp, he says, helps create that enthusiasm. “When you have that energy and that enthusiasm and passion for camping — people who have been in day camps their whole life or sleep-away camps — it’s a different kind of feel. People who have not been campers or haven’t worked in camp before really don’t understand the true camp experience.”

Princeton Friends School’s Zimmerman — who spends the balance of his year as the school’s director of extracurricular activities, including the after-school program, school plays, and special events — says the best advice for candidates during an interview is to not be nervous. That sounds easier than it is, of course, but if you’re nervous that doesn’t leave the interviewer with an accurate idea of what you’re like.

Zimmerman is aware that this is the first job interview many of his applicants will experience. “I often say to them, ‘Just relax. If you are relaxed and talk and you have a good time, this interview’s going to go well. If you clam up and get nervous, it’s not. They think I’m being nice but in reality, that’s serious advice for any interview you’re going to have.”

First-aid and CPR certification can also give applicants a leg up. Zimmerman says another thing he looks for is creative thinking. “Almost all the activities involve interacting with counselors, so I need staff who can think on their feet and keep coming up with new ideas. So in our interviews, I ask a lot of open-ended questions, and if the answers I get back are short, one-word answers, I know they’re not even entertaining me, how are they going to handle a group of 10-year-olds when they’re asking questions.”

Other camps that are hiring include the ESF Summer Camp at the Lawrenceville School. Openings are available for counselors, coaches, lifeguards, and swim instructors. Applicants must be at least 18 years old. They are looking for people who have worked with children and are upbeat and positive. The camp also hires teachers.

Rambling Pines, a day camp in Hopewell, has openings for group counselors, junior counselors, lifeguards, and swim instructors, as well as positions tied to creative and performing arts and sports, and also kitchen and maintenance help.

According to Heidi Hersh, assistant director of Black Bear Lake camp in Clarksburg, the camp is still looking for group leaders, who must be college students, and lifeguards. Counselor positions (who must be high school students) are full but those interested in either position for summer, 2013, may apply online starting in early fall of this year.

Because openings are limited, Princeton Friends’ Zimmerman says he can be very picky about who he hires. His goal is low turnover and a staff who likes working together.

And it’s similar at Frogbridge. “We want that tradition and consistency and that long-term relationship,” Pugliese says. “We’re hiring people we hope will be here for a very long time.”

For contact information for applying to these and other camps see our camp listings.

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