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 have struggled to attract workers. Photo courtesy of Caroline Eliot

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

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

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

After sending out a flood of calls, postcards and social media posts, the overnight 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 town-run day programs essential for working parents, have struggled to attract workers thanks to a challenging labor market, camp directors say.

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


“It was a really unfortunate decision,” Moran said of the programming cuts, which she said were small. “Farm camp is definitely one of our most beloved programs, and it was really heartbreaking for us as well as community members to have to shrink this year.”

While some local camps, including Cathance River Education Alliance’s day camp, say they’ve had no problem filling their staff, finding labor has been an issue for many programs 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 drove $500,000 million in economic activity in Maine in 2019.

One contributing factor to the shortage, Hall said, is the pandemic-driven decline in the number of foreign citizens who usually flock to Maine to spend their summers as counselors, cooks and groundskeepers at overnight camps. Normally, about 3,300 of Maine’s 13,000 camp staffers come from abroad, but last year the number was only 400, he said.

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

Yet the biggest challenge to hiring, directors agree, is the wealth of options for entry-level job seekers.

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


“This is very hard sell other than you get to come and have fun,” Best said. “For that wage, you really have to love and be passionate about working with kids.”

The supply of camp workers has dipped even as demand for childcare has skyrocketed.

After two strange years of masking, distancing and remote learning, parents are eager to give their kids a chance to spend time outside with peers, said McGough. Demand for a spot at Chewonki this year was higher than it has been in 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 a luxury than a necessity, according to Best.

Enrollment in Brunswick’s programs, which cover grades 1-8, has jumped to 240, 75% higher than it was during the pandemic, Best said. Despite the best efforts of the Parks Department, which is still hiring counselors, labor issues have kept some would-be-campers on the waitlist.

“We try our best at not capping summer camp because we understand the need for parents to have some type of childcare coverage,” she said. “But we’ve kind of had to press hold on taking on any more campers until we’re able to add additional staff.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story