When School Goes In, Seasonal Help Goes Out

Celebrate seasonal workers - and keep 'em coming back for more! © Can Stock Photo Inc. / maron

School will be starting this month and while stay-at-home parents may be celebrating, parks and rec departments are lamenting the exodus of seasonal help as high school and college students – and teachers – head back to the classrooms.

Think about it; what would parks and rec departments do without that extra influx of staff to accommodate the expansion of youth programs for the summer season? From camp counselors and interns to extra help with maintenance and field preparations, seasonal hires help keep the proverbial recreational boat afloat.

The young men and women who apply for summer jobs in recreation tend to be outgoing, motivated and generally likeable people, so it’s easy to get attached to them. Some of them plan careers in recreation and getting real-world experience in the field gives them invaluable insight. In rare cases, the summer experience turns into a job offer after college in the department where they cut their teeth in the field.

Many of them return summer after summer, so they become part of the family. Parks and rec pros watch them mature and develop, sometimes from early teens to early adulthood. For some of us older geezers (over 30), it’s like watching your own kids grow up.

With little exception, in my experience, it’s hard to say adios to them when it’s time to go; it’s like that commercial on TV where the man is instructing his young adult daughter about safe driving, but he sees a little girl sitting behind the wheel.

It isn’t only teenagers who win hearts and minds during the summer. Teachers, some of them barely out of their teens, make excellent seasonal recreational hires. They have training and experience with children that is simply invaluable and a level of maturity that gives permanent staff a high level of confidence in their ability to handle situations as they arise.

I’ve personally witnessed more than one occasion where a summer hire started as a teenager, worked summer after summer, finished high school and college, started a teaching job and then came back to be a counselor during the summer break. Wow! What an asset; somebody with experience, formal training, outside work skills and the desire to work.

Because many summer hires are repeat employees, the kids in the summer programs who come back year after year develop an affinity for particular counselors. I remember when my kids were young they would come home and talk about this counselor or that counselor, how cool they were, how great they were, etc.

Indeed, these summer surrogates can have a great deal of influence on the young children who they oversee for several hours a day, five days a week during the summer. The children look up to them and often adopt them as role models, so it is important that their performance is worthy of such emulation.

This level of “brand equity” is great for a department and will ensure that moms and dads will rush to get their kids signed up early and often so they can get first dibs on their favorite summer hero.

Summer hires are generally easy on the budget as well – an important factor in providing quality recreation services in today’s fiscal environment. They are generally classified as part-time or seasonal part-time, which normally doesn’t involve a huge benefits package. In many cases they are self-supporting, in that the fees charged for the programs cover, or nearly cover, salary expenses.

When you think about it, parks and rec departments are one of the most prolific providers of work experience for young men and women. It is an opportunity for these fledglings to test their wings in a controlled environment; it gives them chance to learn life skills to which they might not otherwise have exposure.

Even though they may not realize it, they are placed in leadership positions where they have to make judgment decisions that mirror those they will face later in life. It is a big responsibility; being placed in charge of the health and safety of several young children is indeed a serious job.

This fact can sometimes lead to situations where mistakes are made; lapses of judgment, inappropriate responses to problems, inattention to detail, work proficiency, etc. This is where permanent parks and rec staff members can become mentors, giving young people the benefit of their experience and knowledge.

I have to believe that there have been many times when a young person’s life was changed by the mentorship of a compassionate parks and rec professional who took the time to show the way.

I’ve also experienced uncomfortable situations where disciplinary actions had to be taken, up to and including dismissing a summer hire for cause. This is never pleasant and fortunately is rare.

But even this can be a learning experience for everyone: the person disciplined will hopefully understand and own the reason for the actions and learn from it; his or her peers will hopefully learn from others’ mistakes; for the permanent staff, perhaps a review of operating procedures is in order to ensure the infraction doesn’t happen again.

When considered in a cursory manner, summer programs are fun and frivolous pastimes; however, when examined in a discerning light, summer programs are serious business and summer staff members must be up to the task of overseeing our most precious asset – our children. That is an important job.

So, as summer begins to wane and fall is peeking around the corner, parks and rec professionals will be scaling down the intensity of summer and getting back to the routine pace of the year.

As this happens, I hope parks department leaders are taking the time to celebrate a successful season and recognize the summer staff. Acknowledge a successful and safe summer and the role they have played in it. It doesn’t take much; just set up a session with all the staff present, get a few pizza’s and say thank you.

In addition, as an added bonus, you can recognize them right here! Give them a public, digital pat on the back in PRB, right here, right now! Just add a comment at the end of this blog. hey’ll love seeing their successful efforts immortalized in print.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.