Canadian summer camp operators face post-pandemic staffing shortages and rising costs

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced many camps to close completely in 2020 and then operate under strict restrictions last summer. This year, with health restrictions all but gone, operators were eagerly awaiting a return to normalcy and, in the case of private camps, to begin recouping losses, Douglas said.

But the closures have cut off a key source of staff for many camps, he added. Campers coming out of summer programs will often return over the next few years to work as counselors, and operators are counting on that pipeline, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic has severed this link in the chain.

Restaurants and retail stores are also struggling to find employees, he said, meaning prospective camp counselors have a myriad of summer jobs to choose from.

Timberline, which is a charity, has increased wages, shortened the work week and implemented several staff activities and benefits in an effort to attract workers, Douglas said. The camp normally employs about 80 people for its 24 day campers and 144 for overnight. With staff training beginning on Friday, he said the organization was still short of around five key people.

In Ontario, Raf Choudhury is also scrambling to find staff for his summer camps at Baseline Sports in the north Toronto area. Choudhury normally hires between 15 and 20 people each summer, but this year he has only been able to hire five so far.

“I feel like there’s more demand, but we can’t meet the demand due to staffing issues,” Choudhury said.

“Even if I wanted to expand and go to more places, it’s not feasible at the moment.”

Choudhury also hires young people – usually teenagers between the ages of 18 and 20 – to oversee its three outdoor sports camps. After two years of the global pandemic, they seem to have other priorities, he said.

“I think people are realizing there’s more to do and they’re willing to sacrifice work for it,” he said.

Nick Georgiade, director of Camp Temagami in northeastern Ontario, said staffing is a challenge for him every year, and so far this year he has had no more trouble find people.

Rather, the challenges this year stem from the courses and certifications required to work at Camp Temagami, which offers canoe trips to areas as remote as Labrador, he said.

During the pandemic, those first aid and wilderness survival courses weren’t offered, meaning the staff running the trips this year needed a lot of costly and time-consuming training and recertification. Georgiade said her company arranged and paid for it.

“You basically have to make it easy for them, otherwise it’s a barrier to entry,” he said.

This is another substantial cost in a year of high inflation, he said, adding that he expects food costs alone to be 20-25% higher this year.

“The cost of everything has increased dramatically,” he said. “And our rates were set in September for this summer.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 18, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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