Kids and counselors make their way off of Pickerel Pond for lunch during a session of the Maine Youth Fish and Game Association’s five-day summer camp in this July 2019 file photo. A labor shortage is making it hard for camps to find and hire counselors. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

For working families, finding summertime supervision for children and tweens is crucial to holding down jobs and bringing home a paycheck.

This means placing children in weekly summer day camps, if not overnight camps. For the organizations that run the programs, however, the number of their available camper slots is limited by the size of their staff. How many elementary and middle schoolers they can take on is determined by how many counselors they can hire.

“If we could hire 20 more staff, we could take 100 more kids,” said Zachary Ames, senior programs director for the Downeast Family YMCA in Ellsworth. “It seems like you can never have enough. We’re currently seeking more staff now and just hired two more.”

Last summer, the Ellsworth Y had to cut one of its camps short because it didn’t have enough staff, but Ames said that won’t happen this year. It has enough staff to handle the programs it has filled, but still has a waiting list in case any more camper spots become available.

“The demand is pretty high. They fill up very, very quickly,” he said.

Camp Beech Cliff in Mount Desert also has a long wait list, said Executive Director Deborah Deal. She said it has high demand at multiple age levels, from 5 year olds all the way up to young teens that aren’t quite old enough to get summer jobs. The main limiting factor is finding and hiring counselors, she said.

“We could probably double the size of our camp and still fill it up,” Deal said. “There are no shortage of jobs around here.”

It’s a familiar refrain in Maine where the number of summer tourism jobs far outweigh the number of Mainers looking for work. The shortage of camp counselors can leave families scrambling as they try to find ways to keep their kids occupied during the day, and keep their jobs. For those who are looking for work — teenagers included — they can command higher pay than in past years because there are relatively few applicants.

Katie Hodgkins at College of the Atlantic has been overseeing the registration process this year for the Bar Harbor school’s Summer Field Studies program, which offers week-long day camps to children in 1st through 8th grades. There has been high demand for the camps for the youngest kids they serve — 1st grade and 2nd/3rd grade age groups, she said.

“We could add more spots if we had more staff,” she said.

COA has an advantage of being able to recruit students, especially those who are taking education classes at the small college, to work as counselors. She said the large majority of their counselors are COA students, and the three who go to school elsewhere are education majors.

“COA is kind of lucky because we have a great funnel of students through our educational studies program,” Hodgkins said. “We also offer them housing on campus.”

But even with perks like housing, which Camp Beech Cliff also offers counselors, the pay to work at summer camps can’t compete with other seasonal jobs.

Deal said that because of the local summertime labor shortage, older teenagers and college students can get other local jobs that pay $20 per hour or higher — better than working at a day camp. In addition to providing housing, Camp Beech Cliff is located in a bucolic setting, on Echo Lake and directly abutting Acadia National Park.

“We can’t compete with well-paying jobs,” Deal said. “It’s very hard to keep up with the local economy and the pay scale they offer.”

With such high demand, local parents looking to get their children into summer camps are vigilant about signing up as soon as the camp websites allow them to, which is usually sometime in March.

“I am always sitting at my computer the second camp enrollment opens,” said Eliza Bishop, who owns and operates the seasonal Milk & Honey cafe in Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island.

She said her family “magically got all the weeks we wanted” this summer but it doesn’t always work out that way. She is her own boss, she added, and so can make time during the busy summer to look after her son and daughter and said she is “very lucky to have local grandparents and other occasional childcare options.”

Katie Hodgkins at COA also is aware of the stress families face in competing for limited slots. She has two children who are too young for day camp — one is 1 year old and the other is 3 — and she expects to be in the same position — waiting at her computer for camp registration to open — in another few years.

“[COA’s camp] was probably 80 percent full within 24 hours,” Hodgkins said. “It went really quick.”

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....