Last Sunday was visitor’s day at Camp Northland, about 150 miles north of Toronto (240 Canadian kilometers), where my three boys are spending a month. It’s the camp I attended and my feeble attempt at providing them with a diverse summer experience i.e., hanging out with Canadians instead of Americans. Northland was founded in 1909 by the Toronto JCC. Camps this ancient have bizarrely intricate cultures; new campers are parachuted into an environment where every section and specialty has its own cheers and traditions, where we debate the relative merits of Ski Staff 2019 vs. the legendary Ski Staff of 1989, and where we fondly recall the memorable day Rachel, the Head of Swim who was afraid of Moose Lake (yes, the actual name of the lake), was chanted into the Lake by the entire camp (“Rachel in the Lake! Rachel in the Lake!”). At visitor’s day, we were regaled by stories of rafter ball, roasting (more like burning) marshmallows, and everyone’s favorite activity, Catch the Greasy Counselor: counselors cover themselves with cooking oil, campers try to grab them, and everyone ends up in the lake.
Parents like me send their kids summer camps like Northland for two reasons. They want to give their children a classic summer experience (probably the one they had themselves, even if not the Canadian idyll). And they want to give themselves a well-deserved break from their kids. Michael Horn and Bob Moesta, authors of the important upcoming book, Choosing College, would frame it differently. Choosing College analyzes why students enroll in college. To do so, Horn and Moesta employ the “Jobs to be Done” theory: people don’t buy products or services simply because they fall into a particular demographic category or for their own sake, but rather hire services to get a job done in their lives so that they can make progress in a specific circumstance in their life. Choosing College concludes that students hire college to do one of five things:
The main thrust of Choosing College is that there’s a chasm between students who seek postsecondary education with a clear destination in mind vs. those who are floating along or running from something. By understanding the job students are seeking to have done, they can make better college decisions, while colleges have an opportunity to redesign and better serve students; most colleges and universities attempt to do five jobs, but would be better off choosing. This novel contribution to the literature on improving American higher education comes out on September 4, but you can pre-order it here.
While Camp Northland continues to thrive, most traditional summer camps are seeing declining enrollment – the trend has been away from month-long overnight camps with lakes and canoes to shorter specialty day camps like Nike sports camps or ID Tech. The scenes at visitor’s day showed me that summer camps are also doing a third job, and one they ought to begin communicating to parents: traditional summer camps are a much needed bootcamp for soft skills.
Perhaps the only thing louder than the Camp Northland mess hall this summer is employers’ incessant complaining about the soft skills of candidates for entry-level positions. In survey after survey, more than 40% of employers say they’re not seeing the communication and teamwork skills they need. It’s what you might expect since relationships of teens and young 20-somethings are primarily screen-mediated and many Millennials and members of Gen Z seem to prefer phones to people. As a result, high school seniors are now going out less often than 8th graders did as recently as six years ago. And the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40% from 2000 to 2015. The upshot is a generation less well versed in understanding social cues, less practiced in the art of compromise in order to get along, and less likely to have developed presentation or communication capabilities. And with fewer group interactions, there are fewer opportunities to develop leadership skills. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State psychologist and author of iGen, predicts that “in the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has found that the soft skills gap consists primarily of communication skills, problem-solving skills, and work ethic. According to Sheldon Kawarsky of The Soft Skills Group, a leading provider of soft skills solutions to corporate and higher education clients, it boils down to the customer dynamic and the team dynamic. In the customer category are soft skills like conflict resolution/problem solving and customer service. For team skills, Millennials are lacking leadership and supervisory skills, along with change management (managing and accepting change). Undergirding both categories is communication.
Northland is unquestionably an immersive soft skills bootcamp. With campers in close proximity for at least a month – 12 to a cabin with four counselors – every activity is a team activity. Some teams are constant i.e., cabin, color war team (once you’re assigned to a color war team, you’re a lifer). Others are in constant flux based on sections and interests. And as in the employment setting, some teams form and never do anything. When I was at Northland, counselors worked up elaborate presentations to sell campers on evening specialties. During one such session, opposite the outdoor stage, counselor Cory suddenly appeared on the roof of the dining hall yelling at us to “Join Climbing Club. In Climbing Club we’ll climb the roof of every building at camp.” Those of us who selected Climbing Club were bitterly disappointed to learn it was a joke. Yes, there were safety standards back in the 1980s – barely.
But teamwork is involved in every aspect of camp life. Campers complete “dangle-a-maze” on the high ropes, where teams of four work together to climb 40 feet in the air, with each 5-foot segment becoming increasingly difficult. The higher levels are impossible unless the team works together. Other teams run the radio station or work on theatrical productions. Then there’s the ultimate team activity: Tug O’ War. Even 7- and 8-year-olds are teamed in canoes and told to paddle “there” – to a designated camp site on Moose Lake for an overnight. (Counselors man patrol boats for canoes going in circles.) Teams are always and inevitably full of conflicts, which resolve – in the words of Northland’s Director – “like waves in the lake.”
There’s a routine to camp – meals, Round Up, evening circles, “socials” (dances), General Swim (that great Civil War general) – but also a good deal of randomness and change. Like when Leo’s cabin went on a midnight “sneakout” at the behest of their counselors (“is this allowed?”). Or when Hal and Zev found themselves spending all day celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (without the alcohol, but nonetheless a surprising choice at a Jewish camp).
You might think there aren’t customers at camp, but you’d be wrong. Campers have jobs like clearing tables after meals, cleaning and stacking on the rack, wiping tables and benches, making beds, picking up mail, picking up “tuck” (orders from the snack shop), folding laundry, and cleaning the cabin. Their customers may be cabin mates or counselors, but these are the most important customers: repeat customers.
Learning how to serve repeat customers gives rise to compassion. I observed campers volunteering to help younger campers pack their bags (the art of stuffing sleeping bags into near-full duffels). There’s no doubt that a good deal of the soft skill development at camp comes from removing digital devices (in the Director’s words, “when the distractions are gone… they talk, they tell stories, they laugh, they truly engage with each other in meaningful ways”). But a good deal of it is the intentional result of culture and curriculum. As the Director wrote parents about one alumna who returned this summer for a nostalgic visit: “This is where she learned to manage conflict all by herself. This is where she learned to be resilient and rise up to conquer challenges. This is where she learned consequences to her actions socially and emotionally. This is where she learned about love and managing heartache. This is where she learned about compassion. She also picked up some skills here that she carries in her toolbox everyday as a teacher now. She learned about teamwork and problem solving. She learned how to be kind. She learned the value of friendship and loyalty.”
All this begs the question, why isn’t college a similarly effective bootcamp for soft skills? Of course, soft skills development can happen at college. But it’s more likely extra-curricular than curricular. And because it’s not part of the curriculum, many students graduate from college with few material improvements. My sense is that college’s relative ineffectiveness in soft skills is a tradeoff for treating students like adults. Because they’re adults, they choose everything. And as with abysmal college completion rates, many students would be better off not choosing, but rather on a guided pathway with mandatory soft skills training, whether formal training like that offered by The Soft Skills Group, or something more like summer camp.
I’m often asked why there aren’t bootcamps for non-technical skills. One reason is that there is an original boot camp for soft skills called summer camp. But like other tuition-based bootcamps, summer camp isn’t cheap. According to the American Camp Association, the average traditional camp runs $768 per week, out of reach for the vast majority of families. And unlike bootcamps and other faster + cheaper pathways to good first jobs, summer camps aren’t likely to see income share or employer-pay models anytime soon.
Sending kids to Canada – the home of the discounted dollar – helps, but it’s important to consider that organizations like the Fresh Air Fund, which sponsor traditional camp experiences for low- and middle-income families – may be among the most impactful in terms of closing America’s skills gap. Philanthropy aside, a camp renaissance may be around the corner if the industry can figure out a new “Job to be Done,” namely marketing summer camp to helicopter parents as a bootcamp for soft skills.