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Work Camping: Seeing America, One Job at a Time

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Job opportunities for work  campers declined with the recession, but they are on the upswing again, and the opportunities for part-time or full-time employment  are more diversified than ever.

“Work camping has become much broader than working in a campground,” said Steve Anderson, editor and co-owner of Workamper News, a print and online publication that provides educational resources and job listings for aspiring work campers.

Although work campers are generally thought to be those who handle cleaning, maintenance and front desk jobs at campgrounds – often in exchange for a campsite or a campsite and small salary – today’s work campers are just as likely to take jobs with retailers and amusement parks, particularly during their peak seasons.

“In January and February of 2006, we had one of our biggest issues with 780 different companies placing ads for work campers,” Anderson said. “Some of those companies were looking for hundreds of employees. In fact, one of our larger ad­vertisers until about a year ago was Walt Disney World.

Another one of the larger hiring operations is Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa. They hire about 400 work campers every summer.”

And although Workamper News has yet to see the volume of job listings it had in 2006, the numbers of job listings are increasing again as the economy gains steam and as Anderson continues his efforts to promote the availability of work campers to growing numbers of businesses and market segments.

“It’s a great way to see America, one job at a time,” Anderson said, adding, “It’s a way to sample all the jobs you’ve always wanted to do, but never had a chance to do.”

And live where you’ve always wanted to live – at least temporarily.

Living part time in some of the most scenic parts of the country – and escaping the summer heat of the Texas Gulf Coast – are big enticements for work campers Steve and Linda Ruff, who live near Houston.

“Every time we went someplace in our RV, I’d say, ‘I think I could live here.’ And my husband would say, ‘You’d like to live everywhere,’” Linda said.

But rather than simply dream about living in different places, the Ruffs attended a KOA job fair in Houston and landed their first assignment last summer at the KOA in Buena Vista, Colo. Next summer, they’ll be working at the Boston Cape Cod KOA.

And while the Ruffs initially worried that they wouldn’t qualify for work camping jobs, since they were both retired schoolteachers and had no maintenance or front desk experience, KOA was more than happy to teach them what they needed to know.

“I worked in the office, mostly registering guests and taking reservations,” Linda said. “But I also stocked the grocery part of the store and helped with merchandise in the gift shop and helped clean the bathrooms.” Meanwhile, her husband helped with maintenance work outside and even learned how to drive a tractor, which he had never done before.

Anderson said work camping jobs typically pay minimum wage to $12 an hour. And although that’s not exceptionally high, it’s often enough to help RVers avoid tapping into their retirement nest egg, particularly if they have a work camping arrangement that includes a free campsite.

Jerry Langlois, 69, of Nunica, Mich., worked in the radio broadcast industry for 47 years, mostly as a disc jockey, though he later worked in the marketing side of the business. When MotorHome caught up with him late last year, he had landed a work camping job at 49er RV Ranch in Columbia, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada Gold Rush country.

Langlois provides marketing services and entertainment for the park in exchange for a small salary and a free campsite for his 36-foot Damon Intruder, the combination of which is enough to help him keep his living costs to a minimum for himself and his wife, Carole.

“I am reorganizing all of the park’s marketing efforts and helping train the rally person how to work with groups,” he said. “I also work with our IT guy on what’s good for the Internet site and I go out into the community and work with the chamber of commerce and other businesses. We’ve been able to form nice little partnerships to get discount cards for our guests for restaurants, golf courses and casinos.”

Perhaps best of all, Langlois is doing what he loves to do, which is host dances that bring back memories for the park’s guests, most of whom are retirees. Langlois travels with his own sound equipment and has a library with more than 160,000 songs.

“I like to mix with these campers and re-create the memories they had when they were younger,” he said.

Other RV enthusiasts find they like work camping because it provides them with a way to keep socially engaged, active and traveling in their retirement years.

“Work camping for us is a tool to travel the country and meet new people,” said Deb Powers, a former medical center administrator, full-time RVer and KOA work camper who now travels the country in a 40-foot motorhome with her husband, Dick. “If we had wanted to sit around,” she said, “we wouldn’t have sold our home and started full-timing.”

Powers added that she’s met won­derful people while work camping. “You make lifelong friendships with some of the (campground) managers and owners,” she said. “We met a couple in Nashville last year that are like long-lost family and we now travel together.”

Fifty-six-year-old Randy Borg of San Antonio finds work camping to be an antidote to loneliness.

A lifelong camper and RVer, Borg loves camping at Parkview Riverside RV Park in Concan, in the Texas Hill Country. But after his wife passed away last spring, he naturally felt an enormous void in his life.

Then came an unexpected oppor­tunity: Parkview Riverside owner Doug Shearer offered Borg a work camping job.

Borg initially resisted the idea, but later accepted Shearer’s offer, quit his job as a shop supervisor for a business technology company in San Antonio and now spends his days interacting with park guests and working with a team of several work campers with whom he has developed close friendships.

“I work in the office taking reservations and I answer the phone. I also am quite handy and help with electrical and plumbing repairs,” he said.

And while he still has his home in San Antonio, Borg said he plans to rent it out and live at the RV park while employed as a work camper.

Financially, Borg says, he is better off employed as a work camper and having a free campsite than he was living and working in San Antonio. His home is paid off, he no longer has to pay the utilities and his vehicle insurance premiums have dropped by relocating to a rural area. He also has less stress than he had with his previous job.

“This lifestyle is so much better,” he said. Not only is he more relaxed living and working along the scenic Frio River, but he is also surrounded by people who love to socialize, which he says is a wonderful tonic after losing his spouse.

“It’s more like a family setting than sitting by yourself alone,” Borg said, adding, “Being a work camper has forced me to get back into life. It’s been a godsend.”

Resources for Aspiring Work Campers

Workamper News:
Founded in 1987, Workamper News provides e-books, videos, webinars and other educational resources in addition to print and online job listings for work campers across the country. It also has an online résumé service, job researching tools and opportunities to connect and network with veteran work campers and those just dreaming of the lifestyle. Visit its websites at www.workamper.com and http://dreamers.workamper.com.

Kampgrounds of America (KOA):
With roughly 475 campgrounds across the U.S. and Canada, KOA is one of the largest work camper employers in the country. KOA often hosts job fairs and “Work Kamper University” sessions to provide training and other information to aspiring work campers. For a $35 fee, RVers can also post their résumés on a KOA website, along with the dates of their work availability and geographic preference. “A lot of people are … already looking for jobs in 2012,” said Lori Lyon, KOA’s assistant vice president of franchisee sales. “Jobs can range from cleaning and outdoor maintenance to front desk staff, ambassadors and greeters and recreational activity directors. We even have work campers who are managers.” Another nice perk: KOA provides veteran work campers up to five nights of free camping to help cover their costs of camping between assignments. Visit http://workatkoa.com.

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