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0106 HR Magazine: Gone Camping

Kathryn Tyler   1/1/2006
 

HR Magazine, January 2006Vol. 51, No. 1

It may be winter, but, for workers with young children, the annual struggle to find suitable summer camps is about to begin.

School’s out for summer! While that phrase may be music to kids’ ears, it’s a cause of stress for working parents, sparking the question: Where will our kids go, all day long, during the three months of summer?

Many communities answer that question by offering a dizzying array of summer camps—sports camps, science camps, drama camps and so on. But sifting through the options is time-consuming, especially since most camps run for only two-week intervals from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—which hardly covers a full workday, much less an entire summer. Thus, parents often struggle to piece together a patchwork of two-week summer camps, vacations and days with grandma for the 10 to 12 weeks their children will be out of school.

On top of it all, competition for camps is heated, and popular options fill up early—often by April.

The effort of finding summer child care often spills over into the workplace. According to a survey by employee assistance program provider ComPsych, 38 percent of working parents spend more than 12 hours planning summer care for their children, and another 30 percent spend five to eight hours. Nearly all of those hours are invested during the workday, the only time summer camps are open for calls and questions.

“Arranging for summer child care is by far one of the biggest challenges for working parents,” says Donna DeNardo, vice president of Guidance Resources Work-life Programs at ComPsych in Chicago. “They have to find something to occupy their children for an entire day. It’s an enormous undertaking, and it involves hours of research to determine pricing, availability, location and scheduling,” she says. “This is a serious distraction.”

Some employers opt to ease the stress of summer child care—and the time commitment involved—by coming up with innovative, low-cost solutions. From sponsoring summer camp fairs to partnering with summer camps to creating on-site summer programs, these employers are going camping.

Any company thinking about following suit can learn a great deal from these employers’ experiences, but you will need to immediately start considering options for your strategy to be ready in time to help employees.

Filling a Need

The first step is asking yourself if you should even get involved in your workers’ summer child care woes. The answer largely depends on the demographics of your workforce. To determine if your employees would benefit from summer child care help, experts suggest conducting employee surveys.

That’s how Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) discovered the need, says Betty Purkey, manager of work/life strategies at the technology company. A decade ago, TI created an on-site summer camp for its 10,400 employees at headquarters and has since expanded the program to satellite locations.

Diana Cosgrove, the environmental, safety and health manager at TI’s nonmanufacturing sites in the United States and Canada, has three children—ages 6, 9 and 11—who attend TI’s on-site camp. “My kids enjoy attending the camp for the field trips, art, sports and swimming,” she says. “Having the availability of a kids’ camp on-site eliminates the need to search for care, which gives me more time to work and enjoy my nonwork time.”

Like Texas Instruments, Abbott Laboratories—a pharmaceutical and medical product company headquartered in Abbott Park, Ill.—also offers an on-site camp through its child care center. (The company also partners with the YMCA to provide discounts for employees.)

Lesli Marasco, Abbott’s director of child care solutions, says HR professionals should “first ask employees what types of camps they are interested in—day camps; residential camps; specialty camps, like sports, language, computers; adventure camps; or faith-based camps.” She also suggests presenting camps that cater to different-aged children in a variety of price ranges.

If there is suitable employee demand, experts suggest that HR professionals begin planning for the summer child care rush in January. Be it organizing a camp fair, partnering with a summer camp or providing it on-site, you need to advertise the benefit widely and be prepared to roll it out in the spring.

ComPsych reports that the volume of summer child care calls peaks in April and May. “Many employers have work/life services as a benefit for employees, but they may not think to promote the program at the critical time of pre-summer planning,” says DeNardo. “By reminding employees of the help that’s available—posting notices in the break room and sending e-mails in March and April, for instance—employers can help their workers get a head start on summer child care, saving them time and easing their stress.”

Camp Fairs

The least expensive and most common way for employers to address the summer child care dilemma is to provide a summer camp fair, where representatives from dozens of area summer camps showcase their offerings. Even employers who provide summer child care on-site or through local camps tend to offer camp fairs. For example, Abbot offers a camp fair in addition to its on-site camp.

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in Wilmington, Del., also offers a camp fair in addition to its on-site camp because the on-site facility can accommodate only 40 children per week from its 5,000 employees.

“At the beginning of the year, 35 to 40 vendors from local camps come with their information,” explains Judy Matthews, work/life specialist for AstraZeneca. “We have a sports one, tennis, theater arts, applied arts and a camp from a local museum. We try to get a wide range of representatives. Our parents look forward to it because it saves them time and gives them a good opportunity to see what is available, talk to people and get information. We think our on-site facility, referral service and camp fair give parents a lot of options.”

Camp fairs are relatively easy for HR professionals to orchestrate, and they can reduce the number of at-work hours employees spend researching camps, thereby increasing productivity. When conducting fairs, experts say, it’s best to plan a date in March or April, invite a variety of local camp vendors to present information, order tables and refreshments, and advertise widely.

Partnering with a Camp

Although fairs make it more convenient for parents, employees still must piece together a summer child care strategy on their own. Employers who want to provide a solution to this dilemma go a step further by partnering with a local summer camp.

Administrative time for such a partnership is minimal, and the benefits are high, says Marjorie Landry, group manager for disability management and employee services at CenterPoint Energy, a natural gas delivery company headquartered in Houston with 9,000 employees. “It took a few hours—less than one full day—the first year. After the initial setup, it’s very simple for ensuing years,” says Landry.

CenterPoint Energy created “Camp CenterPoint” off-site by partnering with Kidventure, an organization of summer camps in Houston, serving 4,000 kids from 3 to 17 years old. The company has provided summer camp to corporations for 11 years.

“We started because I noticed that the camps in our area tended to be more ‘day care’ in their approach,” explains Mike McDonell, owner of Kidventure. “We needed a more involved educational and cultural experience, so we created this model.”

Starting in February, Kidventure representatives conduct brown-bag presentations at corporations around Houston, explaining their programs and registering parents. “Smart HR professionals deliver it like a benefit, only [the company] doesn’t have to pay for it,” says McDonnell. “We call it Camp Duke or Camp CenterPoint. We want to personalize it for [the company].”

Texas Instruments also partners with local summer camps in its smaller offices, in addition to offering on-site care at its larger locations. “Employees appreciate the convenience and the quality of the programs we offer on-site, but we realize that the on-site camps are relatively small programs, so parents need other options,” explains Purkey.

On-Site Summer Camps

The most involved and expensive option for providing summer child care assistance is an on-site program, such as the one at Texas Instruments.

Another organization that chose the on-site route is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., which created Camp Vandy four years ago. The camp is managed through the student recreation center and is available to children ages 5 to 12.

“Although we did it as a convenience for employees, it’s open to others from the community,” says Jane Bruce, director of HR at Vanderbilt University. Employees receive a slight discount on tuition.

“The camp includes reading and math programs, as well as physical activities,” says Bruce. “One of the best things about Camp Vandy is it’s well-rounded. It saves employees lots of time and is a good revenue source for the student recreation center. The employees feel comfortable about their children’s safety.”

That’s exactly how Amy Casseri feels about Camp Vandy. Casseri, administrative director of communications and community relations at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, enrolled her first-grader last summer and found it to be a wonderful fit. “What I like about Camp Vandy is that you can go for one week or the entire summer, and the price is very reasonable. I love having my child close to me so I don’t feel rushed leaving work, and I’m not worried about traffic. The counselors are energetic, creative and hands-on.

“Camp Vandy takes all of the stress out of picking camps,” she adds.

Like Vanderbilt University, many organizations with on-site recreation centers or child care facilities for infants and preschoolers offer summer camp to school-aged children. For example, in 2003 AstraZeneca began offering an 11-week summer camp called Camp Exploration for its employees’ school-aged children through its on-site child development center.

“Our first year, we serviced 95 families,” says the camp’s assistant director, Michelle Lennon. “Some of our families picked three weeks, some all 11 weeks. We went to Baltimore Stadium, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Museum and Brandywine Zoo. We had martial arts, swimming, cooking lessons and science [presentations]. It was so popular that in October and November the families were knocking down our door [to sign up for the following summer]. Now, we’re looking into how we can expand.”

Joan Cox, information management coordinator at AstraZeneca, was one of those parents eager to sign up her daughters, ages 9 and 11. “Prior to Camp Exploration, I spent weeks on end searching for the ‘right’ summer camp that my children would enjoy,” says Cox. “The camp helps tremendously with my productivity. Knowing that your children are happy and comfortable with their camp surroundings makes parents more relaxed and focused on what they need to accomplish during business hours.”

One unique feature of the camp: A hot breakfast, lunch and three snacks a day are provided for the children at no extra cost. “We offer lunches so the parents don’t have to worry about [packing a lunch],” explains Lennon. “We’re open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and we charge a flat rate [of $190 a week], not by the hour,” which means the parents don’t stress about what time to pick up their children.

On-site summer camps also give employees peace of mind because they can stop in on a break or at lunch.

“We have an open-door policy, and parents come in all the time,” says Lennon. “They can visit their kids and have lunch with them in our cafe. We have four family rooms where parents can have quiet reading time,” she adds.

Summer camp is “one of the many programs we provide to support our employees in their family life, which increases the employees’ commitment to AstraZeneca. It helps us to attract and retain [talent],” says Matthews.

On the other hand, on-site summer camps also incur greater costs. For example, on-site camps tend to be subsidized, at least partially, by the company. AstraZeneca subsidizes camp tuition based on a sliding scale depending on total family income.

Texas Instruments subsidizes its on-site camps as well. “Our goal is for parent fees to be slightly lower for the on-site program than they would pay for an equivalent community-based program,” says Purkey.

An on-site summer camp also will require much more detailed liability review by your company’s attorneys. Additional considerations include checking if the facilities available are adequate or need modification, determining how to provide meals, providing discounted tuition, and reviewing legal issues. (For more information on researching and creating summer camps, see “What To Look for in a Camp”.)

Safe Kids, Happy Workers

HR professionals at companies that offer summer child care solutions say the time administering the benefit is minimal, but the payoff is big.

“If you ask parents what is the most important thing in their lives, it’s their kids. If an HR department can participate in the most important thing in their employees’ lives, that makes a powerful impact, which translates to the bottom line,” says McDonell. “We have a lot of happy parents who don’t sit at the office and worry about what is going on at home. [Their kids are] learning and growing, so they are able to focus on work much more.”

Abbott’s Marasco agrees. “When employees know that their children are safe and being taken care of, they can concentrate on work. As a result of helping parents with multiple summer child care options, we have found parents are more content at work.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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What To Look for in a Camp

Here are some key criteria to use when evaluating summer camps:

  • Open to many ages. Ensure that the camp caters to most of the ages of most of your employees children. Most camps serve 5- to 12-year-olds, but some have a minimum age of 7 and a maximum of 10. Make sure the camp curricula will grow with your employees' children.

  • A well-rounded, varied program. If the camp repeats the same program every week, the children will get bored quickly. A good camp should include physical activities, educational programs, arts and crafts, games, music, and, possibly, field trips. Swimming, especially in hot climates, is particularly popular.

  • Adult, qualified counselors and low counselor-to-camper ratios. Camp employees should have background checks and be qualified to teach children. "I only hire adults," says Mike McDonell, owner of corporate summer camp provider Kidventure. "Ninety percent of my employees are teachers or college students in the educational field." McDonell recommends asking providers how long they have been in business and if they are licensed by the state. He also says to look for providers with a low ratio of counselors to kids.

Michelle Lennon, assistant director of Camp Exploration, run for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, agrees that low ratios are important, as is stability among the counselor staff. "We have a 1-to-8 ratio. Also, we've had the same five counselors come back all three years, which has been a huge selling point for us." 

  • Safety. HR professionals should personally visit the facilities to look for obvious hazards. Do the premises appear safe and well-maintained? Also, due to legal liability for children participating in activities such as swimming and kayaking, confirm that the chosen camp has sufficient liability insurance. Also, obtain copies of the parental waivers for your companys legal counsel to review.

  • Extended hours. After the quality of care, the most important criterion in selecting a camp is the hours. Most camps have limited hours during the day [9 a.m. to 3 p.m.]. Most parents are at work well before 9 a.m. and work well past 3 p.m., says Anise Wiley-Little, director of diversity and work/life for Allstate Insurance Co., headquartered in Northbrook, Ill., which partners with a YMCA camp. To best meet the needs of employees, camps should provide care from around 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.

  • Distance from camp to workplace. A camp needs to be a reasonable distance from the worksite or have several locations. Experts warn HR professionals not to offer transportation for employees' children from the worksite to the camp, because most of the companies who have tried this have discontinued it due to a lack of use.

  • Cost. The majority of summer camps cost $145 to $200 per child per week. Most companies dont subsidize camp tuition when partnering with a local camp, but HR professionals should negotiate a discount on camp tuition for employees.

"Some camps will offer local employers a discount to their employees to get the business," says Donna DeNardo, a vice president at ComPsych, an employee assistance program provider.

Kathryn Tyler