What happens when an idea seems so good that it smacks you in the face and demands to be taken notice of? That’s what happened to veteran RVers, Ron and Pat Childers, when they first realised that their three month leave of absence from their jobs didn’t need to end. The message bearer was Workamper News, a little specialist bi-monthly magazine that lists caretaking and work camping opportunities across the USA. This new fangled 21st century-word says it all: work while camping. What a great combination of ideas!
Many RVers explore work camping as a practical way to stay on the road
FIVE YEARS AGO, RON AND PAT CHILDERS took a three-month leave of absence from their jobs in Texas and embarked on a whirlwind trip with their 32-foot Wanderer fifth-wheel. Their journey brought them to some of the most beautiful destinations in the country, including the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, Yosemite and California’s wine country.
But during their trip, the Childers saw an advertisement in Trailer Life that would change their lives. The ad featured Workamper News, a bimonthly magazine that lists part-time, seasonal and full-time job opportunities in public and private campgrounds across the country – jobs, that are, in short, often perfectly suited to RV enthusiasts.
‘I’d never heard of anything like this before,’ Ron Childers recalled, adding that he and his wife found the concept so appealing that they quit their jobs shortly after they returned to Texas and set about the task of becoming workampers themselves, sending out resumes to campgrounds in the locations they most wanted to visit.
‘We didn’t want our vacation to stop,’ Ron Childers confessed. And while it took some effort, the Childers eventually landed jobs at the Petaluma KOA in the heart of California’s wine country, one of their favorite vacation destinations.
And since their first campground assignment in the summer of 2001, the Childers have crisscrossed the country, working for the KOA in Westchester, Pennsylvania, San Francisco RV Resort in Pacifica, California, and, at the time of this writing, the Pecan Plantation RV Park in Granbury, Texas, which provides the Childers with a number of amenities, including free golfing privileges at an 18-hole course.
‘If I would have known I could have done this 20 years ago, I would have done it,’ Ron Childers said, adding, ‘It doesn’t cost me anything to live. I get a free place to stay. They pay for my space and my electricity. Most pay for my laundry and my LP-gas.’
And, best of all, he said, he and his wife have both been able to earn as much as $10 an hour, or $800 a week, which enables them to accumulate enough cash to work for six months at a time, and then take the next six months off to travel. ‘We’re not getting rich,’ Childers told Trailer Life, ‘but we’re able to live and see the country. We don’t belong to the rat race. And we don’t drive into the big city unless we want to.’
Thousands of RV enthusiasts are following in the Childers’ footsteps, using Workamper News or its Web site (workamper.com) to locate seasonal or full-time jobs in the locations of their dreams. And while it’s difficult to locate statistics, campground operators and industry officials believe the popularity of work camping is increasing, particularly as growing numbers of baby boomers enter their pre-retirement and retirement years.
‘We’re finding more employers who want to hire workampers all the time,’ said Greg Robus, editor of Heber Springs, Arkansas-based Workamper News. And the demand for workampers isn’t limited to campgrounds. Amusement parks, retail establishments and other businesses are also increasingly reaching out to workampers, he said.
Campgrounds, for their part, often find that workampers can more easily satisfy their staffing needs than employees they recruit from their immediate areas. In fact, Billings, Montana-based !Campgrounds of America has developed a new incentive program that rewards successful workampers with free camping nights and other perks if they stay in the KOA system.
The program works like this: Workampers who successfully complete their assignments receive a KOA referral star from the campground s owner or manager. If they sign up for another KOA work assignment, KOA lets them camp for free for up to five days as they travel to their next assignment, depending on the next park’s location. Workampers are also eligible to participate in drawings for $1,000 in cash – 10 of which are held each year.
RVers, meanwhile, embrace work camping for a variety of reasons.
‘There’s every situation you can possibly imagine,’ Robus said. ‘Some need the money to supplement their income. Some work camp full-time and have no other source of income, and others don’t need the money, but want to feel productive.’
Trailer Life caught up with a number of workampers and found varying rationales for their decision to work while they play.
Leroy Tyson, 63, and his wife, Linda, 61, are both retired and have a home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But Leroy doesn’t like the heat of the Cajun country summer, so each year he and Linda spend their summers working at a campground of their choice, usually in a cooler location. ‘We thought it would be a good way to see the country and make our expenses, too,’ he said, adding, ‘The lifestyle was just tailored for us. I’m the type of person who likes to stay busy. And there is nothing else that I could do where I can work my own length of time. If I want to only work two, three or four months, I can.’
It’s a lifestyle with many enjoyable attributes for the Tysons, who have spent their summers at KOA campgrounds in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada; Nashville, Tennessee; and Bar Harbor, Maine. And they’ve gotten to be so well known they were named KOA workampers of the year during the company’s annual meeting last November in Orlando, Florida.
‘My wife always works the desk,’ Leroy Tyson said, ‘while I’ve usually done outside maintenance, taking care of the pools, cutting the grass or doing a little plumbing and electrical work, as well as some painting and carpentry.’
Other RVers, particularly fulltimers, find work camping to be a useful way to generate extra income during their travels.
Carol and Dave Oplinger retired in August of 2003 and learned about workamping while attending an Escapees Escapade event in Indiana. They were recruited at the event by Walt Disney World to work Disney’s food and wine festival. The Oplingers were subsequently hired by the Magic Kingdom, where they worked for a short time before landing jobs with the Jellystone Park in M ears, Michigan.
The Oplingers attended another Escapees Escapade in September, and landed an assignment at Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which was slated to begin this spring.
Betty Thomas, 61, of Monterey, California, has been work camping with her husband, Gary, for the past 11 years. They like it because it gives them the ability to live in different parts of the country and feel more like locals than tourists. ‘We really enjoy hosting, having found that we become more familiar with our country when we spend an extended period of time in an area,’ Betty Thomas said. ‘We have hosted in private, county and state parks in New Mexico, Alaska, Texas, California, Minnesota, Washington and Idaho, and all have been positive experiences,’ she said.
Some RV enthusiasts have also transitioned into work camping after facing layoffs from their regular jobs. Mike Sito was 62 when he was laid off from his job in northwest Ohio. His wife, Bonnie, lost her job when her employer shut down the company and relocated its assembly operations to Brazil. The Sitos now work at the Cedar Lane RV park in Port Clinton, Ohio, which pays them a salary in addition to providing them with a free bungalow, complete with utilities.
‘When I came into this position, my stress level went to zero,’ Mike Sito said. ‘During the season, we put in long hours, but they’re great hours. We’re outdoors. It’s a casual atmosphere.’
Of course, not all work camping experiences are without their problems.
Several workampers told Trailer Life they were taken advantage of by campground operators who made promises that they never kept. Others complained of having to work for more hours than their campsite was worth, while receiving little or no additional salary to compensate them for their efforts. Medical insurance is generally not provided either, partly because of the part-time nature of most the jobs. Some workampers also complain that job opportunities are limited for singles because most campgrounds prefer to hire couples. Most RVers, however, tell Trailer Life that they have had positive work camping experiences.
‘Work camping is a happy, fun and satisfying life,’ said Ann Baragar, who spent seven years work camping before becoming a full-time manager at Camp Journeys End in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. ‘My deceased husband and I had wonderful years of travel and seeing this great United States and its wonderful backroads and beautiful cities. This life is the only way I can see a baby boomer being happy. (They’re) too young to totally retire, and yet as workampers they can see the U.S. without touching their financial investments – not to mention seeing and experiencing life as no other lifestyle can or will offer.’
Ron and Pat Childers, for their part, tend to agree. ‘We feel like lads again,’ Pat said. Their next work camping assignment: Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Copyright Trailer Life 2005