Brace yourself for the new normal

Here in the mid-Atlantic, trees are leafing out, the hyacinths are blooming and dandelions are popping up like–well, like weeds. All of which means folks who own RVs are getting itchy feet and will be rolling soon, if they aren’t already, in search of a little outdoor hospitality. For those who do, however, a word of warning: don’t expect much of a personal touch.

The U.S. has 600,000 more RVs than it had a year ago, most people have delegated the Covid pandemic to history’s dustbin, and working remotely retains a tenacious hold on many white-collar workers. The result is a crushing demand for RV sites that started two years ago and shows no signs of abating, even as the number of campground sites is growing at only a fraction of the increase in demand, and a significant piece of that at the high end of the market. Add a predictable increase in campground rates and the rising price of gas, and the idea of an RVing weekend or vacation as a relaxed, budget-friendly family outing is becoming just another quaint notion.

But that’s not all the bad news: campground employees are rapidly becoming an endangered species, especially at small to mid-sized campgrounds. Long sipping from the bottom of the labor pool, most campgrounds offer only seasonal work at or near the minimum wage, which often means slim pickings locally. Foreign students on J-1 visas traditionally took up some of the slack, as did work-campers, but with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine choking off much of the former (a significant percentage of whom came from Russia and eastern European countries), and many work-campers being notoriously fickle (the down-side of having an extremely mobile workforce), campgrounds have had to rely on local employees more than ever.

If they can find them. And if they find them, if they can keep them.

With U.S. jobless claims falling last week to a near-54-year low–when the labor force was less than half its current size–we are in what is euphemistically called a “tight” labor market. Looked at another way, there are 1.8 job openings for every one unemployed worker, which means that even if we reached zero unemployment we’d still have many, many jobs go begging for someone to fill them. Under the circumstances, then, it’s probably no surprise that the so-called national “quit rate” remains stubbornly high–albeit less than last summer–as workers seeking better pay and better working conditions show commendable initiative by walking away from exploitative employers.

Here’s the fly in the ointment: the “accommodation and food service” industry group, which includes campgrounds and RV parks, has the highest quit rate among all U.S. employers. Indeed, it’s twice the national rate for all occupations, averaging 6% a month since last fall–which, while it might not sound like much, means that employers are losing a quarter of their work force every four months. Moreover, because the pain is not evenly distributed, some parts of the country have notably higher (and therefore some have lower) percentages of their employees jumping ship. The March quit rate among Colorado’s accommodations employers, for example, was 10.3%.

Campgrounds that either can’t or won’t pay at least $15 an hour–and nearly a third of the American workforce is paid less than that–are finding themselves severely short-handed, and RVers are starting to see the results. Office and store hours are shorter, on-line booking and check-ins are becoming the default mode of interacting with the public, organized activities will be fewer and skimpier. Buildings may look a little shabbier, the grounds a little more unkempt and housekeeping in cabins and bathrooms somewhat less thorough. And as the season wears on, expect tempers to get shorter and the smiles more forced.

Presumably this all will eventually balance out and a new equilibrium will be established–eventually. But this sure isn’t your parents’ camping experience now, and it won’t be then, either.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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