One of the major “perks” of working as a field instructor, guide, or senior staff in the outdoor education and adventure-based programming sector of the outdoor industry used to be an offer of free or low-cost housing. Today, that incentive is more elusive, both for employees at our peer organizations and the staff we hire here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE).
Affordable staff housing — or the lack thereof — tops the list of major financial issues facing those of us who oversee the experiential education programs we run at NCOAE. Our instructors and staff come from around the globe to teach and facilitate our outdoor adventure and education programs. And for us, it has always been important that when they arrive on campus, we attempt to make sure the stress of basic needs does not overshadow the joy of the work.
Carolina Beach, North Carolina, is the closest residential area to NCOAE headquarters, featuring rents that average $1,500 a month. That’s not outrageous if you’re earning $50,000 a year and you consider 30 percent of income for rent as the gold standard for conservative budget management.
But ours is a seasonal business, and part of the problem our sector of the outdoor industry faces is that our staffers don’t make 50 grand a year. In addition, most outdoor education facilities are located in beautiful areas near state and national parks, mountains, beaches, lakes, and other open recreational spaces. Obviously, real estate and rental accommodations are much more costly in such places.
Outdoor Educators Consistently Lack Affordable Housing Options
Fortunately, NCOAE is not located in an area where rent and income gaps are so disparate that staff must move to other locations to survive. However, at the end of the day we are an outdoor industry company paying average wages in alignment with outdoor education and adventure programming industry standards.
While researching this topic, we came across dozens of online posts like this:
I am struggling to find affordable housing right now that would justify even having the job. Does anyone know a good way to find somewhere to stay? I’m willing to try anything at this point. If not, I have no idea what else I can do. I can’t take housing that defeats the whole purpose of working there in the first place.
It’s comments like this that has us updating and expanding housing options for staff members near our Wilmington, N.C., headquarters. Most of our outdoor educators earn around $5,000 each season. That breaks down to about $90 a day for 60 days.
And It’s Not Just Outdoor Educators!
You may have read recent stories about ski resorts struggling to help their seasonal workers find affordable housing, only to be met by roadblocks set up by city officials or the residents themselves. One example is Vail, Colorado, where the average rental cost is $3,300 a month. The median income for Vail residents is $150,000 a year, compared to $30,000 for most seasonal workers.
There, Jenn Bruno, a former Vail Town Council member whose family owns two clothing stores in Vail Village, recently sounded off to Fortune Magazine about the state of housing at Colorado’s flagship ski resort:
I don’t understand why people aren’t upset that in a community as wealthy as ours, with so much to offer, that we have kids sleeping in their cars, and then still helping us by getting up every day and serving us.
Where are the outdoor educators, guides, instructors, and resort staff going to live? Will resorts need to build more or better housing for staff? That’s what they attempted to do in Vail, but the city used eminent domain laws to seize the land that was going to be used for affordable staff housing.
Some larger outdoor recreation-related companies, including several in Cape Cod, Mass., have been able to buy aging motels, turning them into affordable housing units for their employees. While others — notably in the manufacturing sector — have turned to private developers like Colorado Outdoors for housing solutions for their staff, as well as facilities for their growing companies. These and other outdoor industry employers claim finding workers has not been the problem. It’s the housing cost that doesn’t enable a skilled outdoor professional to take a job as an outdoor education, kayak instructor, bike mechanic, or other industry position.
While The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education is a growing company, we’re not at the stage yet where we can justify buying a hotel. And even with an average annual income of $ $68,773 (in 2020 dollars according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau) for Carolina Beach residents, putting our employees in decent housing has not been an easy task.
However, we know what it is that we need to do. Keep in mind that if you’re looking to become an instructor or employee at NCOAE, we are guided by a set of Core Values that put our workers first in order for our program participants and clients to have the best experiences of their lives. And if you own or operate an outdoor industry business and have a novel housing solution that you’d like to brag about, please use the comment section below to share what you know.