Boomers Find Second Career as Work Campers

by Wendy on November 14, 2016

by: Christopher Farrell (

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — Michael Shoemaker is sitting at a picnic table in front of his recreational vehicle on an early October evening here at the Red River State Recreation Area. “I woke up to a realization this morning,” Mr. Shoemaker, who is 69, says with a deadpan expression. “The only way I will have a smoking hot body is when I’m cremated.”

He cracks up. “I love telling jokes,” he says.

Mr. Shoemaker is a work camper, one of thousands of modern-day nomads who live in their motor homes or trailers, traveling from campground to campground for seasonal jobs. A majority of work campers are in the second half of life, many well into the traditional retirement years.

Mr. Shoemaker, who has worked, among other places, behind retailing counters at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as well as the spring training camp for the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers in Arizona, has joined 550 work campers hired to help stack and store the sugar beet harvest for American Crystal Sugar along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota.

The work-camping community illuminates many trends shaping and being shaped by baby boomers, including the search for both money and meaning in life as they grow older. Work campers (often shortened to workampers) run the gamut from low-income retirees to the well-heeled. But they all seem to thrive on a mobile lifestyle that works for those who prize their independence but may strike many of their peers as rootless.

“They’re retired and need money,” says Al Sorensen, 70, the work-camper liaison for the sugar beet harvest for Express Employment Professionals in Grand Forks, N.D. “But they’re tired of the plain old corporate life.”

The work combines elements of the gig economy, telecommuting and contingent labor increasingly commonplace among American workers. Like the gig economy, the schedule is flexible and, in a sense, work campers do their job from their home — that is, a mobile home.

The pay is low, typically $7.25 to $12 an hour. And a lot of the jobs are hard: One of the more popular is working during seasonal peaks in an Amazon warehouse fetching orders. Most work campers do not put in enough hours to make a living wage.

On the other side of the equation, the rewards include traveling America’s highways and byways, working at a variety of tasks and spending time in campgrounds near beautiful scenery. Work camping also comes with a measure of freedom, particularly for those who have Social Security and a pension to fall back on. Bad manager? Rev up the R.V. Don’t like the work? Head for the hills.

Wearing a blue hard-hat and a yellow safety vest at an American Crystal storage and processing facility, Bill McClain is working the harvest for the sixth time. He is 60 years old and a self-described “economic refugee.”

Mr. McClain owned a Harley-Davidson shop in Hesperia, Calif., for 22 years. The disheartening combination of the economic downturn and increased state regulations, he said, pushed him and his wife to sell everything in 2010, buy a Holiday Rambler R.V. and join the work-camping community.

“I like the lifestyle 90 percent of the time,” he said. “When I hate the job, I just do it. But we don’t go back.” When the sugar beet harvest is done, they plan to hit the road and spend time with family. After that, seasonal jobs in Arizona and California beckon.

“There is work all over the country,” Mr. McClain said. “We’re ‘cruising the 70s.’ You try and stay at 70 degrees as much as possible.”

Jobs are advertised in publications like Workamper News, online bulletin boards, and by word-of-mouth at campgrounds. Not all of them involve blue-collar work.

Margo Armstrong, who celebrated her 76th birthday in September, started her R.V. lifestyle in 1995. Ms. Armstrong has a website ( dedicated to the R.V. life, has published e-books on the topic and writes a blog. Her work-camp experience has been with computer-based jobs, either in an office or taking reservations.

“Most, I believe, are motivated by the general impression that their savings may be gone before they are,” she emailed from her 28-foot Safari Trek R.V. on the road near Las Vegas. “Workamping allows them to enjoy their years on the road without fear of depleting their savings.”

The sugar beet harvest is considered good pay. Newcomers start out at $12.85 an hour for 12-hour shifts. (Experienced workers and machine operators get more.) Four of those hours are overtime Monday through Friday; Saturday is at 1.5 times pay and Sunday two times. The campsite fees are paid for by the employer, a common arrangement.

Many of the jobs involve assisting the operators stacking sugar beets in piles 30 feet high, about 80 feet across and a quarter-mile to a half-mile long. Other jobs include picking up sugar beet bags weighing roughly 30 pounds for testing at the quality lab. The harvest lasts only 10 to 12 days, depending on the weather.

Vicky Loftis, formerly of Caruthers, Calif., says she is enjoying the experience. She is 50 and a first-timer in the Red River Valley. “I wanted the adventure of the harvest,” she says. “In 20 years I can say I worked the sugar beets.”

Ms. Loftis had a small business helping disabled people learn computers. She owned her “bricks and sticks” home (a common phrase among work campers for a traditional house). She was deeply unhappy. “I was drowning,” she recalled.

Single and with no children, Ms. Loftis decided to significantly change her life. She walked away from her business, sold her home and possessions and now lives full time in her weather-beaten R.V., previously owned by her father.

She generally works from her motor home on computer-based jobs. Her first seasonal job before the harvest was at a campground high in the mountains near Tucson. It was a change of pace. Among her tasks were checking in campers and cleaning toilets. The extra money is earmarked toward her long-term project of remodeling and upgrading her R.V.

Her next work-camp gig is also on her “bucket list.” Ms. Loftis has signed up for a stint at an Amazon shipping center in Campbellsville, Ky., which has one of four Amazon CamperForce sites the company has established around the country. The starting salary is $10.75 an hour, with time and a half for overtime. The benefits include paid campsite fees and a completion bonus when the commitment period is over.

“I gifted this lifestyle for myself on my 50th birthday,” she said. “There is so much to see. I am free to go where I want to go.”

Some work campers say they don’t really need the money. For Buddy and Cindy Ward, it’s mostly about having fun and allowing them to pay for their children and grandchildren to visit them over holiday periods. They enjoyed a number of adventures after selling a successful glass installation business they had built from scratch in Georgia. Married 51 years, they became work campers five years ago with their sleek black-and-gold R.V. around the time Mr. Ward, who is now 71, had a stroke.

Among their favorite places to work is Dollywood, the family amusement park owned by the country singer Dolly Parton in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where Mr. Ward has done stints cooking sausage, peppers and onions while Ms. Ward sells Dippin’ Dots (beads of cryogenically frozen ice cream).

“His stroke was an eye-opener,” Ms. Ward, 69, said. “If you want to do something, do it. We love this.”

As for Mr. Shoemaker, the jokester, he retired in 2010 from his job as a machine operator making armor for the Abrams tank at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. Following in the footsteps of his brother and his sister-in-law, he now travels in his R.V. with two Shih Tzus, Kobie and Katie.

His previous job was at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. He had never worked the sugar beet harvest and he thought he would give it a try since it was only about 600 miles from Crazy Horse.

Since he is experienced and comfortable working with machinery, he was hired to operate a beet piler — a large, elongated yellow machine reminiscent of a praying mantis. “I can still shovel and work with the best of them,” he said. “I am enjoying the heck out of this.”

Mr. Shoemaker has a pension from Idaho National and receives Social Security. His R.V. is almost paid off. The seasonal work supplements his income.

But the real lure for him, he says, is that the lifestyle keeps him engaged and active. He is intrigued by a job opportunity at a fishing camp in Montana for his next gig after the harvest.

“I watched my dad retire, sit in a chair and die a miserable death,” he reflects. “I won’t do that. You have to have a purpose.”


To read the original article, go to Migrant Workers in Recreational Vehicles


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