Avoiding a Staffing Merry Go Round
Best Practices for Hiring and Training at Carnivals and Fairs

IMAG0828For over a century, traveling fairs and carnivals have toured America, entertaining communities of all sizes with the combination of lavish shows, great food, fun games and thrilling rides.

There’s nothing quite like the excitement and adventure of working outdoors with one of America’s premier traveling carnivals. These jobs offer steady pay, great bonding opportunities and the chance to travel around the country.

Jobs at carnivals include electricians, mechanics, ride foremen, ride operators, game attendants, food service staff and CDL drivers, and finding the right men and women for the jobs isn’t always easy.

When Jimmi Johnson, owner of Brandon, Fla.-based 1st Class Entertainment needs to staff his concessions operation, he looks for local people to fill spots not covered by his full-time workers.

“If I’m short staffed, I’ve found the best thing is to place a florescent sign out on the highway letting people know you need carnival workers and I get calls real fast,” he said. “If there are ordinances against that, I put the sign on my flatbed truck and put it in a parking lot. I get a lot of college students or people who just haven’t worked in a while and they are real receptive to work.”

Michael Wood, owner of Wood Entertainment, which provides rides for fairs, festivals, and events stretching from the California Coast to Miami, Fla., including the operation of amusement rides at five of the top 10 fairs in the United States, said it takes about 30 people to operate the rides he supplies at carnivals.

“I struggle sometimes because of the itinerant nature of my business, and of course you need to stay compliant with the local and state labor laws,” Wood said. “We used to hire from the local population, we mined for farm boys in Indiana, and recently have turned to a temporary foreign visa program and use South Africans in our full-time staff.”

The way the program works, is that the workers come to the United States for nine months and travel with the carnival, earning pay and fulfilling a dream of seeing the U.S.

“Whoever works for us, whether from the U.S. or a foreign country, we need to remember why they are doing what they are doing, and many times it’s because they want to see a little bit of America,” Wood said. “We give them a realistic work schedule that will allow them to leave the fairgrounds and have some adventures.”

As soon as his workers arrive off a plane and fill out their documentation, Wood gets them started on a week-long training session.

“With a good clean conscious, you can’t hire someone who’s never seen a fairly complex amusement ride and put them in charge in a day’s time. You can show them what to do in 30-40 minutes but they need many more hours to feel comfortable,” he said. “We train them on how to use the equipment and have a contract with a company that specializes in amusement ride safety and have them come down to train them. After, we will have someone supervise them for 40 hours until we know they can react and handle every situation.”

Jason Wagner, co-owner of the 30-year old touring Wagner’s Carnival, which travels between the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska setting up numerous fairs and festivals, employs 40 full-time workers, including 16 workers on work visas from Mexico.

“We’ve been doing that for four years. To begin with, the quality and the reliability of the labor is way, way better,” he said. “I find that the majority of Americans want to stay on unemployment or can’t pass a drug test. This has worked out great for us.”

Training comes in the form of safety seminars as well as individual lessons on each ride, concession stand and all emergency procedures.

“Our employees are trained to operate the equipment, and are tested repeatedly throughout the year,” Wagner said. “Our equipment is inspected daily and is watched throughout the day by the operator, supervisor and the owners.”

David Grein, owner of Funtime Carnival, an outdoor amusement company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which operates at fairs, festivals, school carnivals and special events in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, believes in using United States workers and has found success in finding employees through word of mouth and old-fashioned newspaper ads.

Another great option for finding help, according to Jim Houghton, owner of Houghton Enterprises, a Cochranville, Pa.-based touring carnival that visits 30 locations a year throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania, is to advertise on Craig’s List.

“In this economy, more people seem to be looking for work and we get the younger 18-25 group and more recently, the 45-55 age group. We’re getting a good crop of applicants so we can pick and choose,” Houghton said. “We have 10 different training formats, going over each one of the rides and making sure everyone is up for the challenge. We won’t let anyone touch anything they are not ready for.”

Stewart Bell, general manager of Campbell Amusements, which has been bringing carnival fun to fairs throughout Eastern Canada for more than 45 years, said that he needs 40 employees to handle everything at his shows.

“We generally employ full timers who travel with us, and many of them have been with the company for years and years. We have three people who have been here in excess of 40 years, five in excess of 20 and 10-15 in excess of 10 years,” he said. “We will use local people to help erect and dismantle the equipment, but that doesn’t require much knowledge or training.”

When there is turnover, the company relies on its reputation and doesn’t need to worry about posting “help wanted” signs, as it currently has more applications than jobs available.

“Whether they are new or have been with us for some time, in the spring of every year there’s a complete training session that goes on for every individual staff member,” Bell said. “We have a group of senior employees who lead everything and the section manager will ensure everyone has a good understanding of what needs to be done and the correct way to do it.”

Joe Sutton, owner of the family-owned Fountain City Amusements in St. Louis, Mo., carries on average 20-25 employees when he travels to different fairs with his ride concessions.

“A lot of our guys come back because it’s like a big family and they just love it,” Sutton said. “To find other staff I need, I’ve turned to the Internet, had success with radio spots and I’ll let the fair committee know I’m looking for people and often they will have people interested in jobs.”

One of the reasons people return year after year is that Sutton provides extra perks for his employees.

“We might do 10 spots in 11 days, so it gets pretty hectic, so when we get the chance, we do other things together,” he said. “I’ll take the guys to a movie, we’ve done canoe trips, cookouts and took a holiday to Six Flags. You want to let them know that you care about them and you’ll earn their respect that way.”

One problem with workers is that because the jobs aren’t high paying, they often attract people who might not take the job too seriously or follow rules too closely. Carnival workers are always expected to be polite to patrons so when someone steps out of line or does something that warrants discipline, carnival owners are quick to talk the problem over to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Wagner makes sure all of his employees wear a Wagner’s Carnival uniform, while Houghton expects his workers to be clean shaven, wearing clean clothes and following the rules and regulations that he’s laid out.

“If we need to discipline, we give everyone one warning and we feel that’s enough in this business,” Houghton said. “If they do something that jeopardizes our customer, they may get fired that same night.”

Actions that would necessitate dismissal would be not paying attention to a ride when it’s operating, being really rude to a customer or constantly flirting with the opposite sex instead of doing their job.

“The biggest problem we have had are cell phones, they are an unbelievable mess,” Houghton said. “If we catch someone texting or on the phone, we take it from them until the end of the night. If they do it again, they are finished and I’ll have a foreman take over until we can find someone new.”

Sutton said he doesn’t tolerate bad habits and administers drug tests weekly to make sure no one is doing anything illegal.

“This is my livelihood, so I can’t make exceptions,” he said. “If someone breaks a rule, like maybe they went off the celebrate their birthday and had a bit too much to drink, I’ll tell them to sleep it off, but if it becomes a habit, they’re gone. I don’t rehab.”

Wood revealed that the thing he looks for are employees who treat his customers well and maintain a positive attitude, even when those around him may be acting inappropriately.

“Being in this business is something special and if you’re going to work in it, you’re going to treat it right,” he said. “There’s a reason so many people have stayed for so many years.” –

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