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July 2011

Workers Everywhere

The upside to a down economy: the labor pool.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

Not too long ago, ski resorts had trouble filling all of their winter positions. No longer. A lagging economy, high unemployment, and stagnant job growth have combined to make ski resorts a mecca for job seekers. And as summer operations have expanded at many resorts, so have the opportunities to carry over good employees to the winter season.

More year-round jobs and a growing labor pool have made recruiting almost easy. Mammoth had record numbers of applicants the last two years. Aspen canceled two job fairs last fall.

“With this economy, we’ve seen a huge local and domestic job market open up that wasn’t there before,” says Jeff Hanle, Aspen PR director. “We’ve filled jobs earlier than ever before.”

Not only are there more applicants, they’re better qualified, says John Monsoon, director of sales and marketing at Sugar Bowl, Calif., which brings on about 700 new employees every winter. “The level of quality walking through the door is way up,” Monsoon says. “People have great experience. They’re jazzed to be here.”

“We used to have a lot more turnover in our seasonal jobs, especially if it was bitter cold,” says Penny Krotz, HR supervisor at Holiday Valley, N.Y., which hires about 720 seasonal employees. “With the economy the way it is, we don’t really have a big decline any more.”

Crystal Mountain, Mich., is so overrun with local applicants it has gone from hosting four job fairs every fall to just one. “It’s actually humbling,” says Gretchen Swanson, HR director.

“I think everybody would like to see unemployment decrease,” adds Rachael Woods, PR manager at Homewood, Calif. (450 winter hires), and Alpine Meadows (900). “But for us, it has created a huge influx during our recruitment period.”

Internationals Down
The growing numbers of local job seekers has coincided with the federal government’s restrictions on foreign workers. Ski resorts used to rely on H-2B workers and J-1 college students from other countries to fill all of their slots, particularly ski instructors and low-wage, low-skill positions in housekeeping, food and beverage, parking and lift operations. Both of those visa programs have become more of a pleasant cultural exchange for ski resorts than a labor necessity.

“We’ve gone from 350 H-2B workers to 38 last year,” says Trish Sullivan, VP of human resources at Steamboat, Colo., which hires about 1,400 winter employees. Sullivan cites a combination of government restrictions, travel costs (resorts must pay foreign workers’ travel costs), and the fact that “we simply don’t need them because we have more domestic applicants.”

Mammoth also used its fewest number of H-2B workers last year, about 60—all of them certified ski and snowboard instructors. The resort is also using fewer J-1 college students because it doesn’t need them. Plus, it is a burden to have to replace them after 120 days when their visas expire, which usually happens well before the season ends.

“We train them and then they go away,” notes Craig Clemmer, marketing manager at Bretton Woods, N.H.. which has reduced its J-1 hires to about 20. “It behooves us to hire as much as possible from our backyard, although our remoteness does make it hard.”

Other resorts have also greatly cut back on foreign help. Whitefish, Mont., which hires about 400 winter employees, has gone from about 75 J-1s in ’07 to 35 last winter, most of them lift attendants.

“We’ve always struggled to find lift operators,” says Kristi Hanchett, HR director. “We’re getting a lot more people in the construction business, which has taken a big hit with the economy, working for us now in those positions. They wouldn’t have applied in the past.”

Other resorts continue to recruit internationally, but mainly for cultural reasons. “It’s an enriching experience for everyone,” says Woods at Alpine Meadows, which no longer recruits H-2B workers but still employs a few J-1 students.

“We don’t need the labor force,” adds Rick Boyle, HR generalist at Sugarbush, Vt. “It’s more of a cultural experience. We love to do it, and I think the guests enjoy it, too.”

“Our international workers add an interesting, cool element to our whole experience,” agrees Vivian Gibbons, recruiting manager at Snowshoe, W.V.

Others cite obstacles to bringing in J-1 students: “We don’t use any internationals,” says Krotz at Holiday Valley. “We have no housing, and there’s too much paperwork.”

“The last time we used international workers was 2003,” says Crystal’s Swanson. “We have so many local applicants, it’s hard to justify using internationals.”

With more local applicants and returnees, outreach has gotten easier. Turning away applicants, rather than attracting them, seems to be the biggest issue. Job fairs and a few newspaper ads are about all it takes to find more than enough candidates. In the Internet age, some resorts don’t even have to do that.

“We don’t do any job fairs, just post jobs on our website,” says Hanchett at Whitefish. “People come to us. In the past, we used to run continuous ads on CoolWorks, local newspapers. We haven’t had to do that in recent years.”

Boyle says Sugarbush has begun using social networking sites to outreach and encourage employees to refer potential hires to the resort. “We have a specific HR page on Facebook, and use Twitter when we have jobs available and to let people know about job fairs,” Boyle says.

Crystal has gone completely paperless in its recruitment and screening of applicants. “It’s wonderful,” Swanson says. “We’re a small department, so we have to maximize technology. We’re able to update information instantly, drive people to our website.

“It’s really helped to bring up quality by pushing people to provide information, past employers, references, phone numbers, etc. On paper, they can skip around. Here, they can’t go forward unless they provide all the information. It’s much faster. Managers can log on, see all information, get back to candidates faster. It really helps departments share potential candidates. It’s much more efficient.”

For some openings, many resorts recruit at local and regional colleges where students’ winter vacations often coincide with peak times at the resorts. Steamboat has had good luck recruiting in the fall at Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, when those peak seasons are ending and Steamboat’s is just beginning. Trade schools are a good source of hard-to-fill mechanical and electrical workers. Hotel management and culinary programs are a good source of chefs and hotel and restaurant help.

Free skiing remains the biggest perk in attracting seasonal help. Some resorts offer lift operators—always a tough job to fill—big cash bonuses for catching those using fraudulent tickets.

Financial incentives can work in other areas, too. Crystal pays housekeepers—another tough job to fill—based on the number and size of units cleaned.

“Some resorts pay a flat rate, but we have such a variety of units and sizes, some harder to clean than others, paying piece work makes sense,” Swanson says. “Our cleaning stats show it’s working.”

Overall, the labor picture has brightened considerably. “We’ve definitely seen a change in the labor market,” notes Sullivan at Steamboat. “We’re able to hire more domestically, have more returnees. It’s an employer’s market.”