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March 2023

A "Lesson" in Resilience

In the midst of a labor shortage, snowsports schools search for staffing solutions to keep up with demand.

Written by Mark Aiken | 0 comment
Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah, took an aggressive approach to hiring in 2022 to accommodate more lesson requests, including those for young learners. Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah, took an aggressive approach to hiring in 2022 to accommodate more lesson requests, including those for young learners.

As if attracting, hiring, and retaining quality instructors weren’t already challenges for snowsports school managers, a national labor shortage as the Baby Boomer generation moves into retirement age has not made the situation easier. No industry is immune, and, in the ski business, staffing challenges are certainly not exclusive to ski and ride schools—every department in the ski business faces them. 

“Finding enough talented, energetic, good-attitude people has, I think, been the trickiest thing for the whole industry,” says Peggy Hiller, the new CEO of the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI), who served in assistant general manager and vice president of operations roles at Arapahoe Basin, Colo., since 2005. “The pandemic exacerbated it.”

As snowsports managers look up and down their lineups this winter, they know a host of factors played into the numbers, ages, and experiences of the instructors who are—and aren’t —a part of their teams: a national labor shortage and aging workforce; a pandemic; geography; historical perspectives; and wages. 

So, what do snowsports school managers think about staffing—the current challenges, the opportunities, their initiatives to address shortages, and whether those initiatives worked for 2022-23?

mar23 lesson in resilience 01


The staffing challenges facing Steve Debenedictis, ski and ride school director for 26 years at Bretton Woods, N.H., are not new. The nearest population centers to his resort, North Conway and Lincoln, are hardly metropolises (populations 2,400 and 1,600, respectively). Still, the staff levels increased for a time. “We had 50 or 60 instructors when I got here, but we grew to 150,” says Debenedictis. Now, Bretton Woods is down to 41 instructors—each working a minimum of 30 days. 

One catalyst for the decline in numbers, says Debenedictis, was a shift in his resort’s attitude toward 14- and 15-year-olds. Omni Hotels and Resorts, which purchased Bretton Woods in 2015, doesn’t employ workers under 16. Debenedictis says these young employees would work throughout their high school careers and regularly return during college breaks and beyond as part-timers. Now that he’s limited to 16 and up, he gets them for a year or two in high school. Then they go off to college and only occasionally return.

“We’ve always had an older staff,” he adds. Of the resort’s 41 instructors, five are under 50 and the average age is 63. Those instructors are wonderful and do everything that is asked of them to the best of their abilities, says Debenedictis, “But losing this pipeline has made it difficult.”

The uphill battle for staff that Bretton Woods was already climbing became steeper in spring 2022 when Vail Resorts announced that it was raising the starting wage to $20 an hour at all 37 of its North American resorts—a starting wage that includes ski and snowboard instructors. 

The wage increase was the final element in a perfect storm for Bretton Woods: located 20 miles closer to North Conway and Lincoln than Bretton Woods are Attitash and Wildcat—two Vail Resorts properties. Bretton Woods bumped its starting wage to $15 in an attempt to remain somewhat competitive. But did new instructors flock to Bretton Woods when they could make an extra 33 percent closer to home? 

“Are you going to drive 20 extra miles for five dollars less per hour?” asks Debenedictis. 

Arapahoe Basin—where Hiller led operations until January before starting at PSIA-AASI—faced similar competition from neighboring Vail Resorts-owned Breckenridge and Keystone. “We had to follow suit and go to $20 per hour,” says Hiller, noting that attracting talent did improve as a result. “But on the back end we will have to make that money back,” Hiller says. “Even breaking even is challenging.”

 mar23 lesson in resilience 03To remain competitive, Arapahoe Basin, Colo., bumped up the base wage for its instructors to $20 per hour.


Debenedictis’ understandable concerns are his shrinking numbers of instructors as well as the average instructor age. He worries about the future. Yet, stats from PSIA-AASI’s member database, provided by the organization’s director of communications and marketing, Sue Urbanczyk, may shine a slightly different light on the situation:  

The average age of existing members who were part of PSIA-AASI for a year or more in 2022 was 58.1 years, with a majority (59 percent) between 55 and 74 years old.

The average age of new members was 42.3 years old, with a majority (54 percent) between 18 and 44 years old. 

Although these numbers speak only to instructors who are PSIA-AASI members, it is safe to assume they represent instructors as a whole. And this means young people are joining the instructor workforce—which is good news. 

“Your seasoned veterans bring the culture and can model professionalism, the value of certification, and the importance of continuing education,” says Hiller. “New instructors bring eagerness, enthusiasm, and fresh eyes.”  


Allie Cessna, snowsports director at Holiday Valley in western New York, has found that to be true. Holiday Valley employs no fewer than 50 junior instructors under the age of 18. Many of these come courtesy of the resort’s Y.E.T.I. program—that is, Young Enthusiastic Teaching Intern—for 14- and 15-year-olds. 

mar23 lesson in resilience 02Holiday Valley, N.Y., employs roughly 50 junior instructors under the age of 18.

No doubt employing 50 minors has its unique challenges. However, says Cessna, “They are awesome and have such fun, enthusiastic personalities.”

Cessna, who at age 33 is one of the nation’s youngest PSIA examiners and snowsports school directors, says those employees are generally with Holiday Valley through high school, and are a big help on college breaks. “They also bring in family members,” she adds.

At Alterra-owned Solitude, Utah, vice president of recreational services Dan Healy has also tapped into a pipeline of youth through a local YMCA, whose leaders called to ask about activities for 15- to 17-year-olds who had aged out of local ski programs. Working with Alterra management and the youth organization to plan and secure grant money, Solitude led a pilot program last season for junior instructors. “Thirty or 40 percent of those kids returned this season,” Healy says. 


Other numbers also look promising. Though the pandemic disrupted all operations and statistics, according to Urbanczyk, PSIA-AASI membership remained fairly constant, with numbers in the 31,000-32,000 range. In fact, membership rose from 31,867 in 2021 to 32,020 in 2022.

This is good news, but more instructors are still needed in order to increase the number of lessons resorts are able to provide. According to NSAA, the total number of lesson visits and the lessons-to-visits ratio in 2021-22 were both below pre-pandemic levels. “I look at staffing challenges more as opportunities because the snowsports industry is growing,” says Healy. “The demand is out there for more outdoor recreation.”

Like Vail Resorts, Solitude approached hiring aggressively in 2022, although wages were just part of Solitude’s approach. “We started our recruiting and hiring process the earliest we ever have,” says Healy.

And based on what he heard from applicants and existing instructors, Healy doubled down on Solitude’s training programs, hiring former Snowbird, Utah, mountain school director Maggie Loring out of retirement to oversee new-hire training, professional development, and certification training. 

In his own experience, Healy—who actually had to “try out” for his first instructor job at Nashoba Valley, Mass., in 1995 (“200 people tried out for 100 positions,” he says)—credits the influence of trainers, examiners, and other mentors who connected with him as a reason he stayed in snowsports education as a career path. 

Jody Churich, chief operating officer and vice president at Breckenridge, concurs that, while wages are part of the pie, there’s more. “As we come out of Covid, we are really just valuing and putting our employees first, as they are the core of our business,” says Churich, adding that Vail Resorts also increased employee benefits including free mental health resources, career development programs, 40 percent off retail purchases, and 50 percent off food and beverage. 

According to PSIA-AASI’s annual member survey, people become instructors for a variety of reasons. In describing why they taught snowsports, 58 percent of respondents used the words “love,” “skiing,” “fun,” “teaching,” or “passion” in their responses. Meanwhile, half of respondents characterized their role as instructors as a “hobby that they enjoy.” 

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So, many instructors are in it for reasons other than the money. But did the financial investments resorts made have a positive result in hiring instructors? 

Yes. “We saw a 90 percent return rate on our ski and ride school instructors from last year across [Vail Resorts],” says Churich, whose first job in the industry was as a children’s instructor. “And twice as many new hires in the ski and ride school versus the last season. So, applicant flows have been incredibly strong, as well as retention rates.”

Solitude, which operates within driving distance of Park City, another Vail Resorts property (both of which, unlike Bretton Woods, are located near a major urban center, Salt Lake City), also reports positive results. “Our focus going into the season was to increase the staff to accommodate as many opportunities to share the outdoor recreation industry and snowsports as possible—and we attained that goal,” says Healy. “We had a great holiday season; we were able to accommodate all lesson requests that came into the resort.”  


“I’m optimistic,” says PSIA-AASI’s Hiller. “I think what we offer as an industry is fun, and it is a lifestyle that appeals to the younger generation as well as an older demographic—retirees or someone looking for a second career.” 

Another reason for her optimism: the pandemic showed that we as an industry have the ability to pivot faster than anyone previously realized. As she takes the helm of PSIA-AASI, Hiller says she is excited to learn just how quickly the organization can adapt.

Like Hiller, Healy suggests that management needs adaptibility, and creativity, to build effective teams—and resources exist to support that. For example, the PSIA-AASI Snowsports Management Advisory committee, which he chairs, produced three webinars last fall about building certification training programs at resorts, women’s development training programs, and leadership training programs. All, anecdotally, were items on incoming instructor wish lists when they chose potential employers.

“The industry has changed over the last four to five years,” says Healy. “And I love the camaraderie and the information sharing that we’re doing.” 

Yes, there are regions, divisions, and individual competing resorts, says Healy. “But everyone is in this together.”