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Scott N. Miller

Nicole Greener has had a pleasant surprise this year it looks like the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa will open next month with a full staff.When it opens in late September, the Westin in Avon will be the newest big hotel/condo project to open in the valley. This winter, about 200 people will work there, with about 120 year-round employees. To get those people, Greener, the resorts human resources director, had to cast a fairly broad net.Weve drawn a lot of locals, Greener said. But weve done job fairs on the Front Range, and weve gone to Craigslist, and other ski resorts.But the Westins search pales in comparison to the efforts of some of the valleys employers. That search has ranged from Alaska to Puerto Rico, and from Latin America to former Soviet bloc countries.

For years, some of the valleys biggest employers have relied on immigrants for seasonal help. Most of those legal immigrants have come to the country on H2-B, or seasonal work visas.The town of Vail and Eagle County have for several years relied on bus drivers from Australia to boost their staffs during the winter. Those drivers for some time have been exempt from the national caps on seasonal visas, which have for years been capped at about 30,000 people every six months. Congress granted an exemption to companies that had returning workers, meaning people who had worked in previous seasons could return, and they wouldnt count against the national caps.Congress let that exemption expire this year, which means a lot of local companies didnt get their ski season stalwarts back.The Westin got the roughly 60 visa workers it requested. Other companies didnt.The lack of seasonal visas which require an employee to work for one employer for the entire season has put many valley employers in a bind.The most visible hardship may be the Vail and county bus systems. Vail hires about 35 seasonal people a year to keep its free bus system humming during the winter. The county needs about 15. Vail officials say they may have to cut some evening routes this coming ski season.Brian Nolan, who owns the Chop House restaurants in Vail and Beaver Creek as well as several other local restaurants, said recently his company got a few seasonal visas, but would probably have to rely more on J-1 student visas for winter help.Were recruiting for J-1s as fast as we can, Nolan said, adding his company is becoming more dependent on those workers.The problem, though, is that people working on student visas cant work an entire ski season before they have to return to their home countries. That means a lot of turnover and re-training.Immigrant workers facing early return dates hit Vail Resorts hard last spring, leaving a lot of company supervisors and managers working front line jobs the last few weeks of the season.

While immigrants help keep the ski season humming, the valleys long-running employee shortage shows up 12 months a year. Bus service may be one of the most obvious places the shortage hits, but Eagle County Human Resources Director Nora Fryklund said the shortage of workers hits across that roughly 600-person organization.It costs us a lot of overtime to maintain services, Fryklund said. That means streets get plowed in the winter, but its done on overtime, so were paying more.For as long as anyone can remember, the main problem with hiring and keeping people is the valleys cost of living.Skilled people are so hard to find, Fryklund said. We have a candidate for a mechanics job and were desperately trying to find him a place to live. We get lots of responses to our ads, but then they look around and say I want to come, but I just cant afford it.While several local companies and utilities have master-leased apartments, about all the county can do is direct new employees to vacant apartments. If those people decide to buy homes, there are down-payment assistance programs available, but that doesnt do much for brand-new workers.The town of Vail has been building its own inventory of rental units for its employees. At a recent seminar, town Housing Director Nina Timm said the towns employee apartments have cut down on both response time and overtime, as well as commuting costs.Holy Cross Energy for many years has had rental units available for employees and has long subsidized rent and mortgage payments for workers. The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has fairly recently started doing the same thing.At first it was a matter of response time, water district human resources manager Angelo Fernandez said. Now its a recruitment and retention issue.

Where companies recruit depends largely on what business theyre in.The American Gypsum wallboard factory in Gypsum recruits locally as much as possible. We have people who live in Garfield County, and beyond, said Ray Barnes, general manager of the American Gypsum plant. But our hope is to hire locally.American Gypsum uses local newspapers, including shopper type papers, and has a big banner it will unfurl at the gates to the plant when its hiring. It also rewards workers who refer a good employee to the plant.R.A. Nelson and Associates, one of the valleys biggest construction companies, also tries to keep it local. Company human resources director Jan Losh said a lot of new hires come either from referrals from current employees or from people in the trades who want to work for the company. Our reputation helps a lot, Losh said.Both R.A. Nelson and American Gypsum have found something of a silver lining in the national construction slowdown. Both companies are fully staffed at the moment.The situation really has flipped in the last three years, Losh said. We were really beating the streets back then.Other companies have to go farther afield.Eagle County is recruiting in Alaska for bus drivers people who know what its like to drive on snow and also is looking for people in Colorado Springs, using a pool of military veterans making the move to private life.Vail Valley Medical Center recruits all over the world for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.We have two recruiters looking nationally, and we have a global presence online, said medical center human resources director Sheila Hosler. That job is always ongoing, too.We dont wait until we have an opening, she said. Instead, the medical center stockpiles resumes.And, while hiring is always tough, Hosler said the medical center is in about the same position as it was three or four years ago.

By far the biggest change in recruitment plans has been at Vail Resorts, which employs thousands of people at its five ski resorts. The company requested 1,900 seasonal visas for its ski areas, but was granted only a few the company isnt saying how many. Those visas were for employees ranging from short-order cooks to ski instructors.We knew the visas were a potential problem, said John Garnsey, senior vice president of the companys mountain division. So we had some proactive measures in place.Garnsey said Vail Resorts has changed its entire recruiting process, and has hired a recruiting director. The company has hired 30 bus drivers from Alaska for Beaver Creek, Garnsey said. The company also is looking into different visa programs for seasonal help.But about 30 percent of the companys seasonal visas in 2007 were used for ski instructors, the kind of people a company cant find just anywhere. Many of those instructors had worked at Vail Resorts ski areas for years, and wont be coming next season. That required a change in thinking, Garnsey said.Were going after new, domestic ski instructors, Garnsey said. Weve looked everywhere.While Garnsey didnt come out and say Vail Resorts is going to poach instructors from other resorts, he did say Vail Resorts is known for one of the strongest ski school programs in the world, and that strength could be a strong lure for instructors willing to look around a little.While everyone interviewed for this story expressed confidence theyd be able to bring enough people to their jobs in the near future, local hiring managers all agreed that it remains tough to lure good people to the valley and convince them to stay.I dont see it getting any easier, Fryklund said. I hope Stratton Flats (an affordable housing project in Gypsum) helps, and we get some other projects on line. It impacts every department. Scott N. Miller can be reached for comment at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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