Unemployment rate dictates resort hiring
SUMMIT COUNTY ” With the unemployment rate on the upswing nationwide, ski area recruiters are gearing up for a busy fall.
The days of scrambling to fill the many seasonal positions at local ski resorts are a not-too-distant memory. Back in the late 1990s, when the national unemployment rate was between 4 and 4.5 percent, resorts in the Rocky Mountains had a difficult time getting fully staffed. There are hundreds of seasonal positions these resorts must fill each winter, and some went unfilled.
“A few years ago folks could graduate college and step right into high-paying jobs. It was harder for us to lure them into taking a season off,” said Keystone’s director of human resources, Barbara Brandt. “We had to do a lot of recruiting and it was a struggle. It was also a struggle to keep people.”
But times changed with the recent recession. The average unemployment rate in America neared 6 percent in 2002 and 2003, and local ski areas benefited with more reliable staffing situations. “This past year, we were staffed,” Brandt said. “And it wasn’t terribly difficult to get staffed.”
Unemployment statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor show the unemployment rate in June was 5.6 percent. That is down from 2003’s 6 percent and similar to 2002’s 5.8 percent.
“I think there are still a good number of people out there looking for work,” Brandt said.
The interest in foreign employees is very much tied to the unemployment rate in America. While South Americans, New Zealanders and Australians continue to load lifts and teach skiing, during the recent recession, there were fewer.
“As our unemployment rate went up, less (foreign) recruiting was needed,” said Breckenridge recruiter Kyle Martin. “The unemployment rate definitely affects our industry hugely.”
Sarah Wing, Copper Mountain’s human resources manager, said about 12 to 15 percent of Copper’s employees are international. Copper Mountain uses the J1 type of visa ” designated for educational and cultural exchange ” while Vail Resorts primarily uses the H2B visa, which is more regulated. H2B visas are issued for particular seasonal jobs that the employer must prove they cannot fill with an American worker.
So as the unemployment rate increased, it made proving a need for foreign workers more difficult, and fewer were hired. But a diverse workforce can add to the character of a resort, placing a certain premium on foreign workers.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed, the diversity of our staff,” Wing said. “The accents are always very intriguing to our guests.”
More and more, ski area hiring is done through the resorts’ Web sites. The huge lines outside the human resource department office each September are becoming more rare.
The ski areas still take recruiting trips to cities around the country, but even that is dictated by the Web. Martin said Breckenridge plans recruiting trips each year to New York, Texas and Chicago, but “if we happen to see an uproar in a different city, we’ll set up some interviews and go to that state as well.”
Although unemployment rates can be a guide, it’s too early to tell how difficult staffing will be this season. Brandt said the most active times for hiring has shifted from September to late October and November. In the booming economy of the late ’90s, it was often mid-December before local resorts filled all their positions.
During the fall, the amount of recruiting needed is often re-evaluated as the number of qualified applicants is assessed.