Utah Ski Industry Fights for International Workers
The motionless chairlifts hanging over Utah’s autumn ski slopes suggest peace, quiet, and downtime, but the atmosphere in the office is another story. Autumn is perhaps the busiest time of year for Kimberly Hansen, a human resources manager at Solitude Mountain Resort, as she prepares for the boatloads of visitors arriving on opening day. Not skiers—employees.
“We’ve been interviewing, sending out job offers, and right now are getting prepared for training in November,” Hansen says. But despite months of job fairs and aggressive recruiting, Hansen has several open positions left to fill. “We’re always hiring,” says Hansen. “We’re just not getting the applications.”
Facing shortages last season, Hansen looked to an increasingly useful source for seasonal ski staff: the southern hemisphere. Working with a student-exchange agency, Hansen hired 15 international college students through a federal program called the J-1 Summer Work Travel Visa. The J-1 program has become a crucial tool for the Utah ski industry in recent years, recruiting students whose summer vacations align with the northern hemisphere’s winter. Hansen describes her first year using J-1 workers as a great success. “We loved having them,” says Hansen. She planned to increase her J-1 staff to 20 this season.
But by the time Hansen’s first group of foreign workers returned home, the J-1 program had come under threat. In April, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, promising to halt any federal programs that displaced American workers. By August—a month before Hansen and other ski resorts would begin their winter hiring process—members of the Trump administration had proposed cutting or even eliminating the J-1 program.
In response, Utah’s ski resorts have joined a nationwide effort to protect the J-1 program, which they argue does not rob Americans of jobs. “That’s a 100 percent true statement,” says Hansen. But as ski season approaches, hiring managers face an uncertain future.
“If it’s a stroke of a pen and the J-1 program goes away, that’s 20 full-time staff I don’t have,” says Hansen.
“A Fire American Policy”
President Trump’s view that J-1 workers steal jobs from Americans goes back to May of 2016 when he proposed eliminating the J-1 visa in his immigration platform. But David Byrd, Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs at the National Ski Areas Association, says too few American workers are able to take seasonal employment during the winter. “If any industry has a sensible argument for using J-1 visas, it’s the ski industry,” Byrd says.
Many ski resort jobs, though “seasonal,” are full-time during the winter—a combination suited only to locals or nomads. As Byrd explains, locals are getting harder to find. In early 2017, Utah’s unemployment rate hit a seven-year low of 3.1 percent. In Summit County, unemployment was 2.7 percent. “Four percent is what economists consider ‘full employment,’” says Byrd—meaning a labor market where everyone who wants a job has one. “There just aren’t enough Americans in these communities who want these jobs.”
As for nomads, Byrd rejects the notion that unemployed Americans in, say, Chicago or Philadelphia are losing out on skiing jobs to J-1 workers. “Even with J-1s, I have large destinations for skiers that have 10 percent of their jobs unfilled,” says Byrd. “If you’re interested, you can still get a job in Colorado or Utah.”
Ilir Zherka, the Executive Director at the Alliance for Cultural Exchange, says the Trump administration’s critics of the J-1 program misunderstand why many employers hire J-1 workers. “They seem to believe in a zero-sum game,” Zherka says, “where an international, just by virtue of being here, is displacing an American. But that’s not the way the economy works.”
For Utah, that misunderstanding could be costly. A report commissioned by the Alliance this summer found that J-1 Summer Work Travel students contributed $12.3 million to Utah’s economy last year. Over half of all J-1 employers surveyed in the report said that eliminating the J-1 program would force them to reduce services, while 28.7 percent would need to lay off some of their permanent staff.
“Instead of a ‘Hire American’ policy, eliminating these programs would be a ‘Fire American’ policy,” says Zherka.
More Than Jobs
Lisa Angotti, a recruiting manager at Deer Valley Resort, has taken up an additional role for the busy fall hiring season: political activist. In October, Angotti flew to Washington, D.C. with a group of industry professionals to educate public officials about the J-1 Summer Work Travel program.
Deer Valley has used J-1 students for many years and plans to hire some 300 J-1 workers this season. But Angotti believes the program is more than simply a labor source. “It’s one of the greatest diplomacy programs you could have,” Angotti says. Founded during the Cold War, the J-1 program was designed to strengthen U.S. foreign relations by introducing international students to American culture. According to the Alliance survey, 76 percent of J-1 program alumni said their opinion of the U.S. improved after the program.
Angotti believes the Utah ski industry offers a particularly rich cultural experience for J-1 workers. “For many of these students, the whole exposure to the sport itself, and then meeting all those passionate people sharing a sport they love, is something brand new,” she says.
At Deer Valley, J-1s are welcomed with a banquet at a hotel in Park City. “We invite the mayor to come welcome all his new citizens for the next few months,” says Angotti. The J-1 employees receive lists of cultural events over the winter, bus passes for the season and even tickets to Utah Jazz games. “And they love to visit our national parks,” says Angotti. “Nothing says America like our national parks.”
After a busy autumn, Angotti is hopeful about the program’s future. Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, along with Congressman Rob Bishop, have expressed support for the J-1 program for the Utah ski industry, and Ilir Zherka of the Alliance believes that this season’s J-1 workers won’t be affected. But as one hiring manager said, “Could everything change in a tweet? Absolutely.”
Jamie Tommins is a freelance journalist from Connecticut reporting on environmental policy and conservation. When not thinking about imperiled New England ecosystems, Jamie can be found hiking, rock climbing, or fiddling with a camera lens. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jtommins.