WARREN, Vt. — It used to be that a free ski pass was enough to lure workers to seasonal jobs at mountain resorts. No longer.
In the current tight labor market, ski areas across the country are having a tough time filling jobs, so they're upping the ante by boosting wages, providing more housing and offering other perks to fill those jobs before the snow flies.
New Hampshire's Wildcat is offering a $1,000 bonus for new snowmakers to come on board, and Sunday River in Maine last year increased its hourly wage from $13 to $20 for that job. Utah's Snowbird is expanding its pool van service to get employees to the mountain, and Sugarbush in Vermont, which has among the lowest unemployment rates in the country, is hiring more foreign college students.
"It's an enormous challenge for us," Dave Byrd of the National Ski Areas Association said of the labor issue.
Because ski resorts are by their nature in mountainous areas, they are often far from cities from which to draw workers. And with the national unemployment rate recently hitting the lowest level in 50 years, potential workers would rather have full-time jobs with benefits, said Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the Colorado-based association.
"We don't have a lot of ski areas that are in close proximity to major metropolitan areas. And even when we do, like the ski areas in Salt Lake ... they're still struggling to find people," he said.
The country's roughly 460 ski resorts hire about 100,000 seasonal workers each fall, he said. Many rely on foreign guest workers for 5% to 10% of their labor, he said.
"We are not able to fill 100% of the jobs we have available," he said, adding that the J-1 visa program is critical for the ski industry.
The program is intended to give foreign workers who can be scholars, teachers, camp counselors and au pairs training and experience in those fields in the United States. The ski industry uses about 8,000 J-1 visas, Byrd said.
This year, Vermont's Sugarbush is bringing on more than 100 foreign college students through the program because of the difficulty in filling jobs. A few years ago, it had no one on J-1 visas, spokesman John Bleh said by email. Sugarbush has also been increasing its employee housing over the past several years, according to Bleh.
Housing can be scarce, expensive or both in the remote mountainous areas or resort towns, and online vacation rental services have added pressure to the market by gobbling up a chunk of the available property, Byrd said.
The housing crunch makes it difficult to be ski bum nowadays.
"If you wanted to be ski bum and you want to take a gap year after you graduate college before you go on to getting a real job, that notion of the ski bum in the 1980s and 1990s, those are hard to find, those people, because housing is so enormously challenging for us in the industry," Bryd said.
And the free mountain pass that comes with the job is no longer enough of an incentive in the era of competitive pass programs that allow skiers and snowboarders to get a bargain without working at the resort, he said.
On top of that, potential workers can now be choosy and opt for a year-round job with benefits.
"When Home Depot and Target are paying $13 an hour, and the ski area 20 minutes out of town — they've got to match that," Byrd said. "They've got to compete for that labor pool."