Not long ago, people clamored to work at U.S. ski slopes. Many a young person ran lifts or operated snowmaking machines just to score free ski passes. This season, resorts scrambled to fill jobs before the flakes started flying.
Unlike the ski bums of yesteryear, today’s snow workers aren’t just looking for any excuse to schuss down the slopes. They’re getting choosy—requiring better housing, higher pay, and good benefits.
“It’s an enormous challenge for us,” Dave Byrd of the National Ski Areas Association says of the labor issue.
Housing is one of the biggest snow-job obstacles. In ski areas, lodging can be scarce, expensive, or both. Luxury resorts and online vacation rental services like Airbnb have snagged much of the available property near skiing hot spots. So, working all day, skiing all night, and then flopping anywhere for a few hours’ sleep isn’t really possible anymore in most places. “The ski bum in the 1980s and 1990s, those are hard to find,” Byrd says. “Housing is so enormously challenging.”
Another problem for employers is the country’s low unemployment rates. (See “Numbers To Notice”) Historically low numbers of people are out looking for jobs at present. Most workers can find steady, full-time jobs with benefits. There’s no need to freeze outside blowing snow for a few months to get by.
“Home Depot and Target are paying $13 an hour, and the ski area 20 minutes out of town—[employers have] to match that,” Byrd says. “They’ve got to compete for that labor pool.”
According to Byrd, the ski industry depends on hiring about 100,000 seasonal workers each year. But ski resorts are naturally located in mountainous areas, placing them far from cities with big workforces.
“We don’t have a lot of ski areas [close] to major metropolitan areas. And even when we do, . . . they’re still struggling to find people,” Byrd says.
That means looking beyond the usual labor pool for workers.
Today, foreign workers make up about 5% to 10% of the ski resort labor. Many have special government-issued work visas. In all, the ski industry hires about 8,000 foreign workers on this type of visa. This year, Vermont’s Sugarbush Resort is hiring more than 100 foreign college students because of the difficulty in filling jobs. Byrd calls such foreign workers critical to the ski industry.
It’s not that ski resorts aren’t trying. Resorts from New Hampshire to Utah are attempting to lure workers with bonuses, wage increases, housing, and free transportation. Still, it seems the days of ultra-cheap snow labor have mostly melted away.