Tihmir Todorov, left, and Lachezar Atahasov set up the breakfast bar at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. The Bulgarians are part of the lodge’s international crew

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Fewer foreign youths to work U.S. summer jobs

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER
  • Star Tribune
  • May 23, 2009 - 3:24 PM

The chatter of different languages among workers at resorts in northern Minnesota and across the country will be quieter this summer.

The hospitality industry and the companies that recruit foreign students to work here over their summer breaks say that the U.S. economy is keeping many away this year. The federal government even sent a letter to the recruiting companies asking them to keep numbers down because so many Americans are looking for work. And the students might not be able to come up with the fees -- typically $2,000 to $3,000 for airfare and placement -- because their own countries' economies are struggling.

"Maybe it's just because they figure the economy's not doing so good and they'd be better to go to another country, say England, or somewhere else in Europe, instead of traveling across the Atlantic to get here," said David Spizzo, assistant general manager of Breezy Point Resort in the Brainerd area.

Another resort, Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, took soaring U.S. unemployment rates into account this season, hiring only half as many international workers as it normally does. The Minnesota unemployment rate was 8.1 percent in April as employers cut 9,500 jobs. The U.S. rate for April was 8.9 percent.

Over the past year, Minnesota has lost 90,200 jobs, or 3.3 percent of its total employment. The country has lost 5.2 million jobs, or 3.8 percent.

Spizzo normally travels to Poland every spring to hire staff and finds "just hundreds of people dying to get to the U.S."

He didn't go this year because he figured local residents would want the work. But one of the recruiting companies that Breezy Point uses, Intrax, told the resort that it was struggling to find workers to fill summer jobs this year.

The students come to the United States on J-1 visas through the Exchange Visitor Program, which Congress created in 1961 to encourage cultural understanding among nations. The students come for the summer months and generally fill seasonal jobs at resorts, camps, ranches and amusement parks, including Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, and at national parks.

The number of J-1 students has nearly doubled since 1996, with about 360,000 students taking part last year. The State Department said it's too early to estimate this year's numbers.

While the "J-1s," as the workers are known, come to make money, they also come to broaden their horizons. It's a cultural exchange that works both ways.

"Everybody just loved them. They loved their accents, just talking to them," said Chuck Beavers, who is in charge of the international staff at Breezy Point, about last year's workers. "They're wanting to know more about them, why they came here, what their culture is like in Poland and Jamaica. So people just kind of flocked to them."

The resort even had a "Jamaican Day" -- complete with food, dancing and music -- on the beach last August to highlight their culture.

Fewer veteran workers, too

In addition, a change in visa legislation means fewer foreign workers who have worked in tourism, landscaping and other businesses are able to return to their seasonal U.S. job. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan is one of many resorts lobbying for legislation that would exempt those workers from caps on the number of visas -- in this case the H-2B -- issued each year.

The numbers are capped at 66,000 nationally each year and workers can participate for only three years.

"In many cases, there are workers who have been with us for 20-plus years and they know the ins and outs of the hotel," said Jennifer Bloswick, director of human resources at the Grand. "To suddenly not have them is certainly a void."

The hotel normally hires about 350 H-2Bs but was only able to hire about 250 this year. That left Bloswick looking for "creative ways" to fill the jobs, already a challenge because the hotel is only open in the summer and is accessible only by ferry.

Congress began exempting the returning employees from the cap in 2004, but the exemption expired in 2007. Efforts to renew it have failed.

Out-of-pocket costs

The global slowdown is holding down J-1 numbers in two ways, said Phil Simon, vice president of employer relations with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), which said it provided about 20,000 international students with summer jobs last year. CIEE is one of about 60 State Department-sanctioned sponsors.

"Potential participants are concerned about earning prospects in the U.S. and they are finding the program less affordable because of local economic factors in their home countries," he said.

The students' costs -- flight, visa, fees, insurance and job placement -- are generally $2,000 to $3,000, he said. "Participants generally hope to recoup that amount from earnings after they have also covered their living costs while in the U.S.," he said.

On its website, CIEE touts the economic advantages of the students: They rent rooms and apartments, then spend money on goods to bring back home. They also bolster the slower fall tourism season -- most spend two to three weeks at the end of their stay traveling. In addition, CIEE says, nearly all participants are required to have jobs lined up before they arrive, and the company determines what the labor needs will be ahead of time so the students are not competing with locals.

And that was a concern this year. The State Department sent letters in February to companies that sponsor students. It asked them "to temporarily reduce their numbers because the continuing downturn in the U.S. economy will make for a difficult placement season."

Grand View Lodge had just that in mind this year. The high-end resort on Gull Lake normally hires about 60 international youths each summer but hired only about 35 this year.

"If we have 70 jobs we thought it would be more respectful to give half of those to those in the community who need them for the summer," said Cathy Thompson, human resources manager. Six international workers -- two from England and four from Bulgaria -- already have arrived.

Valued worth ethic

One of the companies -- known as a "sponsor" -- that brings the J-1s and employers together is, which says it has "thousands of jobs in great places," including a resort in Yosemite, Calif., and a ranch in Stonewall, Colo.

Founder Bill Berg said higher U.S. unemployment means there's less reason to bring in international students this year but said that the J-1s have good reputations with employers in his area, which is just outside of Gardiner, Mont., on the border of Yellowstone National Park.

"It's not unusual to see the J-1 student crowd working full time, then walking or hitchhiking 5 miles and working another job," he said. "Either it's a work ethic or it's driven by finances -- they need to send money home."

And some young Americans might be a little jaded about working in the hospitality industry, he said. "The glamor is not there for a lot of U.S. folks to make beds, clean toilets and wait tables."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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