Aspen Skiing Co. experiencing no problem finding job applicants during pandemic |

Aspen Skiing Co. experiencing no problem finding job applicants during pandemic

Aspen Highlands liftie Michael Johnson, left, helps skiers onto the Thunderbowl Lift on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

season dates

Snowmass and Aspen Mountain: Nov. 26 - April 18

Aspen Highlands: Dec. 12 - April 4

Buttermilk: Dec. 18 - April 4

There are plenty of challenges for Aspen Skiing Co. in operating this winter amid a pandemic, but finding enough employees is not one of them.

The number of individual applicants is up 70% at this point over last year, and last year was the previous record, Caleb Sample, Skico’s director of talent acquisition, said this week. Some of the increase is because the company streamlined its online application process, but mostly it’s because people want access to the great outdoors.

“Folks are wanting to come to the mountains,” he said.

The quality of the candidates is also high. He said applicants are often over-qualified for positions. It hearkens back to the days when chances were good a lift operator or a waiter had a master’s degree.

Sample said there has been a surge of applications from college students who aren’t sure they are getting the bang for their buck this year from remote learning or feel the risks of being on campus aren’t worth it, so they’re taking a gap year.

“They’re chasing us down,” he said. “People’s drive and desire is much higher. They need a job this time around.”

In many cases, the job hunters have a connection to Aspen. They visited before with their families or they’ve aspired to visit the resort town they have heard so much about. Now, they are taking the opportunity.

Skico typically needs to fill about 1,200 seasonal positions going into each winter, Sample said. The company employees between 4,200 and 4,500 workers at peak season. The figure changes year to year depending on the strength of the economy, snow conditions and other factors. Returning workers who are residents of the Roaring Fork Valley fill most of the positions.

Skico CEO Mike Kaplan said last month the surge in applicants is “not that surprising given levels of unemployment in the country.”

For seasonal workers, finding housing is proving to be a bigger challenge than ever, Sample said. Skico has between 750 and 800 beds between its own housing inventory and master leases it has signed. Skico’s new affordable-housing complex at Willits Town Center won’t be finished until spring.

After consulting with public health experts, the company is taking a different tactic with housing this year. Employees of a specific department, such as lifties, won’t be housed together. “Basically, the professional advice is, if you work together, you can’t live together,” Sample said.

Skico is also splitting up specific groups of friends into different departments as part of its strategy.

Sample said Skico is in good shape filling positions at this point, but there will inevitably be openings to fill throughout the season. Workers leave for a variety of reasons during the season.

Some workers, especially older ones, have expressed concerns about “guest-facing roles,” but most fears have eased once prospective employees learn about Skico’s efforts to keep staff and visitors safe, Sample said.

One change has been fewer face-to-face guest service workers, such as ticket office personnel. Instead, Skico is hiring more service workers who interact with customers by phone on ski pass and lift ticket sales as well as trip planning.

“It changes the mix of employees,” Sample said.

He believes some of the rearrangement is permanent.

“The pandemic is the catalyst to speed some of this up,” he said.

A federal restriction on J-1 and H2-B visas for foreign workers hasn’t proven to put Skico in a bind. President Donald Trump eliminated the programs, but a California court recently overturned the decision. Sample says it is mainly a moot point. Many countries have travel restrictions that prohibit workers from coming for the winter anyway because of the pandemic.

The surge in applications has also come without the benefit of job fairs. They were eliminated because of social distancing requirements. Skico will also hold training sessions online and will eliminate a preseason gathering held annually to fire up employees.

The company’s minimum wage remains at $15 this season, though many employees make more.