Lousy season sparks rancor in ski school
Frustration with a lackluster ski season has boiled over for acontingent of unknown size within the nearly 1,100-member Skiand Snowboard Schools of Aspen. An anonymous group of instructors fired off an angry letter recentlyto the Aspen Skiing Co. owners and Colorado politicians blamingSkico hiring and management practices for creating their financialhardships this winter. “The importing of foreign pros and the over-hiring practices ofthe Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen is increasingly becominga serious problem among the American teaching professionals,”the letter says. Although the instructors, or “pros” as they are now called, refusedto sign the letter, they have posted it on the Internet. The creator or creators asked Colorado’s congressional delegationto start an investigation into possible immigration law violations,although no specific problems were cited. “It’s racism. I hate to perpetuate that,” said Mike Kaplan, directorof the ski schools. Finger-pointing at foreign workers also appears ill-placed. Skicodata shows there are 1,090 instructors this season, includingday-care and preschool teachers. Of that amount, only 58 – or six percent – came from other countrieson work permits for the season, according to Kaplan. Not enough students Over-hiring of instructors was a problem this season, acknowledgedSkico Senior Vice President John Norton, but only because thenumber of customers declined. The number of ski pros remained about the same as last year, butthe number of ski school students dropped, as did customers overall.The drop in business is fueling the anger expressed against theforeign pros, according to Norton. “When people are working, they don’t have time to complain,” hesaid. Norton stressed he wasn’t trying to downplay the financial hardshipsexperienced by many instructors. “Almost everybody associatedwith the tourism business is having a tough year,” he said. Some ski instructors have seen their hours drop by the score thisseason – enough to take a couple of grand or more out of theirpockets. Competition for classes is intense and cannot help but createsome feelings of ill will, noted a handful of instructors whowere interviewed on the condition they not be named. “A lot of people are upset,” said one veteran instructor. Thatsource estimated that as many as half of the ski instructors areconcerned about the Skico hiring more pros than they can employ,although they aren’t necessarily pointing fingers at foreign workers.One foreign pro reported experiencing no acts of discrimination,although the source acknowledged that other foreign pros may befeeling “uncomfortable” with the issues that have been raised.”There’s no discontent because of foreigners,” the instructorsaid. “There’s discontent because of lack of work.” Beats getting fired Ski school director Kaplan said the company has tried to compensatefor fewer students by lowering the average class size. The numberof hours worked by instructors is down 5 percent compared to thistime last season overall at all four ski areas, he said. Instructors who haven’t been with the company for long are feelingthe biggest pinch, according to Kaplan. Hours are flat to slightlyhigher for veterans who have the highest priority for classes.Many instructors in between the rookies and vets have experiencedcancellations in private lessons and an inability to book newclients. It’s too difficult to predict right now how this season’s experienceswill affect hiring by the ski school next season. Turnover usuallyruns at about 10 percent, so there will be some hiring, but maybenot all vacated spots will be filled. “We thought we were under-hired going into this season,” saidKaplan. He noted that ski school student visits increased 15 percent,from 152,000 to 175,000 over the last five seasons. During thatsame period, the number of pros has increased five percent, from1,047 to 1,090. Norton said the Skico tried to deal with the drop in businessas best it could. “To not over-hire, we would have had to fire,” Norton said. “Wewould have had to fire between 10 and 12 percent.” Kaplan and Norton insisted the anonymous letter represents theview of only a small minority of pros. That sentiment is sharedby Michael Haas, a 17-year instructor at Snowmass. “Most of the ski school is dealing with it in a level-headed way,”he said. The same people who are complaining about lack of work are thosewho object to being overworked and not provided with enough benefitsin an average or above-average season, he said. “How somebody could squawk about the work we do here is beyondme,” said Haas.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.