Recession snuffs Aspen Skiing Co.’s need for foreign workers | AspenTimes.com

Recession snuffs Aspen Skiing Co.’s need for foreign workers

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co.’s reliance on foreign workers to fill positions such as lift operators and maids has plummeted during the recession and hit its lowest level in years this winter.

Skico will use four H-2B visas to fill positions in its mountain operations this season, according to Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources.

“We went from 400 H-2Bs [prior to the recession], to six, to four,” Laing said.

While it seems like a different era, Skico and nearly every other employer faced a worker shortage just four seasons ago. The company applied for and received 400 temporary work permits for the 2007-08 season. The number of special work permits dropped in half in 2008-09 and the following season. In 2010-11, Skico applied for only six H-2B visas and now it’s reducing that to four in mountain operations. The temporary work permits are issued to an employer, which then lines up workers to fill the positions.

Laing said he was uncertain how many new H-2Bs and H-2B extensions will be used for workers in Skico’s hotels. “It’s a couple of handfuls, literally,” he said.

Foreign workers are critical in some positions, in both mountain operations and hospitality, for effective communication, Laing said. For example, Skico needs workers on the slopes and in hotels who can communicate effectively with Portuguese-speaking customers. That need cannot always be addressed without hiring foreign workers, he said.

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Skico’s Little Nell Hotel draws an international clientele, so the company also tries to have a mix of U.S. and foreign workers there for cultural appeal, Laing said.

Additional foreign workers for mountain operations and hospitality will be employed through the J-1 visa program given to students on break, so they can work for a limited time. Laing was uncertain how many workers using J-1 visas will be employed by Skico this winter, but that number has also declined during the recession.

“Our primary focus is hiring within the valley,” Laing said.

He didn’t have reports available Tuesday, but said anecdotally that his staff believes more valley residents have been hired for this season than any other recent year – including the recession-racked season of 2009-10.

And just a few years after Skico was marketing winter jobs to summer season workers in national parks, it is now receiving record numbers of applications from within the U.S. “This is the biggest year ever,” Laing said.

The company has about 3,500 positions at peak season, including extra instructors, maids and other workers needed to deal with the Christmas crush. There are about 1,000 new employees who didn’t work for Skico last season. That’s comparable to typical years, Lang said. Some of those “new hires” are returning from previous seasons with the company, according to Laing.

There continues to be greater demand for full-time positions. Before the recession, bartenders, real estate agents and other workers often wanted to work part-time for Skico. Now, with other jobs disappearing, there is greater demand for full-time work.

“It’s because of the whole package – wages, benefits and everything,” Laing said.

Nearly all Skico workers, except new seasonals recently hired, will get a raise next year. Laing said Skico budgeted for raises as of Jan. 1. Now its managers are working on recommendations on the sizes of the raises.

scondon@aspentimes.com