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Ski Areas Are Struggling To Find Employees For The Upcoming Season

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

While travel restrictions have eased, many ski resorts are now struggling to find enough workers. The problem has been simmering for years in resort towns, but the pandemic has made it worse.

Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio reports.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: Mike Solimano walks through a roomful of mountain bikes and greets rental shop employees.

MIKE SOLIMANO: What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, not too much yet.

SOLIMANO: How was this weekend?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mellow.

KECK: Solimano is president of Killington and Pico Ski Resorts. Last year, he was worried about just being able to open. This year, his biggest headache is staffing.

SOLIMANO: It's pretty much all we talk about. But it's depressing. You go to job fairs in town, and two or three people show up.

KECK: Vermont's unemployment rate is just 3%. And since the pandemic, the state's workforce has shrunk by nearly 30,000 people. Some aren't working because of health concerns. Others lack child care or are just plain burned out. Many others have chosen now to retire. The situation has forced Solimano, like many in the industry, to prioritize. This summer, for instance, weddings and mountain biking got staffed, but the resort's popular ropes course, zip line and roller coaster were only open on weekends. He says they've invested millions in technology to automate what they can. But come winter, ski areas still need hundreds more people - everyone from lift operators and snow makers to trail groomers, parking attendants and folks to dish up hot soup.

ADRIENNE SAIA ISAAC: It's a bit of a reckoning in the resort industry.

KECK: Adrienne Saia Isaac is with the National Ski Areas Association in Colorado. She says resorts nationwide are offering seasonal workers everything from signing bonuses and paid time off to discounted child care and more flexible schedules.

ISAAC: Vail Resorts, the largest ski area operator in North America, has bumped up the starting wage to $15 in many of their mountain communities, where the cost of living is higher.

KECK: Whether resorts will be able to hire foreign workers, seasonal staff many ski areas have relied on for years, remains unclear because of vaccination and border issues. What is clear is everyone in the industry will need to adapt. Ski lodges will likely offer more grab-and-go foods, while restaurants may cut back on the number of meals they serve or remove tables. Hotels may take rooms offline.

Molly Mahar, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, says cross-training will be key.

MOLLY MAHAR: Say you work in accounting or in the marketing department, you might be trained to fit ski boots at the rental shop. And then you might go to the cafeteria and scoop soup or make sandwiches or run a cash register.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCANNER BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes, sir.

KECK: This time of year, cyclists are using the chairlifts at Killington instead of skiers.

Chris Carter teaches mountain biking at the resort. While everyone appreciates higher pay, he says professional development for staff can be equally important. For instance, he says, Killington paid for his instructor certification training. And now he's helping train newer staff.

CHRIS CARTER: Yeah. It definitely helps bringing people back from season to season. And somebody who gets their certification through - here at the hill, they're like, oh, this is my home. This is now the place where I'm going to spend my time. So it made the difference for me this season as well.

KECK: That's important. Because while it's critical resorts attract new employees, they can't afford to lose the ones they already have.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIFE DAWG'S "THOUGHT U WUZ NICE [INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.