Atmosphere

Snowed Out

New visa rules could leave Colorado's ski resorts with a talent shortage.

By
November 2008

Fallout from the national immigration debate may mean that it's time to say auf wiedersehen to the Austrian ski champ who taught you how to tackle moguls last year.

Under pressure to reform the U.S. immigration system—with the purported goal of reducing illegal immigration—federal lawmakers have reduced the number of foreign workers issued H-2B visas, which are designated for skilled, seasonal workers who can demonstrate an ability to fill a job that cannot be performed by local U.S. applicants. In previous years, the number of H-2B visas was capped at 66,000 annually. There was, however, some flexibility—returning workers were grandfathered in and not counted in the quota—meaning as many as 100,000 workers were actually receiving H-2B visas annually. As of 2008, that cap is hard: 66,000 workers a year, tops, including returning workers.

Apart from the impact to the construction, oil and gas, and hospitality industries, ski resorts and ski schools, which attract highly skilled international teachers, will also suffer. "These are jobs we can't fill locally," says Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade association for 22 Colorado ski resorts. "It's still really difficult to recruit domestic workers to come and live here for five months. We're optimistic that we'll fill these roles with extra recruiting. Nobody's hand-wringing, but the loss of H-2B workers presents a hardship."

And, perhaps, an unnecessary one. While reducing H-2B visas may look like immigration reform, it won't do anything to reduce illegal immigration: H-2Bs are non-immigrant visas that don't open the door to a green card or citizenship. Mills and other seasonal business reps have been lobbying Congress to reinstate the returning-worker clause, which has broad bipartisan support. But with a new administration on its way into the White House, the future is uncertain.

As of press time, Colorado ski resorts were waiting hopefully to see how many October-deadline H-2B visas they'd secured, but they aren't banking on any of them. Instead, most resorts have turned to aggressive recruitment strategies to find American instructors: looking for college kids, part-time locals, even high-schoolers during holiday crunch time. Some resorts have also sweetened the deal by increasing the amount of employee housing.

In the end, Mills says, the lifts will open, the snow will fly, and only observant guests might notice that the exotic accents at resort après-ski festivities will be limited to Texas and California—not Eastern Europe or South America. "Nobody got into the ski business because it's easy to make a buck," says Mills. "There's always a challenge—airlines, the price of gas, weather, the economy. We'll find a way. It comes together because the people who ski really love it, and they will find a way to do it."