Where the ski industry fits into the national labor shortage


Cody Reed loads chairs onto the Moonbeam Express chairlift in preparation for the upcoming ski season at Solitude Mountain Resort in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Some Utah resorts already have enough snow to open — but do they have the employees?

Some ski resorts in the West have enough snow to open by Halloween — but as the hospitality industry grapples with a national labor shortage, do they have the employees?

It seems like every restaurant or hotel in Utah, maybe even the country, has a “help wanted” sign hanging from its door. By the end of October, the U.S. could see a record 11 million job openings, according to data from Indeed Hiring Lab.

It’s also been a snowy October — Snowbird has a whopping 1,400% of its normal snowpack for this time of year, and Alta received 67 inches of snow this month, the snowiest October since 2004.

California and the Sierra Nevada Mountains got hit by a massive weekend storm that dumped over 3 feet of snow on the peaks of Palisades Tahoe and soaked Reno with more rain than much of northern Nevada saw in the past 12 months combined. After that, both Palisades Tahoe and Mammoth moved their opening day to Friday.

Colorado also had an early taste of winter, with Wolf Creek, Keystone and A-Basin now open for the season.

At the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Alta, slated to open Nov. 29, currently has a 30-inch base.

“We’ve certainly opened before with less,” said Brandon Ott, marketing manager, who said the resort could bump up its opening date a few days, “but we couldn’t open tomorrow, we couldn’t open next week. Because of staffing, and also because of supply chain issues.”

Across the board, most resorts are still hiring for all sorts of positions: ski patrol, rental technicians, line cooks, building maintenance, wait staff, lift operations — Sundance Resort even has a listing for a “blower of recycled glass.”

“Just about any job you could possibly think of on the ski hill is going to be open,” said Alison Palmintere, director of communications for Ski Utah.

Snowbird is “hiring in almost every department right now,” said Sarah Sherman, communications manager. And both Deer Valley and Alta have openings, especially in their food and beverage departments.

Cody Reed and Pekka Vanninen load chairs onto the Moonbeam Express chairlift in preparation for the upcoming ski season at Solitude Mountain Resort in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Cody Reed and Pekka Vanninen load chairs onto the Moonbeam Express chairlift in preparation for the upcoming ski season at Solitude Mountain Resort in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

Hospitality woes

The ski industry is in a unique position amid the national labor shortage. Resorts tend to have a high rate of employee retention, with a free season pass, discounted gear and fun work environment drawing skiers and snowboarders back year after year.

But most resorts also lean heavily on hospitality — perhaps the industry hit the hardest by both the pandemic and the ensuing labor shortage. Over the summer, Business Insider reported nearly a third of hospitality workers will not return to the industry, citing a desire for better pay, benefits and a new work environment.

Ski resorts have responded, with most in the Wasatch Mountains offering a higher starting pay than previous years, and adjusting wages for returning employees accordingly. But hospitality and food service jobs continue to be the hardest to fill.

“We are definitely not immune to the national labor shortage, in hospitality especially,” said Emily Summers, senior communications manager for Deer Valley.

“Anecdotally I’ve heard instances of hotels having to close portions of their hotels, not make available 20% of their capacity because they don’t have the staff it needs,” said Jordan Garn, executive director of the Utah Hotel and Lodging Association.

“It can have a significant impact — hotels are right at the heart of a huge economic boom for the state of Utah,” he said. “Without hotels or accommodations, you don’t see tourism.”

Garn detailed the ripple effect a labor shortage can have on a tourism economy. Without adequate staffing, hotels can’t operate at full capacity. That translates to less tourists, which then translates to less revenue from sales tax, fewer restaurant reservations, lower ski ticket sales and less retail sold.

“If we don’t have the staffing we need to accommodate these people, everything else falls to the wayside,” Garn said.

But according to many, last year’s weird, pandemic-altered ski season is a testament to the industry’s resilience. Despite resorts having to make unprecedented changes, Utah still saw a record 5.3 million skier days, according to data compiled by Ski Utah.

“We were in a very different place last year, very uncertain. And look at how the skier days turned out,” said Summers. “When it comes down to it, we had a successful ski season, the ski operations did well, we’re resilient and it will work out.”

Summers said it’s still too early to tell if the labor shortage will have an impact on Deer Valley. She doesn’t expect the hotels to operate at less capacity than the years before the pandemic, telling the Deseret News if operations were to change at all, “it would be small pockets of the resort on certain days, mainly food and beverage.”

The return of J-1 visas — and college kids

The hospitality industry in Utah routinely hires J-1 visa holders, a nonimmigrant visa issued to students, teachers, seasonal workers and more. In 2019, the state saw 3,026 summer work travel J-1 visa participants, typically the most sought after J-1 visa in Utah, according to State Department data. In 2020, there were only 193 due to COVID-19 induced immigration restrictions.

“We’d love to see the availability of J-1 visa workers here in the state of Utah. Those serve a specific need where we are falling locally short in the market, and so to the extent where those would be increased, the hotel industry as a whole would be better off,” said Garn.

And so far, it looks like the visa holders are returning.

“We are back to our normal, pre-pandemic numbers,” said Summers of Deer Valley, which leans heavily on J-1 visas.

And Jessica Miller, senior manager of communications at Park City Mountain Resort, said the ski area is “pleased to welcome back international employees this winter.”

Other resorts, notably those in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, don’t rely on immigration to fill as many positions.

“Brighton has never had to do any recruiting or hiring of out-of-country employees, when other larger resorts depend on it,” said Jared Winkler, senior director of marketing for Brighton.

Resorts have also seen a bump, both in the upcoming season and last winter, in applicants taking time off from college who, as Ott put it, didn’t want to “go to Dartmouth via Zoom.”

“Last year was seen as a gap year for many people, whether they were professionals, or college students,” said Ott. “The talent pool that we had … these Ivy League kids coming to get a taste of Alta, working in the mountains for a year and being a lifty, was unbelievable. It was a silver lining, really.”

Ott says the trend has continued, with many applications coming from college-aged kids from around the country. Applications from Utahns have started to pick up again, but for much of the fall, Ott was wondering, “Where are all the locals, and kids in the valley?”

The takeaway? “It’s a great time to get into a ski resort job,” said Winkler. “Resorts are paying well.”

Contributing: Nicholas Wyatt

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