|By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 13, 2007 - Peruvian businessman Rafael Espinoza recognized in 1999 that his little travel agency was going nowhere.
The Internet was completely changing the way people booked vacations. Big travel agencies were gobbling up whatever business was left. So he concentrated instead on finding winter jobs in North America for university students from his homeland and other South American countries.
Eight years later, he secured seasonal jobs at ski resorts, luxury hotels and casinos for roughly 3,000 students from Peru, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Their ranks included almost 400 workers at four Utah ski areas -- Deer Valley, The Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort and Solitude.
Right now, at universities in those South American countries, Espinoza's Universal Student Exchange is holding job fairs and conducting interviews, hoping to place 4,000 students in jobs next winter. And, once again, those four Utah resorts expect to tap his connections for employees who will do a variety of jobs Americans are not available for or are unwilling to do.
Besides, having employees from multiple countries gives resorts an international ambiance.
"We love diversity here. Those students add a tremendous diversity to our program," said Kim Mayhew, human resources director at Deer Valley, which employs about 200 foreigners on J-1 student visas, half of whom are supplied by Espinoza.
"It definitely adds flavor to the resort for our guests," added Nikki Allen, recruiting manager for The Canyons, whose 200 South American employees last winter included dozens of Espinoza's referrals.
After his travel agency career soured, Espinoza set out to satisfy the pent-up desire of many South American university students to escape their close-knit social structures and get out into the world.
"In Latin America, most kids tend to live with their families until they graduate from college," he said. "So it's not just the experience of getting to know U.S. culture -- even though people want to do that -- but the kids want to be out of this family umbrella and to do things by themselves, to live alone for the first time in their lives."
Espinoza enrolled 512 participants in his program that first year. "They had an amazing experience in the U.S., mostly at ski resorts," he said. "Word of mouth is really important to us, so they told their friends and family, and that allowed us to double our numbers the next year."
As his numbers increased, Espinoza refined and automated his recruitment process. He invested in sophisticated computer software, developing an online registration process that allows potential employers (nearly 60 this year) to go through the ranks of job applicants and to see which individuals best suit their needs -- before they travel to South America for one-on-one interviews.
Espinoza also hired people from English-speaking countries to interview applicants to ensure their knowledge of English matches claims on application forms.
"A lot of Latin American schools teach English, so we have really skilled English-speaking participants. And some [resort] positions don't need perfect English," Espinoza said. "But I want to give employers the confidence that recruits are pre-screened. Expectations are important."
Absolutely, said Allen from The Canyons.
"Rafael runs a tight ship. He asks employers what they are looking for and tries to meet those needs," she said. "After using him for the past year we were definitely encouraged to keep working with him."
Added Chris Lampe, Park City Mountain Resort's human resources manager, "We get approached by several companies a year but we have stuck with [Universal Student Exchange] because they have provided us with the most consistent, forward-thinking and comprehensive program we've been able to find out there."
Deer Valley's Mayhew said she was impressed by the way Espinoza's company communicated with both employers and job applicants.
"Because I know the owner, he makes sure I can keep in touch with him. He keeps it kind of mom-and-pop. He attends all the job fairs. The amount of time and energy they put into educating the student about what the experience will be like is second to none," she said. "When I was in Peru last year, he showed us the presentation he gives to students. No wonder those kids are successful. They are so very thorough. And parents have to attend so they know what it's about. They understand where the student is going to live, what kind of wages they will be paid."
All four Utah resorts said they pay foreign workers the going rate for whatever positions they fill. "There's no difference between a restaurant attendant coming from Chile or one coming from Sandy. They're paid the same," said Mayhew.
Housing, however, can be a more difficult issue.
Deer Valley has 170 beds in dorm-style subsidized housing available only to first-year workers from outside of Utah, national or international. Other than that, the best the resorts can do is refer incoming workers to private landlords who cater to people affiliated with the ski industry.
Espinoza's company charges applicants who land jobs about $1,100 to handle job placements and interviews, English evaluations, health insurance and air transportation. That sum also covers fees and paperwork to apply for a Social Security card and student visa, which is good for four months.
"We incur no fees with this program," said longtime Solitude lift manager Jeff Schmidt, who handles foreign-employee recruitment for the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort.
That is one benefit of hiring students on J-1 visas compared to foreigners who enter on H-2B temporary worker visas.
But there is a disadvantage, too. The four-month life span of a J-1 visa is about one month shorter than a ski season, meaning holders who arrive at the start of a season must leave before it ends, or they cannot arrive until mid-December if their services are needed through closing day. That gives employers an incentive to pick up the tab for H-2B visas, since those temporary workers can stay in the United States longer.
Consequently, resorts hire a mixture of J-1 and H-2B visa holders.
Schmidt said Solitude likes the J-1 workers it gets from Espinoza because "we have a work force coming in that we know will be here for the peak time. We had no trouble finding local employees. We just wanted to diversify a little bit . . . . And it helps that these kids are university students. Last year we had four people studying to be doctors and a couple of lawyers."
Lampe said Park City Mountain Resort has received positive feedback from guests about "the interesting cultural mixes" provided by the presence of foreign workers. Deer Valley's Mayhew sees even broader benefits.
"I'd like to think we're bringing the world closer together in our own little way," she said. "It offers a cultural exchange that a lot of people would never have the opportunity to do."
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