|By Jeff McDonald, The Bulletin, Bend,
Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 11, 2008 - As Central Oregon's resort properties boost their hiring for this summer, Michelle Henry, of Kingston, Jamaica, felt grateful she had landed a housekeeping position at Seventh Mountain Resort that would allow her to send money home to her three children.
"If I work here and save money, I can have a nice life," she said Wednesday.
Henry, 34, who began work in Bend late last month, said six months of working as a housekeeper with an hourly wage of $9 per hour would allow her to save money for her children in Jamaica. Monthly savings of about $100, which she hopes to exceed by sharing an apartment with co-workers, cooking her own meals and not spending money on entertainment, can give her a middle-class income in Jamaica, she said.
Henry is one of 11 overseas workers hired by Seventh Mountain Resort, two from Jamaica and nine from Indonesia, through a long-term visa program that allows U.S. companies to hire foreign workers for a limited number of positions at home.
Even with more people looking for work in Deschutes County, where unemployment rates are at four-year highs, resort managers say positions like housekeepers are becoming increasingly hard to fill. So they're turning to other countries to find the help they say they can't find here.
"Certainly what we want to do is hire American workers if we can," said Jim Kinney, general manager of Seventh Mountain Resort. "But it's very difficult to find people to do housekeeping. Those jobs are advertised almost every week of the year."
Seventh Mountain pays its overseas workers the same as their U.S. colleagues and treats them like regular employees once they arrive in the U.S., Kinney said.
Sunriver Resort also went out of the country during the offseason, hiring 85 workers from countries such as Lithuania, Brazil and Mexico, including a dozen that have already arrived.
The resort sent recruiters overseas to job fairs to hire mostly college-age, short-term workers looking for hospitality experience, said Keith Schnulle, human resources director at Sunriver Resort.
Most of the overseas workers will come to the resort on 120-day student visas to work in lower-skilled jobs such as dishwashing, housekeeping, landscaping and golf course maintenance through September or October.
Twelve of the new hires, working on longer term six-month visas, have already arrived, Schnulle said.
"Most of the locals are not interested in those kinds of positions," Schnulle said. "There's not a lot of glamour in cleaning 18 toilets per day or scrubbing pots and pans."
Deschutes County posted a 7.9 percent unemployment rate in March, up from 5.2 percent in the same month last year and the highest for the month since 2004, according to the latest data released by the Oregon Employment Department. Jobless rates in Jefferson and Crook counties jumped to 10.7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, the highest since 1993 in Jefferson County and since 2004 in Crook County.
The higher number of unemployed workers, combined with slow job growth, has resulted in about 3,150 more unemployed workers in the region this year than a year ago, said Stephen Williams, regional economist for the department.
"The job markets are nowhere near as tight as they have been," Williams said. "There are more workers out there."
That has made this year's hiring an easier sell for businesses that are ramping up hiring for the summer season, said Jan Swander, work force analyst for the department.
Because of the higher unemployment in the region, 453 people registered with the department in April, compared with 274 in April 2007 , Swander said.
"This year has by far been better in filling entry level positions," she said. "At this moment, employers are indicating they have had a great response from job-seekers."
But not everyone looking for a job wants to do the kind of work resorts need this time of year.
Outlying resorts such as Sunriver are hit especially hard when it comes to filling staffing needs, especially when gas prices are high, jobs are seasonal and some are lower-paying, Swander said.
Some companies, including Sunriver and Black Butte Ranch, offer shuttle services for workers to help ease gas costs, she said.
Black Butte will easily meet its staffing needs for this summer, said Loy Helmly, general manager.
The resort, which adds 250 employees to its year-round staff of 125 employees during the summer, has seen three to five times as many applications this year who are more qualified than applicants in the past, Helmly said.
An increasing number of former construction workers have bolstered the number of applications, he said.
"We have enough golf course workers who do the raking and the manicuring of the course," Helmly said. "We're seeing a larger number of applicants who were very skilled at their regular landscaping maintenance positions -- who are out of work -- and it translates easily into golf course maintenance."
Mt. Bachelor ski area, which averages about 750 full-time workers during the ski season, also has hired foreign workers the past three years, all from South America, but will scale down the program next season, said Heather Lewis, a recruiter in the human resources department.
The company hired 50 international students from South America in the 2006-07 season, but still was short-staffed due to a tight labor market.
This season, Mt. Bachelor hired 80 workers from South America, but the downturn in the economy caused more local demand for seasonal work, according to an e-mail from Frankie Labbe, Mt. Bachelor's spokeswoman.
Next year, the company will only hire 30 to 35 workers from South America, Labbé wrote.
"We enjoy having international students here, but with the population that we have here, we don't need as many," Lewis said. "We're still going to use international students (next season), but it's not going to be even close to the number we used this (season). We have a lot of locals that we can utilize."
Sunriver, which has seen a spike in its applicant pool compared with the tight labor market years of 2005 through 2007, when summer jobless rates in Deschutes County averaged below 5 percent has hired 480 local employees since April 1, but still needs to hire another 75 to 80 employees to fill out its staff to 950 employees for the peak summer season, Schnulle said.
The resort ramped up its foreign hiring program, which brought 70 and 80 summertime workers from out of the country in 2006 and 2007, respectively, to 85 workers mostly from Eastern Europe for this summer, said Brian Hughes, general manager.
"The pool of [local] candidates has been larger and better qualified, but they're still not interested in doing some of the jobs," Hughes said. "We haven't reached a threshold of unemployment where we're able to fill those jobs."
Most unemployed construction workers, who were making $13 or $14 an hour, are still holding out until they find something that's better suited to their skill sets, said Bruce Tracey, an associate professor of management at The School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.
"We're not seeing mass migration [of workers] into the hospitality industry despite the economy," Tracey said.
Companies are going abroad or looking to the growing senior population to fill the void left by 18- to 24-year-olds, who are opting for other lines of work, Tracey said.
"There's a sense that the demand is going to outpace the supply considerably considering demographics," Tracey said. "There are a huge number of boomers entering retirement."
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