Vermont is gearing up for the next big influx of tourists: ski season. For resorts around the state, that means adding hundreds of seasonal employees, but Vermont's aging population and low unemployment rate are adding to the challenge. That's led some resorts to offer generous benefits — retirement plans, health insurance, ski passes, housing — for entry-level positions like lift operators and parking attendants.
On a recent Saturday, the skies cleared over the Mad River Valley, revealing the season's first coating of fresh snow at Sugarbush Resort, in Warren. Inside a pub behind Sugarbush's main hotel, department managers were set up at tables, ready to talk to prospective employees.
"Today I have not hired anyone. I have sat down with a few people," said Sean Heslin, the facilities manager at Sugarbush, that morning. "It's kind of got off to a little bit of a slow start here, but I hope we'll pick up closer to noon."
Five years ago, Heslin came up from Connecticut to a job fair here and walked away with a full-time gig. Now, he's a hiring manager looking to fill about 10 positions. However, Heslin said, it's difficult to find Vermonters to fill those jobs when the state's unemployment rate is hovering just over 2%.
"I think a lot of people have jobs. So we do struggle a bit with in-state hires," Heslin said. "A lot of my hires do come from out-of-state. We have been expanding our housing programs here at Sugarbush and it has proven to be very helpful."
Employee housing is a more recent addition to the benefits and perks at Sugarbush, and the resort plans to build more space to house its workers. It also offers free ski passes, lessons, discounted food and day care to its employees.
Getting in on employee housing is top-of-mind for Miquelle Thurber. She came to the job fair at Sugarbush looking for seasonal work. She lives in Stowe, about 45 minutes away.
"It's not horrible, but like in the wintertime with all the snow conditions and we would have to leave probably like 5:30, 6:00 in the morning, and not everything is plowed at that time," Thurber said, "so it's definitely a deciding factor to get employee housing."
Year-round employees at Sugarbush can qualify for benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. Annemarie Todd, the resort's human resources director, said certain specialized jobs have even more incentives.
"Our snowmakers in the last two years, we have changed some of their benefits," Todd explained. "They get a sign-on bonus of $200 and they also get an end-of-season bonus of a dollar for each hour worked."
Todd said the resort really needs those specialized workers, but it also needs workers in every department.
"I mean, basically, we have about 200 full-time, year-round employees, and we go up to 1,100 in the winter," Todd said. "So there's a lot of people to hire."
Sugarbush isn’t just facing a tight labor market: it also has competition. Forty-five minutes up Route 100, Stowe Resort held its own job fair.
In the parking lot outside that event was Joe Shea, getting ready to scope out potential jobs.
"Hotel operations, possibly food and beverage," Shea said, when asked what jobs he was interested in, "and debating on mountain ops, grooming — I've always wanted to do it, so gonna look into that."
Shea said he's worked in the service industry for many years; in fact, he said he's been working at Sugarbush for around seven years and is seeking a "change of pace, something a little different."
Asked about the benefits offered at Vermont ski resorts, Shea was fairly dismissive of them. What he'd like to see, he said, is the ski industry boost its wages.
"They don't pay," Shea said. "They don't. ... That's why I do tipped industry. You know, as fast as you hustle is what you make."
If Shea does take a job at Stowe, he'll be in line for the standard perks, like ski passes and discounted food, but also eligible for vision, dental and medical insurance — even as a full-time seasonal employee, once he works 750 hours. It's worth noting here that Stowe is owned by Vail, a multinational corporation that owns and operates 37 resorts and brought in over $2 billion last year.
According to Sugarbush owner Win Smith, competing with Stowe's benefits is "very tough"; though Smith noted he does offer health insurance to his full-time employees.
No matter what though, there's a limited pool of potential hires here in Vermont. And in recent years Sugarbush, like other resorts, has turned to international workers to fill the void.
Smith said Sugarbush has brought on about 120 international employees for the upcoming season, mostly students from Central and South America.
"But they're only allowed to work 90 days. ... So for us, that is typically open 160 days, we really only have those workers for 90," Smith said. "So we have to stagger them; so they come in at our busy time, they leave really before the spring totally ends. So it's good, but it's also a challenge."
To expand his domestic workforce, Smith said he'd ultimately like to see state leaders make Vermont more affordable by lowering property taxes.
In terms of other kinds of state support for the ski workforce, interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said Vermont has partnered with resorts to create an apprenticeship program in recent years that's intended to train ski lift operators and mechanics.
"Really, the struggle that a lot of these areas are finding are people with these very specific and definitive skills in a particular area," Harrington said. "So the apprenticeship work has been tremendous in this area, and I think we'll only see it continue to grow in popularity."
Back at Sugarbush, Smith said they'll keep hiring for a few more months. One deciding factor in how many employees they'll need is how much snow the resort gets this year.
Smith cited a few (not-so-scientific) signs pointing to a big winter: "The hornets seem to be building their nests a little bit higher," he said. "The wooly caterpillars seem to be thick with black ... on the nose and black, you know, on the tail. Somebody said that a big, ripe apple harvest is good because that's creating a lot of food for the deer for a long, snowy winter."
So if you believe those signs, Smith said, the thousands of employees at Sugarbush and other ski resorts could be in for a busy season.