Seasonal Jobs Remain Major Part of Flathead Economy

Employers like Whitefish Mountain Resort and Xanterra rely on J-1 Visa international students

By Justin Franz
Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Inc. employees stock merchandise at the facility in Columbia Falls. Beacon File Photo

The mountains that surround the Flathead Valley are still snowcapped, and the warm days of summer still feel far away, but a race to fill summer seasonal jobs is already underway for some of the area’s biggest employers.

Flathead County’s economy is dominated by the tourism industry, and because of the high number of seasonal jobs, the area has its lowest unemployment rates in the summer. The unemployment rate hit 4.1 percent in July and August last year, compared to 6.8 percent in January and February of this year. For much of the year, there are about 42,000 to 43,000 jobs in the Flathead, but that number jumps up to 47,000 during summer, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Filling those positions can be challenging, however, and the market for seasonal employees can be competitive. Marc Ducharme, general manager for Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ Glacier National Park operation, said many locals aren’t interested in a job that will only last a few months. Only a small percentage of the 750 seasonal employees hired by Xanterra come from Montana.

About a quarter of Xanterra’s seasonal employees are international students in the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program. Every summer, more than 300,000 international students from 200 different countries come to the United States through the program to learn English and experience the country while adding to the labor pool.

In 2016, there were more than 2,700 exchange students in Montana alone, working jobs such as camp counselors, housekeepers and cooks, as well as others like physicians. Last year, the Trump administration considered ending the program, but so far it has remained intact, much to the relief of employers like Xanterra.

Xanterra often begins filling its roster of summer employees months before the first lodges and shops open in Glacier Park. Late in the year, human resource representatives see which employees from the previous season want to come back for another year. Starting in January, Xanterra human resource managers begin to recruit employees both domestically and internationally, making stops at hospitality and culinary schools around the world. Overseas, Xanterra works with third-party recruiters to find good candidates for the J-1 visa program and then meets with them to make sure they’re a good fit for the job.

“We want to make sure it’s a good experience for us and the student and to make sure they know what they’re getting into,”Ducharme said. “Some of these kids are really surprised to learn that there is no cell service in Glacier Park.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort also relies on a number of international students to fill out their ranks during the winter and summer seasons, said spokesperson Riley Polumbus. One reason the international students are a good fit for the resort is that their schedules often coordinate with the summer season better than domestic students. For example, by the time the mountain is open seven days a week in mid-summer, most students in the United States have already found jobs.

Polumbus said, however, the resort is hoping to hire more local kids this year because the resort will be starting its summer season earlier than normal on Memorial Day weekend. The resort’s zip lines, bike park and trails will be open every weekend from Memorial Day until mid-June when the resort is open seven days a week.

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