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For experienced workers, the summer job is back

Jobs behind hotel counters or in resort kitchens are a lifeline for the unemployed. To make room, some summer spots cut back on hiring foreign students.

August 19, 2009|Oscar Avila

ELLISON BAY, WIS. — The fishing boats and hiking trails offer a welcome respite for countless visitors at the Wagon Trail Resort along Lake Michigan. This summer, however, the getaway has also become a lifeline for casualties of the economy who are about to go under.

A factory worker once employed by General Motors awakens before dawn to oversee an assembly line of pastries in the bakery. A husband and wife who lost their business and home now staff the buffet and reception desk.

Throughout the region, employers and job-placement officials have reported a rush of applications from American workers who are interested in hard-to-fill seasonal jobs, many of which traditionally go to foreign students.

The least appealing work, such as cleaning hotel rooms or washing dishes, is still a tough sell. But there are more workers like Carmen Kiefer, who admits that the recession might have been the wrong time to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant in Portage, Wis. Soon after the business opened last year, Kiefer said, financial guru Suze Orman told Oprah Winfrey that viewers should avoid restaurants for a month to save cash.

"That's what we were up against. I really haven't stopped crying yet," said Kiefer, 45, who now works the front desk at the Wagon Trail and lives with her husband, Dan, in a 34-year-old RV on the resort grounds.

"But we're happy and fortunate to be here," she said. "We're trying to take a negative and turn it into a positive."

The peak season for Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., typically required a mad rush to fill about 3,000 jobs, said human resources director Jim Franz. This year, the park received about 12,000 applications -- twice a typical total -- and had most of its posts filled by February.

As the resumes poured in, Franz noticed a new wrinkle: experienced applicants like Anita Bordeau. She retired early as a human-resources executive, thinking she would spend her golden years traveling. Then the stock market took a plunge and took with it much of her retirement savings.

Now Bordeau, 58, works as a sort of auditor, squaring up the park's receipts and monitoring co-workers who staff the cash registers. With the money she earns during the summer season, Bordeau said, she will be able to take a planned trip to Florida this winter.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I've enjoyed the summer," she said.

That sentiment was common among several unconventional seasonal employees in Door County, Wis., a quaint peninsula of fish boils and cherry orchards along Lake Michigan about four hours north of Chicago.

Many workers said that their job situation wasn't ideal, but that they were trying to appreciate working in an idyllic setting.

Melissa Emery, a supervisor and employment specialist at the Door County Job Center, said demand has tripled from last year, to about 1,400 clients a month, as much of the area's manufacturing base has dwindled. The county's leading employer, a shipbuilder, laid off hundreds of workers recently.

The question of "jobs that Americans won't do," a subtext of the national debate over immigration, has seeped into the task of hiring seasonal employees.

Employers still say they are keeping the pipeline open for international students who typically arrive on J-1 visas. The visas, ostensibly for educational exchange, allow foreign students and teachers to work in the U.S. short-term. The practice has been sensitive because employers typically face questions about why they aren't hiring American workers.

The State Department urged employers and companies that process the foreign workers to bring in fewer this year in recognition of the tough conditions for U.S. employees.

Phil Simon, vice president at the Council on International Educational Exchange, a leading sponsor for seasonal visas, said many tourist destinations still need foreign workers.

"We've been criticized for using international students, but they're still a lifesaver," said Tom Diehl, owner of the popular Tommy Bartlett water-ski show in the Wisconsin Dells.

However, some lawmakers say employers just don't want to pay competitive wages to attract U.S. workers.

Diehl said his share of foreign workers is down about 10% this year. Six Flags said it was relying less on international students but would not reveal exact figures.

Wagon Trail, which employs staffers from Germany, Russia and Ukraine, said international workers once made up 40% of its workforce, but that pool is down to about 15% this year.

Jewel Peterson Ouradnik, who owns the resort, said she would hire only U.S. workers if it were economically feasible. She is already seeing the benefits of experienced workers like Dan Kiefer, who has taken a German co-worker under his wing in the kitchen and is introducing fare such as frog legs to the restaurant.

"We'd love to keep American jobs at home," Ouradnik said. "It's terrible to see people losing their businesses, losing their homes, have the bottom fall out of their lives."

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oavila@tribune.com

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