24.5.08

IT'S NOT JUST A SUMMER JOB. A few years ago, I noted the preponderance of amusement park workers in the Wisconsin Dells from Warsaw rather than from Wausau. At the time, I suggested that homegrown collegians had it easy.
Years ago, when the Superintendent was in college, chances were pretty good that if you got to talking with a kid from the sand county, he or she had a summer job in the Dells or in the cranberry bogs. In fact, I knew one kid who had a football scholarship that also drove a Duck. Perhaps the academy can get away with tuition hikes and hard to complete schedules to the extent it can because registration and records no longer has to deal with disappointed Duck drivers or cranberry cultivators who might have more of their own sweat, rather than Daddy's plastic, invested in getting finished.
It transpires that I was right in part and wrong in part. First, the background.
For more than a decade, eastern European summer workers at the Tommy Bartlett Show and Exploratory have been as crucial to the attraction's success as the grinning water skiers in the human pyramid.
Now the policy change.

But due to changes to the national temporary guest-worker program and the weak American dollar, General Manager Tom Diehl and other Dells employers are facing an international labor shortage this summer.

"We have 27 (foreign workers) this year," Diehl said before the Tommy Bartlett Show opened its season Friday night. "Usually, we have no less than 60."

The nationwide crunch among tourist-town employers comes after Congress failed to renew a provision that exempted returning foreign guest workers from counting toward the limit of 66,000 per year. Without the exemption, applications for the H-2B visas were filled remarkably fast this year.

Here's where I erred.

Some resorts and attractions in the Dells have gotten around that hurdle by hiring college workers on summer travel and work visas, known as J-1s, which aren't as restricted by the government. But as the region has grown into a year-round destination, employers need laborers for more than the summer, said Jerome Grzeca, an immigration attorney in Milwaukee.

"The problem is that if they really want that person to stay around, there's no legal way for them to hire that unskilled worker after four months," Grzeca said. "It's a service-sector economy, and there's a lack of local workers and lack of interest in these types of positions."

That's been a traditional challenge for much of the tourism business, particularly where the college help returns for registration before Labor Day.

The irony of the situation hasn't escaped those tuned in to the growth of tourism in Wisconsin Dells. The area couldn't have expanded to the blinking, beckoning mecca it has become without the help of guest workers.

Last year, visitors for the first time spent more than $1 billion. But now that the region needs to keep foreign workers year-round to sustain that momentum, legal options to do so are limited.

Until a different immigration policy is passed, Grzeca is encouraging his clients to more aggressively recruit workers from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Another option chosen by resorts such as the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort is to continent-hop and recruit student workers during their respective summers to cover all four seasons in Wisconsin.

(I remember seeing advertisments from upscale U.S. summer camps in New Zealand.) The local collegians, however, aren't blameless.

At the Tommy Bartlett Show, Diehl and his staff devised new recruitment campaigns early this year aimed at college students from as far away as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Diehl tried several years ago to recruit youths in Milwaukee for summer work, but the program fizzled when politics got involved. On top of that, he said many of the youths were unreliable workers, while others were unwilling to stay in the Dells for the whole summer.

The article does not elaborate on the nature of the "politics" or the "unreliable" behavior.

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