Mobilizing the Mountains
Each fall and winter an army of college kids, powder hounds and international students descend on Truckee-Tahoe. Their mission? Fill the ranks of local ski resorts to handle the hordes of weekend warriors who invade the mountains each season. And, while they’re deflecting gapers, hopefully get in a whole bunch of turns for themselves.
Ski resorts hire 200 to 1,200 new employees each season for everything under the sun ” or snow ” including lift operations, guest services, food and beverage, ski and snowboard school, ticket sales and more. So between the half dozen or so large and small resorts from Truckee to the North Shore, that’s about 5,000 bodies needed each season.
“We are in what I call the ‘hell months,'” says Judy Lee, human resources coordinator at Alpine Meadows. “We’re so busy trying to get ready.”
The mobilization of the mountains, though nerve-wracking, is a well-choreographed endeavor built ” and dependent ” upon the Sierra’s epic snow. So each year, the human resources staffs in the area hope for the best ” snow, that is ” and do their things.
“In November and December, we’re just go, go, go. Then after the holidays, we can start breathing again,” says Lee. “Actually, it all starts right around Labor Day.”
Outside of snowfall and terrain, staffing is what makes or breaks a resort.
“We’re approaching 300 year-round employees, have over 1,200 in-season, and up to 2,000 when you count our concessions,” says Nancy Wendt, chairman and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Corp. “That’s a lot of people to provide the Squaw Valley experience.”
Because there is such an interest from international students who want to experience life in the States ” and the resorts’ need for warm bodies ” most send human resources managers on recruiting trips abroad.
Alpine Meadows made arrangements back in April for a recruiting trip to South America to fill employment opportunities this winter. By the end of October, Alpine had hired 120 international employees and 150 Americans.
Boreal, which like Alpine is owned by POWDR Corp, hired 73 students from Peru, Argentina, Chile and Brazil on J-1 visas during the recruiting trip to South America.
Northstar at Tahoe has 220 year-round employees and hires 1,400 employees each winter. They have recruited about 120 internationally so far.
Meanwhile, with Squaw’s Olympic history, hiring nearly 100 employees from South America, New Zealand and Australia is a way to maintain an international presence in the valley and make connections for both resort guests and locals, says Savannah Cowley, the public relations representative for Squaw Valley Ski Corp.
“Running a ski resort is a such a huge operation,” Cowley says. “The ski resort would not run without help from employees and sufficient staffing.”
Sugar Bowl retains less than 100 year-round staff and pumps up to 700 for peak season. The resort has more than 130 international employees on its payroll mainly because of the need for bodies.
“Our local community can’t support the staffing needs,” says Regina Nystrom, Sugar Bowl’s human resources director.
If the flakes aren’t falling but the holidays have arrived, it’s the snowmakers who work particularly grueling hours to get the slopes ready for skiers and boarders.
“Our job is to get this mountain open,” says Dave Thatcher, snowmaking and snow removal manager at Alpine Meadows. “It takes a lot of work for just a couple months of snowmaking.”
“Basically, they’re weather nerds,” Rachael Woods, public relations manager for Boreal and Alpine Meadows, says of the people who make snow when the real stuff isn’t storming.
Snowmakers keep at least one eye on the weather forecast at all times, looking for the perfect temperature and humidity combination for when and where to blow optimal snow.
Unlike the intensive, short-term work of a snowmaker, vehicle and lift maintenance employees work around the clock to give chairlifts, gondolas and trams year-round attention.
“Their work is endless. They’re preparing for the following season the day after we close,” Woods says.
Lift maintenance is one of the key roles at a resort, and those workers likely touch every chair every day of the year, she says.
“This place will never not have people here ” from now until the snow melts. Someone is here 24/7,” Woods says.