Search for summer employees begins in the winter overseas

Search for summer employees begins in the winter overseas

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The Harborview Hotel in Edgartown hires dozens of foreign students every summer. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Although the start of Martha’s Vineyard’s busy summer season is still months away, not all Island businesses rely on a “Help Wanted” sign on the door or a classified ad to fill their seasonal employee needs. A number of businesses, having had a good experience in the past, have already begun the process of hiring foreign students to fill seasonal jobs.

The students travel to the United States through a U.S. Department of State’s J-1 exchange visitor program. The summer work travel program is designed to encourage foreign students to learn about the United States.

American college students once made up a large segment of the summer work force. But academic schedules that now require many students to be back on campus in August can leave many employers high and dry during

the ever-lengthening summer season. By contrast, many foreign students have academic schedules that leave them free to work until mid-September or October.

Louis Larsen, owner of The Net Result in Vineyard Haven, the busy fish market and take-out fish restaurant in the Tisbury Marketplace open seven days a week, said he will hire primarily foreign students to fill 15 to 20 available summer slots.

The Net Result is another business that depends on foreign workers.
The Net Result is another business that depends on foreign workers.

Mr. Larsen said he knows there are American college students who want to work on the Island during the summer, and while he does hire some, they do not all share a strong work ethic.

“It’s hard to find American kids who will come to work five days a week,” he said. “They have other interests like hanging out at the beach or surfing and then they want to take a week or two off before going back to school in the middle of August.”

Mr. Larsen has already begun emailing students who worked for him last year and he hopes will return, and he is contacting foreign travel agencies tha expedite the visa process and arrange travel for the foreign students. The agencies facilitate interviews with the employers, usually through email, by Skype, or by phone.

“My experience with foreign students has been great,” said Mr. Larsen. “They come to work. They get upset when I tell them they have to take a day off. I pay them overtime, but I tell them seven days a week is too much. Some are so serious about the work, I tell them to lighten up: it’s just a job.”

He said that by far most of the foreign students he has hired have worked out well. They have come from as far away as China, but most have come from Russia, Croatia, Serbia, and other Eastern European countries.

“Most of them have a drive to work and a purpose,” he said, “They have to, just to find out about the program and pay for the travel.” Most of the agencies charge a fee for getting the visas and arranging the flights, he said.

Most of his student employees travel before returning home. “For some reason they all seem to want to go to Niagara Falls,” he said. “I have had some who have gone to the Grand Canyon and some who had to go to Las Vegas, or to Miami. It’s cute at the end of the year when they start making their travel plans.”

Mr. Larsen said he gets about 50 or 60 holiday greetings every year from former summer employees and has had a few come back to visit, some with their parents.

Harbor View fills its ranks

Kathy Olsen, regional director of human resources for the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown and the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in North Falmouth, both owned by the Scout Hotels group, said she hires close to 30 American students every summer but fills the bulk of her jobs overseas because the number of seasonal jobs the hotel has to fill far exceeds the number of available local employees. Ms. Olsen began the summer employee search in late December to fill about 200 positions in both hotels.

“The foreign students’ schedules usually allow them to work into September and still have time to travel before heading back to school,” she said, “unlike many of the American students who often have to return to school before the end of August and take time off before heading back to their studies. Already we have had quite a few participants who worked here who want to come back next year.”

The hotel looks both east and west to fill its ranks. “We have had success with hiring culinary students from a college in the Philippines,” Ms. Olson said.

Chefs from the two hotels recently traveled to the Philippines to interview prospective kitchen staff. The hotel also works with an agency called Zip Travel both in the Philippines and in Europe that handles the educational visas and the students travel arrangements. Zip Travel Bulgaria has a web page dedicated to the Harbor View.

Ms. Olsen said the staff increases from about 95 at both hotels in the winter to about 300 during the summer. About 15 percent will be Americans. The hotel offers housing at $90/100 per week, but the students may find their own accommodations.

Ms. Olsen is interviewing Eastern European students by phone, Internet, and Skype. She is also organizing job fairs on the Vineyard and at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and at UMass to attract American students.

A foreign flavor

Cronig’s Market has been hiring foreign students for summer employment for six or seven years.  “It has worked out real well for us,” general manager Sarah McKay said. “I have a recurring batch who come back each year and they refer their friends and family members to me.”

She has used three different agencies and expects to hire about eight foreign students this coming summer.

“Most of the foreign workers come from Eastern Europe,” Ms. McKay said. “Five years ago we had a lot of Bulgarians, and Albanians, now we have a lot from Kazakhstan and other countries whose names I can’t even pronounce. It continues to evolve.

“Many of the foreign students are working on dual degrees, very advanced work. Some of the academic work they are doing is amazing, studying law, economics, international relations.”

About half the summer employees Cronig’s hires are local high school students and returning college students, according to Ms. McKay. “The American students usually don’t work as much as the Europeans,” she said. “A lot of the American kids have other things they want to do when they come back from school and the European kids are focused more on work.”

Many will take second jobs at night, she said. “They often work very long hours.” And like many other employers The Times talked to she said the European students can stay through the summer season.

Businesses that include Jim’s Package Store and Island Market hire foreign student summer workers who are looking for second jobs without depending on agencies. “Most of our summer help comes through the door to apply,” said Deborah Knight, assistant manager. “Many are also working at other Oak Bluffs businesses.”

She said that they have had students from so many different countries that she likes to say, “We can say hello and thank you in 12 different languages.”

She added, “Working with the foreign students is so uplifting and inspiring, most are so hard working and smart. They have the initiative to come here. Many are double majors in college and are very motivated.”

How it works

The J-1 program allows foreign students who have a working knowledge of English to obtain a four-month visa, three to work, and one month to spend traveling, according to Susan Pittman, director of media relations for the State Department.

“The work travel is designed to put foreign students up to 28 years old in jobs that allow them to come into contact with Americans to practice their English and to make contacts,” she said. “The students are placed only in jobs where they will not be displacing American workers.”

The program is open to post-secondary school students enrolled in and actively pursuing a degree or other full-time course of study at an accredited educational institution outside the United States.

Over 5,000 students participated in the J-1 work travel program in Massachusetts in 2012, according to the State Department website.

A lot to like

Vesna Marjanovic, from Serbia, worked on the Vineyard four summers on a student visa before she obtained a six month work visa.
Vesna Marjanovic, from Serbia, worked on the Vineyard four summers on a student visa before she obtained a six month work visa.

Vesna Marjanovic, a 25-year-old Serbian, experienced culture shock when she first came to Martha’s Vineyard to work for the summer on a J-1, student visa in 2010.

“People here are over polite,” she said. “I thought they were making fun of me. I was just doing my job and they kept saying thank you. It took a while to get used to.”

She adjusted and returned for three more summers. “Everyone who works here wants to come back,” she said.

The 25-year-old fell in love last year and decided to remain in the U.S. after obtaining a six-month work visa rather than return to Serbia, where she still needs to complete two exams before getting her degree in graphic design. She now lives with her boyfriend, a Brazilian national, in Oak Bluffs.

During her first year in college she attended a job fair in Serbia where she learned about summer work possibilities in the U.S. She heard about the the student work travel program from a friend of her sister’s who had worked in Maine. She applied for a J-1 visa with a company called Work and Study in Serbia’s second largest city, Novi Sad. She borrowed the $2,500 she needed to pre-pay the travel costs and fees the company charged to find her a job, a place to stay, handle the visa work and arrange for transportation. Her brother lent her the money. She made about $5,000 her first summer and was able to pay him back when she returned.

She used the agency the second year but arranged for her visas herself  the last two years. Since then she has obtained a work permit that allows her to work here for six months. She has applied to renew her work permit.

Ms. Marjanovic — the “j” is pronounced more like an “i” — said that she studied English in school back home but didn’t really learn the language until she came to the Vineyard to work.

Her first job was as a housekeeper at a small Oak Bluffs hotel. The agency had arranged for accommodations at a boarding house on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs where she paid about $80 a week to share a room with five other girls with no cooking facilities and a bathroom down the hall. She found other work as well. At times she had as many as three jobs at one time. She eventually left the housekeeping job for restaurant work, which she preferred.

Ms. Marjanovic estimates she has met hundreds of summer workers from Eastern Europe while working on the Island, 200 to 300 from Serbia alone. “Everybody wants to come back,” she said. “It’s so easy to find jobs, and we make more money than we make at home.”


  1. I wonder how many actually use this “opportunity” as a gateway to get into the United States permanently? And do their Employers pay them the prevailing wage or is it the Chinese syndrome in reverse. Long hours – Cheap labor!

    1. I think it is the hard working labor that makes these foreigners so appealing to employers. American college kids, and especially locals, think that working interferes too much with partying and fun. Aside from having to go back to school earlier, they simply don’t have the work ethic. I know local kids here who work 3 days a week in the summer and think that’s just fine. Who would you want working for you?

    2. Your concerns are ill-founded in my opinion. I have a lot of experience hiring H1-B visa workers from many different countries. They are students from abroad and must qualify for the program. They can’t receive a worker’s visa by merely showing up in the US.
      I have never discriminated as far as wages are concerned and I can also vouch for many of my peers who also hire H1-B visa students from around the world.
      The sad reality is that I get ten resumes from abroad for every one from U.S. citizens. I have been extremely satisfied with the workers from abroad for over twenty years. They are eager to work hard. Display a great work ethic and generally speak 3-5 languages.

      1. Hi. I really need to get sponsor in the US please help me. it would really mean to me. please.

    1. I see that you work for the Center for Immigration Studies and happened to have written the report you direct our attention to. I feel that your comments are mostly (miss)guided by a thinly veiled, anti-immigration agenda.
      The comments at the end of your lengthy report are probably the most telling in that ask that the summer jobs be preserved for young Americans living in the United States.
      If you had any experience outside the think tank (i.e. as an employer) you might be faced with the reality rather than the fantasy. The J-1 visa program wouldn’t exist if not for the lack of motivated young American workers. The reality is that many Americans can’t or choose not to compete at a level that will earn them a spot on the team. Laziness and misplaced expectations on the part of young Americans is certainly one part of the equation. I have had several foreign students who have expressed their surprise at the performance of their American counterparts. Some have even joked about how slow and sloppy their work has been.
      Perhaps you and some of the right wing’ think tankers’ might ponder this situation in greater depth. Americans want inexpensive consumer goods from other countries but simultaneously want to hang on to the notion that they are valued workers who deserve high salaries. You can’t have it both ways. Time for a generation of young Americans to wake up and smell the coffee!

      1. You’re out of line branding young American workers ‘lazy or unmotivated’. Perhaps you can share with us how much you pay them. Minimum wage? Young American workers are intelligent enough not to work for some cheapskate employer. Smart young Americans make plenty of money on the island with seasonal employment when they choose jobs that pay well and leave the undesirable ones with lousy pay to the foreigners who don’t know any better.

        1. You mean the ones who either get paid in cash or the ones who get paid by check and then get unemployment and go to Thailand or Central America for the off-season? Yep, great work ethic by those working the great American system. How smart.

        2. In my 35 years as an employer I have never once paid the minimum wage. In several different Island businesses starting salary is typically $12.-$13 an hour for unskilled labor. Some of my employees make considerably more and have worked for me for as long as a decade so I guess there must be some compelling factor to stay on; i.e. year round employment. Your comments reveal that you probably have never been an employer yourself if especially since you refer to J-1 workers as ‘migrant labor’. Island kids who are happy to cut one lawn a week because they can charge $30. and hour are in for a rude awakening when they leave the Island. My comments re: comparison of worker skill: J-1 vs American is informed by much experience with both.

  2. Responding to Farmer5: ,
    Ad hominem attacks are a cheap trick. When you don’t want to deal with substance, attack motivation.
    Twenty-five years ago, when I was on an investigative team that exposed
    fraud at Lincoln Savings (run by Charles Keating, the poster boy of the S&L scandal ) a few people like you said we were anti-immigrant. We kept on doing our job.
    Do you call those who want to regulate Wall Street anti-capitalist? Are
    birth-control advocates anti-baby? How about people who say we should limit our
    calories? Are they anti-food?
    Smart regulation curbs abuse and exploitation so that a program is not hijacked for selfish purposes that undermine the public interest. Our report on the SWT program proves that it provides financial incentives for American employers NOT to hire American workers, at a time of record youth unemployment. It shows how the program makes it easy for employers NOT to recruit American workers close to home because it recruits workers for them around the world–and then gives employers free vacation trips for doing business with them. It
    Sure, lots of American young people are slackers. But there are millions of young Americans who work hard and well at jobs across the country. Millions more would like a shot. Some of them, as our report shows, are pushed out by SWT. The complaints that some employers of SWT workers make about American workers are fairly reported. Read before you rip.

    1. My comments hardly constitute an ad hominem attack. Your findings that American workers are somehow being ‘pushed out’ by foreign J-1 visa workers is simply not the case on Martha’s Vineyard. Since this is a small, community newspaper and I happen to live here I feel my experience bears some significant weight as it pertains to a local story. Your ‘findings’ bear no resemblance to either my experience as an employer or a member of this community.

      1. I’ll pass on the debate about ad hominem. It’s a simple matter of definition. I’ll happily engage on your other counts.
        Your experience on your lovely island is limited. It has led you to rash and ill-informed judgments about the SWT program, the report we published about it, and my motivation in writing it. That is not conducive to informed and civil discussion. I mean you no ill will when I say that I’m tired of being accused of bigotry because I believe in regulating both immigration and the access of U.S. employers to low-cost foreign labor. I took my current job at CIS, in large part, because I wanted to counter such accusations. I propose an amicable wager so that we can both put our money where our mouths are. Here’s the idea: Each of us puts $5,000 into an escrow account. We share the cost of a professional mediator who would evaluate what both of us have done, in our personal and professional lives, to be of service to immigrants, members of minority groups, or disadvantaged people of any variety. Winner takes all and buys a nice dinner for himself and the, uh, runner-up. I’d also be happy to invite some J-1 workers and their American co-workers..

        1. The experience you refer to as ‘limited’ amounts to thirty years as a business owner/employer and over four hundred employees during that time. Many were US citizens and many were documented J-1 workers w/ SS #’s.
          Comments in the article by Louie Larsen (a well-respected Island native and local business person of long-standing) reflect a similar point of view.
          Instead of relying on an outside mediator I would rather engage other employers from Martha’s Vineyard in this conversation. I am sure you would be more comfortable in the company of your fellow ‘think tankers’.