Search for summer employees begins in the winter overseas

The Harborview Hotel was named one of the top hotels in New England by Condé Nast. — 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.

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, 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.”