Sunday River ski resort is ready for the season – it has eight trails open and nights that are cold enough to make snow in time for the busy December holidays.

The only thing it doesn’t have is a full complement of seasonal employees. It is advertising for more than 160 positions.

“We definitely have a huge chunk of team members we have to hire right now,” said Sunday River Human Resources Director Amanda Gallant.

Maine’s ski areas, which depend on thousands of seasonal workers every year, are grappling with the most challenging labor market in recent memory and trying creative options to fill empty positions.

Every year, Maine’s ski industry more than triples its workforce in only a few months, hiring armies of snowmakers, lift attendants and front office representatives, as well as servers, cooks, housekeepers and retail salespeople. In the winter, the Sunday River and Sugarloaf ski resorts become the biggest employers in rural Oxford and Franklin counties, respectively. Collectively, Maine’s ski resorts added $300 million to the Maine economy, according to a 2015 Maine Development Foundation tourism report.

But as Maine’s labor market has tightened, ski resorts have found it harder to fill positions. Maine’s statewide unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent for two straight years, the second-longest sustained period in 40 years. In Franklin and Oxford counties, the center of Maine’s alpine ski industry, the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent and 3.8 percent in September, both down several points from the same time last year.

“I think just in general, where the economy is, hiring people is more challenging across the board,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s director of marketing. Sugarloaf goes from about 300 workers during the summer to more than 1,000 at the height of the season, a steep hiring target. This year finding enough snowmakers and employees for food and beverage, retail and guest services has been tougher than usual, Austin said. The resort has tried to be creative, by reaching out on social media and actively recruiting, he said.

“I would say it is noticeably more challenging this year, but it is nothing we are concerned with from an operational standpoint,” he said.

Maine ski resorts triple their work forces in the winter to handle everyday business and events like the World Pro Ski Tour at Sunday River in March, above. The resort is now advertising to fill more than 160 jobs. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

In the first three months of 2017, Maine’s 17 ski facilities employed 2,213 people, with total wages of $10.8 million, more than three times the 722 employed by the industry in summer 2016, according to Maine Department of Labor data. The average weekly wage at a ski facility in the first quarter of 2017 was $377, according to the department.

As one of the state’s most important winter tourist draws, Maine’s ski industry seems to be running into the same labor shortage problems that seaside resorts regularly experience during the summer.

“Labor continues to be very tight. I do know that several areas last year never really hit 100 percent employment,” said Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine, the industry trade association. “There were always job postings at the major ski areas all season long.”

Simply setting up a table at a few job fairs to find seasonal workers doesn’t seem to work anymore, Sweetser said. Employers have to get creative in how they hire and convince key employees to come back.

“One thing the tight labor market has done is I think employers appreciate their good staff that much more,” Sweetser said. “They are taking steps to make sure they are coming back for the next season.”

Sunday River, the third-largest ski resort in New England, is trying new hiring techniques this season to hire the up to 1,500 workers it needs.

For the first time, the resort is offering $300 bonuses to employees who successfully refer friends and relatives for jobs as cooks, snowmakers and housekeepers. Other employees can get $100 to refer someone for their department, said Gallant, the human resources director.

“The best ambassadors for the resort are our current team members,” she said. Sunday River is currently advertising 100 open lift operator positions, and 60 openings on its snowmaking team and dozens of cooks, wait staff and dishwashers.

The resort has not increased its wages, but it offers a free lift pass and retail discounts, Gallant said. If lift operators work on two-person shifts, they make minimum wage but also get the opportunity to ski or snowboard part of the day, she said. If operators choose to work alone, they get paid $2 more an hour, but don’t get the opportunity to ski during their shift, Gallant said.

Sunday River is also trying a cross-referral program with coastal hotels and restaurants. This fall, the company met with a group of businesses in Maine and Massachusetts and asked them to refer employees looking for winter seasonal work, Gallant said. So far, it has confirmed about six employees and leased out about 30 units of housing to accommodate more people if they want to come and work for the winter. If the program succeeds, Sunday River could refer employees back to summer seasonal businesses when the season is over, Gallant said.

“Our goal is to get people a reliable job so they want to come back year after year,” she said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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