Commission Discusses How To Attract More Domestic Seasonal Workers

OCEAN CITY – Finding ways to reach out to more American college students to fill the ranks of the resort’s summer workforce this week provided an interesting sidebar discussion on how to improve the visitor experience.

During Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting, an ongoing broader discussion about some of the goals in the tourism strategic plan came around to a smaller debate about employee recruitment, a diversified workforce and, ultimately, how best to get back the American college student summer worker, which for decades was the staple of the resort’s labor pool.

Hundreds of American college students still come to live and work in Ocean City during the summer, but it’s no secret the seasonal workforce has become increasingly international in recent years for a variety of reasons. While that is not necessarily a bad thing and often provides a unique experience for foreign student-workers on J-1 visas and, to a large degree, many visitors to the resort, the question came back around to why there have been fewer and fewer American summer workers in the resort.

Some on the panel suggested a lot of the summer jobs available in Ocean City don’t appeal to American students for a variety of reasons.

“When you look at the types of jobs the J-1 students are doing, the American college kids don’t want to do that,” said commission member and resort hotelier Michael James.

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce CEO and Executive Director Melanie Pursel said the trend has grown in recent years.

“Our job fair numbers have dwindled over the years,” she said. “Maybe we need to go out and do more recruiting, although that might be a private sector thing.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the town has been successful in going out to American colleges and universities and recruiting seasonal workers for many of its departments. “We’ve done this with some of our recruiting for our various departments,” he said. “The city goes out and recruit employees and it has been successful. I think the private sector might have to do the same thing.”

While recruiting summer workers could, and likely should, fall on the private sector businesses, there may be collaborative opportunities to market Ocean City as a seasonal job destination.

“We have to go out there and sell it,” said Meehan. “We have to sell the Ocean City summer experience, just like we do with our tourists.”

Commission member and local business owner Todd Ferrante said diversifying the seasonal workforce with J-1 students has paid dividends.

“The good news is many of the American college students get here early and get trained before the season really starts,” he said. “The problem is, they have to leave early to go back to school.”

Seasonal housing costs have been viewed by many as a deterrent for American student-workers. Most J-1 students work multiple jobs and share housing with several other seasonal workers, a situation that might not be as palatable for U.S. student-workers.

“I don’t think the housing cost is extraordinarily high,” said Ferrante. “I just don’t think they like to share a room. They’re used to a different comfort level and lifestyle.”

Michael James said bringing back American workers might require some out-of-the-box solutions.

“Maybe it’s the Airbnb concept,” he said. “Maybe people who have a spare room or rooms would want to host summer workers. They can make a little money and serve a purpose by helping out with the housing issues. Some people might like having a student or two living with them for the summer. It would be like having a grandchild living with them.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.