The Aussie pipeline to the slopes of British Columbia

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

So this past Christmas, I decided to go downhill skiing.  I’ve gotten away from the sport for a few years, and felt it was time for a reintroduction. The slopes are full of older skiers, so I know skiing is something I should be able to keep doing for a good while longer, as long as I don’t get too rusty. Also as long as my knees hold out. And to get back into it I figured a trip to Silver Star in British Columbia would be ideal. I last visited this ski area over ten years ago, but remembered being very impressed by the slopes, the snow, the people and the facilities.

I booked a trip and that was my first hint of an Aussie connection.  Everyone I spoke to on the phone had that distinctive twang that’s mangled in so many Outback Steakhouse commercials.  When I arrived on the 21st of December, almost every Silver Star employee I met had come from Down Under.

This was curious. So I asked around and learned about the Australian rite-of-passage of taking a year off after high school or college and going somewhere outside Australia to work for a year or two and see something of the world. Quite a refreshing change from how travel and experiences are sometimes viewed in the US. So now I knew why there’s a supply of Aussies in Canada, but not why they ended up there, at Silver Star. This seemed like a topic worth exploring because it’s a great example of finding synergies in the interconnected world: ski areas have a need for seasonal labor, and the Australians want a chance to see the world, which means finding a place to work and explore for a year or two. Essentially, to  use an analogy I’ve borrowed before from baseball, finding underappreciated or unknown assets and using them to build value.

A quick email to Doug Chimuk, the Silver Star Marketing Projects Coordinator got me in touch with Ian Grant, the CEO of Silver Star and an Australian expat himself. He very kindly agreed to answer some questions via email and I’ve excerpted his responses below:

1) How did the movement of Australian kids to the ski areas of BC start? I was told the ownership of Silver Star and Big White is Australian–did that contribute to setting up this pipeline of talent? Was this a deliberate strategy or something that developed organically?
Ian Grant: The Schumann family bought Big White Ski Resort in BC in 1985 while they still owned Mt Hotham’s lift company in Victoria.  The resort at that time was under-developed but over the next 20+ years they built new lifts, a modern village and a large number of new beds.  In 2001 they bought Silver Star’s lift company and commenced a similar upgrade programme, focused on replacing aged lifts and building new accommodation.
2) Along the same lines, getting seasonal workers is a need for every ski area. How does the influx of Australians help with this need? That is, does it provide an advantage for your business to have this source of workers as opposed to what other ski areas might have to do?
IG: For many years, it has been difficult to recruit seasonal staff in Canada for the ski resorts.  There are 46 ski resorts in BC alone and more than 40 helicopter and cat-skiing operations.  Canada has almost 20 million skier visits per year, so it’s a huge business in terms of tourism and employment numbers, particularly in regional areas.  The (Canadian) Federal Government adopted a number (of) policies which permitted seasonal employment in certain industries to ease the labour shortages.  The programme which young Australians access allows them to obtain a two year working visa, which is renewable, up until age 31.  As a result, you see many Australians working here…from Whistler, throughout the Okanagan Valley where we are located to Banff.  We also see many young people from other parts of the world….the UK, Europe, South America and so on.  They need to be able to obtain a work visa, speak English effectively and have the right attitude
(I looked up the regulation he referred to. The International Experience Canada (IEC) program has set up numerous reciprocal relationships with other governments allowing young people to apply for temporary work visas, thus allowing working, long-term visits to Canada by citizens of those countries (such as Australia), and for Canadians to apply to visit and work in those countries as well. Nice program.)
3) Are there other advantages of this pool of workers? Talents, attitude, culture? I’ve noticed a number of guests on the slopes from Australia and New Zealand. Do you think there’s a synergy there and/or people from down under returning because they worked in BC in the past?
IG: The young Australians we like to employ here in Silver Star are generally a bit older, having completed their university studies or their trade.  We have learnt from experience that it is a better fit for us if they are a bit more mature than straight from high school. We look for the right attitude, the right work ethic and great inter-personal skills.  We are not looking for ski bums but rather young people who want a great experience which will give them skills to carry forward for the rest of their life.  They work in a wide range of roles….lift operators, ski instructors, maintenance, food and beverage, reservations, ski patrol, ski techs, boot fitters, retail, housekeeping, guest services accounting and so on.  I should point out that we need staff to commit to working here all season ie November to April.

It would be very difficult to run our business without these seasonal workers.  Fortunately there is world-wide interest in working for a couple of seasons in a Canadian ski resort where the snow is plentiful and of amazing quality.  The powder snow here as you know,  is incredibly dry ….”champagne powder”.  We receive typically over 7 metres of snow per year between November and April.

An increasing number of seasonal workers are returning for a second season.  They will often travel to another part of the country to work in summer and return to Silver Star for winter.  Some stay on to work in the resort when we open for mountain biking in June until the end of September.  Others will work in the valley, 20 minutes away, in the golf resorts, the wineries or other tourism activities.  There’s always work for good people with the right attitude.  We of course like returning staff because they become the junior leaders immediately…they have been trained and they have experience.

Our guests come from all over the world.  The biggest group come from Canada, particularly BC and Alberta.  The next biggest group is from Australia.  Australians are great travelers and seem to like Canada for the obvious reasons…no language issues, it’s a beautiful country in Summer and Winter, they feel safe.  Many visit the resorts here because their kids and friends are working here. Many come just because the skiing is so good.  Resorts like Silver Star seem to be popular because the temperature is relatively mild…typically around minus 5 and because the snow is so dry (the valley is in a semi-arid zone, with the moisture being drawn out as the air crosses the coastal mountains).

4) How tough is the competition to get a spot at a ski area like Silver Star?
IG: It’s not terribly difficult to get a job in Silver Star.  We employ about 150+ Aussies and Kiwis per Season.  It starts with obtaining a Canadian Government visa to work here… applications available on line.  Our web site (www.skisilverstar.com) has an employment section which provides more information.  We generally seek applications early in the new year and conduct interviews in Australia around April/May each year.  We require successful applicants to be here for training around mid/lateNovember as the resort opens in the last week of November each year.  We have staff accommodation on mountain, offer a huge range of benefits from ski passes to discounts in the restaurants and shops, to activities like ice hockey.  It’s hard work at times but a lot of fun with a great bunch of young people. Most arrive as low intermediate skiers/snowboarders and go home as experts able to ski our toughest double black diamond runs. 

So there you have it. Discussing the Aussie pipeline with Ian Grant, it was clear how valuable this program has been for the ski areas, and based on my interactions with the very good-natured people working at the resort, seemed to be a great benefit to them as well. I couldn’t help but contrast the attitude here to the US, which currently has far fewer such exchange programs set up with foreign governments and has a somewhat less, uhm, open attitude towards people from other countries coming to work in the US. Which is a shame. The world in so many ways is shrinking and growing increasingly international, and from where I stand it’s something I wish we in the US would embrace.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s