WILDWOOD – Again this summer, thousands of international college-age students landed in New Jersey with hopes of earning money, experiencing American culture, improving their language skills and touring as part of the federal government's J-1 Summer Work Travel Program.
According to Cape May County Chamber of Commerce President Vicki Clark, some 5,000 students came to New Jersey last year, and two-thirds went to Atlantic City and parts south.
Similar numbers were expected this year as the students filled a void for seasonal employees that isn't met by year-round residents.
"Many businesses tell us they can't do without these students," Clark said, "because our county doesn't have the numbers of people to fill their jobs. Some businesses never take down their 'help wanted' signs. These are businesses that can stay open longer because these students come here to work and don't have family or other activities to distract them.
"The goal is for these students to experience American culture, the American way of life, and to see our politics and policies in a more realistic way rather than through their government or government's media," she added.
"It is not a threat to domestic labor," she stressed.
During the fall, the international students begin the application process with sponsoring organizations such as Cultural Homestay International (CHI), of Rafael, Calif., and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), of Portland, Maine.
Phil Simon, CIEE vice president of work exchange programs, explained that once the student is vetted and cleared for the program, they work with a sponsor organization and can apply for jobs anywhere in the U.S.
CIEE staff try to set expectations, so the students know what's ahead.
"The hiring decision is up to the employer," he noted. "In Cape May County, the employers have risen to the challenge of providing jobs, and they are invested in the program. They tell us they couldn't operate the hotels, parks, retail stores without the students."
Once the student has a job, they go through a government-initiated background check before getting a visa. They are expected to return home upon completion of their program and share their experiences.
According to Clark, Morey's Piers and Beachfront Waterparks of Wildwood, is the largest employer of the students in the county. Of 1,500 seasonal jobs at Morey's, a little more than one-third are filled by international students.
"Because of our remoteness and seasonal opportunities, we need other sources for our employees," Morey's Pier Human Resources (HR) Director Denise Beckson said. "We hire teens, college students, retirees and teachers but what this program provides is students from spring to fall, allowing us to staff the shoulder season longer."
Morey's has been using these college students since the mid-1980s and Beckson called them "part of the fabric of Morey's and Wildwood. We have students from 30 different countries that are experiencing American culture not from their media or movies, but living and working here in Wildwood.
"It goes a long way to helping diplomacy," she added.
Jobs must allow for the student to engage with the customer. "This means it's not a warehouse-type job, but a job that allows the student a chance for casual conversation," Clark said. "The idea is that the student gets a chance to perfect their use of the English language and gets a chance to experience the American way of life."
At Morey's, for example, the students are ride and game operators, lifeguards, and food and beverage workers. Their program usually runs 12-16 weeks according to Beckson, with the first students arriving in April, when American students are still in school.
"We never stopped hiring," the HR director said. "I think the problem (finding employees) was worse this year because the unemployment rate is so low. Our jobs are seasonal, so anyone with a family is looking for more."
"The students often will work two jobs, not as a reflection that they work harder, but their purpose here is to make money," Clark added.
Part of an employer's investment occurs with training the student for the job because there are no guarantees that the student will return for the same job the following summer. That means, Clark said, that potentially someone new has to be trained each season.
However, because the students arrive in waves starting in spring, rather than all at once, employers have options.
"If an employer like Morey's has these college students to work the hours they need to be open as a business, another business on the boardwalk can stay open longer because there's something drawing people," she explained. "There's a domino effect to other businesses."
Beckson noted the domino effect could also work in reverse. "If the program were eliminated or changed significantly, the businesses selling products to businesses would also see a ripple effect because we wouldn't need to buy all their products," she explained.
If there are issues, Simon said his organization would work with the employee and employer to work things out.
"If the weather was rainy, for instance, and that affected the student's ability to work as much as they wanted, we'd work with them to resolve the issue," he said. "We look after their health, safety, and welfare in accordance with the regulations of the program."
Some employers assist with housing needs, a "challenge" that faces the county's visitors. "Some businesses have houses, or will rent them for their students," Clark said. "Sometimes you'll find students doubled up in homes as well."
Beckson said Morey's has some housing they own but works with the majority of students to find affordable housing for their needs.
Since part of the program is the chance to tour other parts of the country, Clark said the county's proximity to cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, plays a role in attracting students to what some might consider a "remote" area.
"The ferry runs a special program for the students to visit the other side," she noted, "which gives the students in New Jersey a chance to visit places like Ocean City, Md. It gives the students in Delaware and Maryland a chance to come here, so they get a chance to go to baseball games, experience cultural holidays like the Fourth of July and other events."
Earlier this month, the Wildwood Community Support Group for International Exchange hosted an event for the international students.
In April, they hosted a welcome event with CHI taking the lead to talk about areas such as beach and bicycle safety and other topics relevant to the visitors.
According to Kathleen Mears, CHI community outreach specialist, employers who sponsor some 1,200 students participated in several events this season to welcome the visitors and introduce them to the community and surrounding area.
Participants included McDonald's, Domino’s Pizza, Splash Zone, Morey's Pier, the Wildwood Convention Center, the police department, beach patrol and Chamber of Commerce.
"This was the second year we did this, and it's a good chance for the students to meet other students and get a feel for the community," Mears said. "Each year it's gotten bigger and better."
Although the students come from "all over," Simon noted that they "must be university students which means their country's economy must be well-developed."
Most come from Ireland, Romania, Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and some African nations.
"These are mostly middle-class students who will become doctors, teachers, lawyers, architects, and parents,” he said, "so it's quite diversified. The U.S. government believes people-to-people interaction is valuable for public diplomacy.
"The idea is that the program is accessible to all people, and these people become friends of the United States," he added. "This is especially important when relations with a country is strained."
The work travel program is part of a larger exchange visitor program that includes everything from working as a summer camp counselor to professional interns and trainers to research scholars according to Simon. The summer program will be 50 years old next year.
"Over the life of the program, millions of people have been through the program," he added, "resulting in friends of America living in many other countries."
To contact Karen Knight, email firstname.lastname@example.org.