(May 31, 2013) When the technology became widely available roughly 15 years ago, online video chatting was a realm largely confined to computer nerds. But in recent years, its accepted uses have widened, even so far as to become a valuable tool in solving the resort’s perennial problem of hiring overseas help.
At least one major resort business – the Clarion Hotel – has now made online face time a standard practice for hiring foreign student workers before they arrive in the states. Further, the strategy is being pushed by the travel companies who sponsor the students’ visas.
“We do about five or six interviews a day because of Skype,” said Clarion Human Resources Director Linda Watson. “It’s so easy to do, and very effective.”
Skype is a free program that allows voice and video conferencing via internet channels. Since its inception in 2003, the service has amassed nearly 700 million users internationally.
The major advantage of Skype interviews is that it allows foreign students – namely those from Ireland – to secure jobs and possibly housing before they arrive in the resort.
Unlike the Eastern European states, which also send large numbers of work-travel students to Ocean City, Ireland is a visa waiver country: Irish nationals can come to the U.S. without pre-arranged jobs or housing. And many do. That puts them under pressure to find work and housing quickly, a task that sometimes leads to conflict between students and their employers or landlords.
Watson would know – she came to Ocean City as a student from Ireland in 1995, but ended up winning the green card lottery and stayed in the U.S. while her fellow students went home.
“They all went home and I stayed. Ireland had such a bad economy back then, I just stayed to see what would happen,” Watson said. “When I first got here I had nowhere to live. Somebody had seen my bag and they took me in for a week until I could find a place.”
Since the 1960s, the U.S. State Department has offered J-1 student visas to foreign students who wish to spend their summer traveling in the U.S. Once here, students are allowed to work for a period of time to cover the costs of their trip. Ocean City is a popular destination, given its summer vibrancy and bounty of temporary jobs.
In the 1980s and early 90s, Irish students made up the bulk of Ocean City’s foreign workforce. But at some point – possibly with the strong debut of the unified Euro currency in 1999 – it became easier for Irish students to work and travel within Europe, and their numbers were supplanted by students from the non-European Union countries of Eastern Europe.
Recently, however, the State Department has begun to scrutinize the accountability of some Eastern European visa sponsors, heavily cutting the number of Slavic students who visit the resort. At its peak four years ago, the number of Russian students in town was almost 1,500. That number was down to 445 two years ago, the last time the State Department publicized its numbers. The Irish population at the same time was 603, and estimated to have been higher last year.
“There used to be tons of Irish kids, and then it stopped. Then, in the past few years, there was such an influx,” Watson said. “But they still don’t have to have jobs until they get here.”
Businesses and advocates within the resort have been trying to alleviate this problem by coordinating pre-arrangements with the agencies who sponsor students’ visas.
“We met with CIEE, one of the big visa sponsors who bring in most of the Irish kids, and we’re trying to change things slowly,” Watson said. “We want to show the State Department that we’re making the effort to be a part of the program, because a lot of these companies just abuse [the students].”
The State Department has increased its emphasis lately on the travel and cultural aspect of the J-1 visa, in an attempt to prevent the programs that utilize the visas from simply exploiting students for labor.
“Hopefully, in another five or 10 years, we’ll have a system in place where these kids are all taken care of before they get here,” said Rick Fairbend, who heads Ocean City’s Irish Outreach center.
Watson said she has hired roughly 60 foreign students for the 2013 season thus far via Skype interviews coordinated with CIEE. The Clarion has been doing so for about three years, Watson said, but this is her first as HR Director.
Skype interviews are not just advantageous for Irish students, but also in screening for language skills. While Ireland presents no language barrier, hiring Eastern Europeans who are non-native English speakers is more difficult.
“A lot of them would just send you their resume online and would say that they’re fluent, but when they get here they can’t even say ‘hello’ to you,” Watson said. “We have jobs for kids who don’t speak the language well, but it’s nice to know before they get here.”