Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Ski Bums

Being a “ski bum” is hard.  The few available jobs are low-paying, living in a ski town is expensive, and there’s a decided lack of females.  Here’s a recent article from the Sacramento Bee (h/t Harvey Road):
Not just at Sierra resorts but throughout the West, cradle of the early 1970s ski-bum culture. [Jeremy] Evans argues that Aspen, Jackson Hole, Park City, Telluride and, yes, Tahoe have morphed into playgrounds of the rich – no longer gathering places for those who reject materialism for the hedonistic pleasure of the snowy descent.

One casualty of skiing's growing affluence, he asserts, is that the ski bum, who once could cobble together a life and maybe someday buy a home in a resort town, is being shut out of jobs by nonskiers just needing work to support their families – the preferred work force for resorts taken over by large corporations.
Okay, but by the power Google (“I have the POWER!!!”), maybe this isn’t such a new phenomenon after all.  Here’s an article from Spartanburg Herald-Journal in 1970:
Life, seen through their rose-colored goggles, is indisputably groovy although the housing situation in these ski resorts is tight and life as expensive as in any American city.

Gary Lambeth, 24, of Springfield, Mo., drove his white Corvette to Aspen a month ago with a friend, Su Gathright of Los Angeles.  Su works as a salesgirl for $1.25 an hour and Gary does construction work, mostly shoveling snow.
 The article mentions that one guy lived in a $400 a month apartment that he shared with 3 friends.  It also says that the new “fiber glass skis” (the “Zebra ones” if you’re “in”) were $200 and plastic “flo” boots (which reportedly “mold to the foot”) were $165.  Skiing has always been an expensive sport, usually practiced in expensive areas of the country.  I’m just glad that I don’t have to work 80 hours to afford rent for the month, 132 hours to afford ski boots, and 160 hours to buy a set of skis.  Food and clothing were much more expensive (relative to income) back then as well.

Ahh, but what about immigrant labor, you ask?  They took our jobs!!!!  Well, it seems that isn’t a new phenomenon either.  Here’s a 1979 article from famed New York Times columnist Molly Ivins (back when she was just a reporter):
The ski bum shortage in the great Western resorts has reached such a crisis that resort owners are importing Vietnamese and Filipinos to take up the slack.  The help-wanted columns of local papers run on for pages and good old-fashioned college dropouts seem to be hard to come by.

“The kids just aren’t dropping out like they used [to],” complained J. Richard Elias, general manager of the Manor Vail Lodge in Vail. “The sharp kids are more serious, staying in college and then hanging on to jobs.  There used to be a great underground of kids just passing through and willing to work, but it’s been drying up.”

Whether this generation of college students is in fact more serious than its predecessors is open to question.  What is clear is that the economics of ski-bumming have taken a radical turn for the worse.
So the ski bum has always been in danger!

Really, though, aren’t we just seeing the same story repeated over and over again?  Ski towns are expensive (that 1979 New York Times article mentioned that a room cost in Aspen cost $260 a month, and one bedroom condos were between $80,000 and $150,000 - outrageous!!).  Wages are low.  People are barely scraping by.

And the reason that “ski bumming” is expensive is that it’s desirable.  People want to live in the mountains.  People want to ski all day and party all night.  People want to live a life of (relative) leisure.  Resorts, hotels, and restaurants can afford to pay minimum wage because they’ll always have people looking for jobs, especially in a down economy.  Here’s the Sacramento Bee story again:
[Russ] Pecoraro, Heavenly's spokesman, said the resort has "pulled out of recruiting in international markets this year. With the job market the way it is, there are plenty of candidates right here."

Indeed, interspersed in the long line of locals seeking full-time employment at the job fair were pockets of people seeking to live the ski-bum dream. They were easy to spot, mostly younger and chugging energy drinks in the early-morning chill.
 Luckily, I’ve discovered the solution to minimum wage dishwashing jobs, cramped accommodations and ketchup soup dinners.  The key is to become a “brofessional”.  Here’s a commenter to the New York Times:
“When a ski-bum ‘bro’ goes ‘pro’ – he becomes a ‘brofessional.’ For example, my good friend recently stopped being a seasonal fishing guide and ski patroller to become a salaried general manager of a fishing lodge. He’s become a brofessional. Many brofessionals start their own businesses, but you have to stay within the accepted cultural norms of the trade you are in to keep the ‘bro’ going. (This is all part of a larger vernacular called brobonics.) On a quick search, it seems that some say being a brofessional is simply being a highly-advanced ‘bro.’ It’s all pretty silly.

So the answer to all of your ski bum problems is to move from “bro” to “brofessional”.  You’ll command a higher salary, still be able to live in that sweet ski town, and you can stop poaching food from half eaten trays in ski lodge cafeterias.  You can have the best of both worlds!  Just make sure to keep rocking the Zebra skis.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. The economics of bumming definitely seems to have changed. Maybe the imports were at select areas long ago, but it is only recently that it became the norm for any big resort. I certainly don't remember any imported labor in the east when I was growing up. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention. But the imported labor is there because there are not enough ski bums to work temp seasonal low paying jobs.

    It ain't about resort towns. Look around in the east. Every resort town in VT has a less well to do working town just on the out skirts. There is always cheap places to live, just not at the base of the resort. The economics just doesn't work out for most people who enjoy their creature comforts.

    Ultimately, I say a big "who cares" to changing ski bum culture and difficulty in bums being able to make it. There are easier ways to ski a lot of days and experience the best conditions of the season. I just don't see it being much of an issue. Though I do think it is interesting that resorts would stop importing labor due to the bad economy driving up demand for any job, even seasonal low paying.