The Trump administration is considering curtailing the J-1 visa program, which allows foreign students to work temporarily in the U.S. Andrew Todd, CEO of Xanterra, the largest concessionaire in the national parks, talked to news editor Johanna Jainchill about what the loss of the program would mean for the company, where J-1 workers make up 20% of peak season staff.
Q: Why does Xanterra need to hire J-1 workers instead of American students?
A: We have over 20 million guests who flow though our parks, both domestic and international. We can't hire enough American employees and students that can stay all summer, including early summer and late fall before school starts or after school ends, to meet the demands of our guests.
The program is a big deal for us. If you want to work in a national park in a remote location you have to be willing to pack a suitcase and come and stay for the entire summer. For example, Yellowstone opens in the spring and closes in the fall. We ratchet it up and hire 3,500 seasonal employees for the summer season.
Q: What is the potential outcome for Xanterra if you don't have access to J-1 workers?
A: The worst outcome would be that we have to close some of our guest visitor services and facilities because we wouldn't have enough employees to service our guests -- to make beds, lead tours, serve meals, clean rooms, man the retail shops, all those types of services where we touch the guests. The worst case for us would be either giving guests much worse service or closing down parts of the operations. We engage around 800 of these students in our parks in the summer. If you took 800 employees out of parks that are already understaffed to begin with, that would be a huge problem.
For many visitors, this is on their bucket list, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you hate to not be staffed to the point that you can't give them good service. There are times we have managers making beds because a lot of the American students have to leave to go back to school in September and we're very busy through October. In our case, they are not displacing American workers, they are just filling the gap; we can't get enough American workers to fill our demands.
Q: Is there any financial incentive to using foreign students instead of American?
A: No, many times the J-1 visa employees are actually -- with all the administration and necessary paperwork and the expense of processing them -- we end up spending more money to hire them than American employees.
We're definitely not hiring them to save money. The wages we pay are identical to the American hires. It's definitely not about cost-cutting measures, it's about filing positions that are in high demand that you don't have the supply locally to fill.
For years I've heard that the American students are being shortchanged and not given opportunities to work in America's treasured national parks, and that's just not the case. We recruit extensively in America on college campuses and all over the country. The demand is beyond what there is to find in terms of American workers.
Q: Have staffing problems gotten worse as the parks have become more popular?
A: Last year was a record year because of the centennial. There is high demand. People love to see their parks. I just got back from Crater Lake last week and Yellowstone this week. You sometimes can witness that the guests want quicker service, and if you're short in any position you can tell the guests are frustrated, and they should be.
And I was just thinking as I was walking through the lobby, looking at the people in the J-1 visa program, wow! If we removed all the J-1 employees from this lobby and this lodge, that would be very, very difficult.