A Summer Place

For genuine middle-American fun, you can't do much better than the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. America's second oldest theme park has 67 rides, dozens of squirt-gun games and mobs of kids waving countless gobs of cotton candy. At Coasters, the park's 1950s-style diner, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis rock on. And look--here comes a tall, blond waitress with your order. "Here is your cheese and burger," she says, smiling brightly. "Bolshoye spasibo."

That's Russian for thank you very much. And Anna Beloded, a 19-year-old college student from Belarus, is--like her sister Ekaterina--genuinely glad to be waiting tables here. But really, the thanks should be going the other way: from millions of vacationing Americans to 40,000-plus foreign student workers, mostly Europeans, without whom the summer of '99 would be going a lot less smoothly. Coming from places like Ireland, France, Spain and, increasingly, Eastern Europe, they are especially evident in the Eastern United States. You'll find them scooping ice cream in Martha's Vineyard, running roller coasters at the Jersey shore and even mastering the nuances of American recreation in Corolla, North Carolina. "Veefle ball?" asked a puzzled young clerk at a beach store in early August. "No, no," explained his customer. "Wiffle ball."

Sure, there's a learning curve. But for seasonal employers these kids are a godsend--and just one more byproduct of America's incredible prosperity. Twenty years ago American teens scrambled for any kind of summer-resort job. Today, with teen unemployment at a 30-year low, they're choosy. Some take $200-on-a-good-night waitressing gigs. College students, perhaps backed by parents with bulging stock portfolios, may prefer unpaid but career-boosting internships.

Meanwhile, people are vacationing more, resorts are thriving--and jobs like concession-stand operator, beach attendant, convenience-store clerk and even lifeguard are proving tough to fill. That's why there are 700 foreign workers spinning the Ferris wheels and frying the funnel cakes at Cedar Point this summer, nearly a fourth of the park's entire summer work force. The numbers are even more striking in Wildwood, New Jersey. "I don't know how we'd make it through the summer without the foreign students," says Denise Beckson, an operations manager for Morey's Piers, where about 90 percent of the summer workers are foreigners. Unlike Americans, many won't return to school till September or October--a big plus for employers like Morey's, whose high season stretches into fall.

How do the kids find their way to Wildwood from Warsaw or Galway? Under the summer work-and-travel section of a J-1 visa, which allows college students to spend their summer working in the States. In 1997, nearly 23,000 students came to the United States for summer jobs, according to the United States Information Agency. This year, numbers are expected to top 40,000.

As active recruiting replaces word-of-mouth hiring, the numbers will undoubtedly grow. Employers like Morey's and Cedar Point hire workers through some 21 government-certified sponsor agencies, many of which have elaborate Web sites and organize multicountry recruiting trips to foreign universities. The Council on International Education Exchange, one of the largest of the agencies, brought in 23,000 students on its summer work-and-travel program this year, many of them Irish. "Every Irish kid knows a dozen others who've done the program," says Nick Meaney, a director of marketing at CIEE. In fact, in resort areas like Martha's Vineyard and southern New Jersey, it's tough to find a beach attendant or a lifeguard who doesn't speak with a lilt. "It's no cultural experience being here--every third person is Irish," says Dalva McPhillips, a Trinity College senior doing her second summer as a lifeguard at Morey's Piers.

Of course, summer at the pool in Ireland wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. McPhillips lives with 12 other student workers in a chaotic beachfront boardinghouse, spends 60 hours a week in a bathing suit and parties till the wee hours at local discos. "All I wanted to do was meet some people, get a tan and have a laugh," she said. Kieran O'Mahony, a buff Wildwood lifeguard from County Cork, couldn't agree more. He runs twice a day on the beach, hits the local bars at night and has just one word for his social life: "Brilliant."

For most Western European student workers, fun--not money--is the point of coming to America. They'll put most of their pay toward their visa and plane ticket, then spend the rest on a road trip around the States. Eastern Europeans tend to count every penny. But that doesn't preclude adventure. Czech students Pavel Kotas and Marek Kijonka, who pay $24 a week to live in dormitory housing at Cedar Point, recently took a road trip of their own while test-driving a used car. Deciding on a liberal translation of "test," the pair took a 1990 Ford Taurus on an 80-mile trip to Cleveland, got lost and returned to Cedar Point seven hours later. The next morning, the police were waiting for them. Kotas offered to buy the car for $1,500. "I thought that might be a good thing to do," he explains.

Patricia Bausa, a 20-year-old Spaniard, is also planning to hit the road, and she's not waiting to do it. Bausa says she'll quit her job selling pizza on the Wildwood boardwalk, travel for a week, then return to a new position spinning cotton candy. She can afford to be casual about leaving her job. Even 40,000 foreign students can't fill America's seasonal-worker shortage. CIEE says that as many as 1,000 new summer jobs are posted each week on the agency's Web site, many from first-time employers. Even winter resorts are getting into the act. Ski lodges in California and Colorado are hiring kids from Australia and South Africa to work on their summer breaks, which fall during peak ski season.

But even as the snow falls, summer resorts will be worrying about next year's labor pool. In January, employees from Cedar Point will go on a Council-sponsored road show to persuade European students to come to the States. Not that kids like Anna and Ekaterina Beloded need the hard sell. They're already proving that the cultural outreach the J-1 visa was created to promote is happening, though perhaps not in quite the way its authors envisioned. Having got their feet wet in Americana at Cedar Point, the Beloded sisters are coming back next summer with a plan for full immersion--in a road trip to Las Vegas.