Saturday, May 5, 2018

The J-1 student visa program is crucial for South Jersey

Vincent Jackson, Press of Atlantic City

Image from article, with caption: Brooke Suydam, (right) supervisor of ride operations at Morey's Buy Now Piers in Wildwood, goes over ride operations with summer employees Jerm Sartorio and Rena Bersola both 19 from the Philippines. Sartorio and Bersola will be working as ride operators on the pier this summer under the J-1 Student Visa program.

With 1,500 seasonal positions to fill for the summer, Morey's Piers in Wildwood could hire about half of the employable people who live in the city year around.

But the number of young, job-seeking residents willing to work at a summer amusement pier at a starting salary of $8.60 an hour is so low, places such as Morey's Piers cannot fill their job ranks with local hires.

So instead, they make use of the J-1 Summer Work Travel student visa program.

The program allows the park to offer so many attractions, to stay open longer hours and to maintain all the full-time employees it has, said Denise Beckson, Morey's Piers' director of operations and human resources.

"It's places like Vail and Martha's Vineyard and the Jersey Shore and the Wisconsin Dells, which don't have a year-around population to support the entry-level jobs for the flux of tourism that they get at certain times of the year," Beckson said. "It's a necessity from a business standpoint."

Last year, Morey's had 1,500 seasonal positions, and 182 went unfilled, Beckson said. This summer, the goal is to hire 550 J-1 student work and travel visa applicants to fill such low-level positions as ride operators, life guards, food and beverage, games, some retail and admissions, she said.

Morey's Piers has employed thousands of J-1 visa students since at least the 1980's, Beckson said.

With the anti-immigration rhetoric coming out of Washington D.C., there had been concern that there would be some change or limits would be placed on the J-1 student work and travel visa program.

But, Nathan Arnold, spokesperson for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, said the J-1 visa programs will continue to be implemented at the same levels as it has for the past few years.

"We encourage students to continue to apply and employers to work with local sponsors to place students on the Summer Work Travel program," Arnold said.

There were 331,193 J-1 visa participants last year nationwide with 104,923 in the Summer Work Travel category. This was a slight increase from 2016, Arnold said.

Last year, New Jersey hired 5,083 Summer Work Travel program participants compared to 5,371 in 2016, Arnold said.

Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, participated in a task force with a White House committee last September through conference calls.

Clark said she stressed the importance of the J-1 program to areas like Cape May County and why it was important that the program not be restricted.

"Their concern was that the program was causing economic hardship for locals, that J-1 Summer Work Travel took local jobs," Clark said. "We were explaining to them that it actually created and preserves jobs."

The non-profit Council on International Educational Exchange, CIEE, Portland, Maine, is one of the organizations that has been designated by the State Department to be a J-1 Summer Work Travel student visa sponsor in several different categories, said Phil Simon, vice president, work exchange program.

"From CIEE's perspective, the program has incredible value in terms of public diplomacy[JB emphasis]. The fact is young university students are the future influencers in other countries," Simon said.

John Battista, owner of The Carisbrooke Inn, an European-inspired, bed and breakfast in Ventnor, has a simple reason for hiring J-1 Summer Work Travel visa students for the past 14 years.

Out of 30 seasonal employees, seven will be J-1 visa students, Battista said. The jobs they do include housekeeping, front desk, assist with serving breakfast and help with maintenance of the buildings and the grounds.

These students are an asset to his business primary because of the dates they are available to work, which is the same reason they appeal to other businesses that make most of their money during the summer.

"The American kids can actually get here earlier because they usually finish college around the first or second week of May, but they can't stay long enough," Battista said.

The biggest problem is that students from this country have to leave usually around the first or second week of August, Battista said.

"We usually stay busy until the first or second week of September, so if we hired only American kids, we would be stuck at the end of the summer," Battista said.

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