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The globalization of the summer job

They are working in Atlanta, even out in Omaha, all around Niagara and outside Baltimore; they come across the ocean to Springsteen's Jersey shore. They are the foreign college student summer workers here in the United States on a J-1 summer work-travel (SWT) visa. You are likely to meet them at almost any vacation resort you visit across the land. What are we to make of this phenomenon impacting America in these worrisome economic times?

Certainly, the influx of these J-1 SWTs represents a radical departure from traditional/historical circumstances of the seasonal job. For many decades, American teens found summer jobs at small amusement parks and attractions close to home.

With the onset of globalization in the late 20th century, there has been a surge in foreign student workers. According to the U.S. State Department, the number in the J-1 SWT program hovered around 150,000 from 2006 to 2008. After significant reductions because of our depression, the number for 2010 will be around 80,000.

The summer work-travel program is basically a student cultural exchange program operated under strict guidelines. Agencies in foreign lands work with State Department-authorized agencies in screening students. Successful applicants are then usually placed with one of 56 designated sponsors for work in the United States. Like United Work and Travel of Orchard Park, which sponsors work with various American subcontractors to set up the jobs and maintain oversight.

Program participants must know English, pay for their own travel to the United States, carry their own comprehensive health insurance and have about $500 cash in hand. They come seeking "opportunity" in various forms and fashions. During their travel time, they put money back into our economy. All participants must return home for their next semester.

So, is there a threat to American jobs in these hard times? Not much of one for college students, at least. American students can work only from June through August. Summer resorts usually have longer seasons and can rely on the foreign students when ours can't work. In addition, overall percentages of SWTs are small. At Darien Lake, only 4 percent of seasonal jobs are filled by J-1 SWTs. United Work and Travel places about 50 SWTs in the Buffalo area.

But two years of very high unemployment have changed the landscape, as people of all ages and qualifications apply for seasonal work. Early in the winter, newspapers in Michigan (15 percent unemployment) reported on this phenomenon. Recently, California (12.4 percent unemployment) news stories told of long lines for theme park jobs. Cedar Point Park in Ohio (12.4 percent unemployment rate) has had 30,000 applicants for its 4,500 jobs. Just two years ago, such jobs were undersubscribed. The bottom line on this: The Obama administration has a long way to go on its promise of creating jobs.

In our weakened economy, are the foreign students exploited? Generally not because there are so many regulations and monitors. But the SWTs may work overtime. In suburban Baltimore, I encountered one foreign student working from late morning to twilight selling produce from the back of a truck. However, decades ago, an older friend, Harry Gundling, worked alternating weeks with no overtime or benefits. (It was enough of a privilege that he drove the kiddieland choo-choo train!)

What should concern Americans most about the foreign student workers is their attitudes toward work and opportunity in what might rightfully be characterized as dead-end, boring jobs. We might take an ironically iconic example of this from MTV's hot show "Jersey Shore." The show's actors work in a T-shirt store in Seaside Heights and have no interest in their menial "day jobs." (Lucky for them, in real life they hit the lottery with their MTV jobs.)

Contrast the American attitude with that of Moldova Max, an immigrant student who worked in a fast-food restaurant. He took an interest in affairs, gave useful suggestions to his American co-workers, studied how business works and learned personnel skills. Within a short time, he was a shift manager. Max embraced opportunity and learning experiences in a trivial job. Today he is an American citizen pursuing a successful high-tech career.

American students must learn from foreign students in terms of how they approach hum-drum work. Maybe this whole area can be explored in a "Jersey Shore" spin-off starring some J-1 SWT participants. They have more to teach us than does Snooki or the Situation.

Silvio Laccetti is a longtime professor of social sciences and a national columnist. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu

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