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  SKIING AS A CAREER
               
by Bill Jones, Ski Instructor

Certified Professional Ski Instructor (Registration #
110478), Level III)

One ski school director posed this question to his staff,
 "What's the difference between a ski instructor and a pizza?"
 His answer, "A pizza can feed a family of four!"

Why teach skiing? Reasons for teaching skiing given by instructors include the reward itself of helping others learn, improving their own skiing, skiing with a group of amicable like-minded professionals, enjoying an outdoor job ("Look, my office has no windows!"), and making a little money. These are listed in roughly their order of importance to instructors, and note what comes last. That's partly because available monetary rewards are scant. One instructor, telling of his entry into teaching skiing as an unpaid volunteer, was asked, now that he was a paid professional, "Hasn't changed much, has it?"

Pay and benefits. If pay and benefits are important to you, become a golf pro. Skiers sometimes marvel at the fact that instructors do not have to buy lift tickets at their home areas. But there are many days the instructors would not make enough to pay for a lift ticket. This is hard to imagine for the ski school student who may pay dearly for the instructor's services, but it is so. Instructors must also buy their own equipment, although they do so at favored prices; they also pay for its maintenance. Most resorts pay part of health benefit programs for full time instructors but these may lapse during the summer season when the instructors are in unpaid status, usually working other jobs or enjoying their retirement from another occupation. Some resorts provide limited reasonably-priced living quarters; others do not. Cost of living in ski towns is usually high compared to most other areas. An entry level ski teaching job in Colorado in 2013 paid about $9.95 per hour for a day of less than 6 1/2  hours, with no guarantee of work beyond a few dollars for showing up. Entry level at a resort for a fully certified professional instructor paid $14.95, still with no minimum hour guarantee. (For comparison, these rates equate to $16,250 and $24,600 per year if a full-year, which it is not). And because more experienced instructors are given priority when assigning work, new staff often goes home without working. (See "Pay Potential" below for other factors that add to base pay.)

For more data on pay, copy and paste in your browser search box http://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/ski-instructor-salary-SRCH_KO0,14.htm.

 A few years ago one wag calculated that it would take three average-wage jobs to pay the mortgage on one average-price house in a ski community, and the math has changed unfavorably since then.

Entry-level skiing requirements: An unusual aspect of teaching skiing compared to teaching many other sports is that a ski instructor demonstrates the skills that students are acquiring (when did you last see a football coach tackle a player or a track coach run a 100-meter dash?) Common ski school standards for applicants for ski-teaching jobs are therefore--

  • to teach skill levels 1 through 4 (see "Skier Skill Levels 1-9")--instructors should ski at least at skill level 6  of the Professional Ski Instructors of America skier ratings (this skier skill level is that of  PSIA Instructor Certification Level 1--see PSIA: exits for latest instructor certification standards),
  • to teach skill levels 1 through 6 (see "Skier Skill Levels 1-9")--instructors should ski at least at skill level 8.(this skier skill level is that of PSIA Instructor Certification Level 2),
  • to teach all skill levels 1 through 9 (see "Skier Skill Levels 1-9")--instructors should ski at skill level 9 (this skier skill level is that of PSIA Certification Level 3).

The above description of instructor certification levels for teaching skier skill levels is adapted from standards of the Professional Ski Instructors Association, as described on their site at http://www.thesnowpros.org/psia-aasi/site/images/uploads/content-uploads/psia_alpine_cert_standards.pdf.

One resort publishes slightly different competency guidelines, as follows:
    Non-certified       teaches levels 1-4 (first experience through green zone)
    Cert 1                  teaches levels 1-5 (first experience to blue zone)
    Cert 2                  teaches levels 1-7 (first experience to black zone)
    Cert 3                  teaches levels 1-9 (all zones) 

Often an applicant's skiing is judged not only on whether particular terrain can be managed successfully, but also on the technique used to do so and how adaptable the applicant is in altering his or her ski technique, for PSIA ski schools usually want candidates to ski and teach in the PSIA system and may even have their own preferred nuances of style and mechanics that apply best to their terrain, snow types, or client base. PSIA instructor certification is not a pre-requisite at most ski schools, but opens opportunities. Ski schools often expect newly hired instructors to train for certification. And PSIA charges members not only dues but also fees for its clinics and exams

Education and training--how to get/certification.  Prospective instructors pretty much need to acquire the entry-level skiing requirement on their own. Taking ski lessons from a ski school is one way, and occasionally courses are offered for would-be instructors. For instance, there is the Rookie Academy: exits of  New Zealand and Aspen, Colorado, that gives a tuition-based, multi-week training course designed to produce ski instructors. Some ski schools offer shorter courses in conjunction with spring or autumn hiring clinics. Many new instructors come into teaching from having been in ski racing programs as youths. Others were lucky enough to be in skiing families or learned in other youth programs. Once working in a ski school, however, further training is usually offered without charge and with encouragement, although most such training is without pay (or limited required sessions may be paid at a reduced wage) or the benefit of workmen's compensation in case of injury. Instructors can pay dues to become members of the Professional Ski Instructors of America: exits and thereby attend lower-cost clinics in a variety of skiing disciplines and at many skill levels. That organization also offers fee programs to become certified to teach at the several levels.

People skills. Ski schools screen applicants as much or more for their people skills--"soft skills"--as they do for their skiing skills. The ski instruction industry is guest- and service-oriented and is founded on the willingness of its customers to pay for the benefits they receive, so benefits of worth must be delivered to guests. Too, it is vital if the industry is to sustain itself or even to grow, new skiers must be motivated to stay in the sport. Not everyone has the desire to work with people with the patience to succeed as an instructor. As one ski school director put it when confronting an employee (not a ski instructor in this case) who had been rude to a guest, "How is that you don't understand that these people wait all year, save their money, and hoard their vacation time to come here and spend it with you? They have honored you; you must honor them."

Pay potential.  Most ski schools have somewhat complex pay structures, some providing monetary incentives for teaching several guests at once, when a guest takes more than one lesson, and/or when a guest requests a particular instructor for a private lesson. As with many service jobs, cash tips from guests may or may not occur. Many resorts  pay nothing or little to instructors who show up for work but who are not assigned. And assignments go in priority to those who have greater teaching/skiing skills plus experience, or who have been requested by guests; new hires often literally go hungry. These realities spawn real-life situations in which

  • Instructor D, working fulltime, qualified for food stamps for his family,
  • Instructor J, working part-time, found ski teaching pay not enough to compete with his unemployment insurance when laid off from his regular job,
  • Instructor M, gave up teaching for a regular job, explaining he got tired of  "hand to mouth and roommates",
  • Instructor G, one of a major resort's top paid instructors--who had been ranked as one of America's 100 best instructors by a ski magazine--gave up teaching for a better paying job outside skiing.

All these examples are of fully certified and experienced instructors, and there are many more cases where excellent instructors could not earn an adequate living and left the industry.

Younger persons often teach for a few seasons, then leave the profession because of the wages. Thus there has become a geriatric factor in which persons who have retired from other jobs and have a separate income are able to afford to teach skiing, and so these people in part make it more difficult for instructors as a whole to negotiate adequate pay levels. There is also competition from foreign visa persons. Finally, the length of season is dependent on snowfall/weather factors as well as the national and international economies and competing travel opportunities, and nowadays, even on terrorist threats. "How do you make a small fortune teaching skiing?", the wag asked. "Start with a big one," was the answer. It is true, however, that some instructors have found profitable niches and teach full-time for their living, and some of these travel in the North American winter to southern hemisphere locales to make their jobs year-round. For further insights, read the article "Ski School Revolution" in October 2002 Ski Magazine, by Kendall Hamilton, quoted in part here: 

Most resorts depend on ski schools as profit centers, running margins of 30 to 60 percent, which for large areas can put millions of dollars of profit to the bottom line. "I think it's [poor instructor wages] bad business," says Joan Rostad, who has taught skiing for 22 years, was a Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) executive vice president and served as a board member from 1989 until this year. "Cutting investment in quality to improve the bottom line is only going to hurt the ski teaching profession."
Poor wages are partly to blame for the high attrition of PSIA's least experienced members, those who attain the minimum Level 1 certification but don't teach for more than a season or two. Rostad estimates that 50 to 70 percent of the Level I instructors turn over every couple of seasons. Much of that is a natural progression: The resort life isn't for everyone. But if instructors were better paid in general, wouldn't they stick around longer and become better teachers-thus turning out more devoted skiers who would help the sport grow and prosper?

In 2015 the issue of instructor pay became of expanded interest, with enough concern among instructors to explore unionization. This has been considered and even done occasionally at ski resorts in the past, too. For insights, go to https://www.facebook.com/Fair-Wages-for-Ski-Instructors and www.psia-nw.org to learn of some Beaver Creek instructors working on this issue. Also see https://instructorsunited.wordpress.com to learn that Beaver Creek Ski Instructors have filed a petition seeking to unionize.

Length of ski-teaching career. Careers in teaching skiing can span many years. Entry level jobs today are typically found in children's ski schools where required skills in beginner classes involve more entertaining of children and anticipating their needs to keep them interested and comfortable than skiing well and teaching mechanics. Commonly these jobs are taken by younger persons, although some very effective older folks work in this arena, too. Often younger ski instructors enter the industry as teachers for only a few years before they go on to other endeavors. There are master teachers, however, who have made teaching their lifetime occupations. A more recent trend is for retirees to become ski instructors as a means of enjoying people in an outdoor setting. Individuals in some cases continue teaching through their 60s and even into their 70s, and a few legends are today continuing into their 8th decade. The work is demanding, however, and an instructor is lucky if their body holds up to all the stresses of skiing, teaching skiing, and accumulating winters.

Equal Opportunity issues.
In the United States, it is not legal to give preference in employment matters based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. This legal state has not always been so, and for many years it was necessary to be male and preferably from Europe to get the best jobs. Nowadays, however, a number of women have risen in their ski schools to top posts, and others are at the top of the skill pool in roles as examiners for certification. Some are even on the national demonstration team of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Of course, we know of our U.S. Women's Olympic Team, which has often outperformed the men in their respective venues in world competition. Age is not a legal employment factor, either, and does not necessarily compromise effectiveness, as noted above under "Length of ski-teaching career." The ski sport and the ski industry therefore is primarily performance-based, and exceptions are just that.

Now it is time for a few observations on the demographics of the ski instructor population; these are general impressions not backed up by data. Curiously, there are many more male ski instructors (say, 5 times or maybe even 10 times as many at some resorts) than female, even though there are more women students than men, and this can lead to a ski school's preference for women applicants to more evenly balance the roster. It does happen that students sometimes request that an instructor be of a particular gender or age, and there are ski school classes for persons of a single gender to be taught by a person of the same gender, a matter beyond the legal understanding of this website, but at least is a system that works well. Women may be more likely tapped than men to teach children, but both do so. Race or national origin does not seem to be a factor in employment, although skiing has been mainly the sport of the Anglo-Saxon, and most instructors are that. African-American skiers and instructors are rare, although there are some major black ski clubs. Hispanic-Americans do not seem to ski much, but Hispanics from Mexico and South America are not uncommon on the slopes. Japanese- and Korean-Americans tend to ski more, proportionally,  than members of races other than Anglo-Saxon, it seems. The preponderance of Anglo-Saxon skiers is even the case in skiing competition, where few other races are represented on American teams. (However, the black-dominated National Brotherhood of Skiers: exits has a program that encourages skiing participation by their members, with one of their goals to put an athlete of color on an Olympic team.) Explaining these imbalances in racial representation on the ski slopes is for a sociologist to probe, and if anyone knows of such studies or better data, please e-mail Bill Jones so the results can be shared here. Judging by the preponderance of black athletes on football, baseball, and basketball professional teams and their obvious prowess in such sports, it would seem more could appear on ski  teams. (A curious aside to this probe of racial intrigue is the story of a helpful local striking up a conservation at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics with an athlete of Japanese ancestry. The instant assumption was that the athlete was on the Japan team. Not so, he was on the American team, American-born.)

Advancement potential. There are many more ski instructors than there are ski school directors or even supervisors of ski instructors, so opportunities to advance into ski school management are correspondingly competitive. However, for a person entering the career early in life and sticking with it during the difficult first years or decade, he or she will outlast the many who come in only for a few years and will acquire more experience and contacts which may be helpful. Some pursue further capability in their profession by getting trained and certified to be teachers of instructors and even examiners of those seeking certification. With continued years of teaching, one also tends to teach more private lessons and even to develop a clientele that returns and requests them for lessons. Many resorts pay extra to instructors who inspire such returners. There is also the possibility, more so probably at the larger resorts, to move into other segments of resort operations and potentially into responsible positions in fields such as lift maintenance and operations, planning, hotel and restaurant management, human resources, planning, marketing, land development, etc. Some ski industry executives started as ski instructors.

Where the jobs are.  Persons considering a skiing job or career may visit the websites of resorts of interest, many of which include a link to employment opportunities. See website addresses for these resorts on our pages Skiing the Colorado Rockies and Skiing-related websites. Also look in the website of the Professional Ski Instructors of America: exits. There is also the websites skischooljobs.com: exits and skijobs411: exits. A semi-back door into the industry that has worked for some is to take a non-teaching job in a ski school, such as selling lesson tickets or answering phones. The ski school may allow such persons to take their clinics for instructors, as it is advantageous for the office staff to know the sport. Once in the system and having demonstrated an interest and skill in guest handling, they have a chance of being assigned to a teaching job, which, however, may pay less well than a non-skiing job especially at first.

Other skiing jobs. Ski areas hire skiers for other functions, too: ski patrol, on-slope traffic controllers, on-snow interviewers, race crew, events coordinators, slope groomers, snowmakers, lift managers, ticket scanners, day-care staff, restaurant operations, lodging operations, etc. Ski area management can be learned at a few colleges, such as Sierra Nevada College: exits at Incline, Nevada. Some courses are offered by Colorado Mountain College in Summit County, Colorado.

Volunteer opportunities. Many ski areas offer incentives for persons to volunteer their time. Incentives can include lift tickets, meal discounts, etc. "Ambassadors" who roam areas of concentrated skiers give information on the resort. Sometimes there are summertime programs to clean lift lines of litter or help with clearing rocks or brush from ski trails.

This "Skiing as a Career" page last modified 07/28/2017 02:52:04 AM. Did you come here from a link on another website? For latest version of this page, copy to your browser: http://www.skimybest.com/skicarer.htm. Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. William R Jones.