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

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-round.

But the number of young, job-seeking residents willing to work at a summer amusement pier at a starting pay of $8.60 per 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 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 low-level positions in areas such as ride operation, life-guarding, 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 1980s, Beckson said.

With the anti-immigration rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C., there had been concern over possible change to or limits on the J-1 student work and travel visa program.

But Nathan Arnold, spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said the J-1 visa programs will continue to be implemented at the same level they have 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 with 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 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 nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, in Portland, Maine, is one of the organizations designated by the State Department as a J-1 Summer Work Travel student visa sponsor in several categories, said Phil Simon, vice president of the work exchange program.

“From CIEE’s perspective, the program has incredible value in terms of public diplomacy. 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, assisting with serving breakfast and helping with maintenance of the buildings and the grounds.

These students are an asset to his business primarily because of the dates they are available to work — 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 American students 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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