By Hilary Russ
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (AP) — Resorts and other summer businesses across the country are getting swamped with applications from out-of-work Americans, competing for jobs usually filled by young people and foreigners.
Six months ago, Ramon Villanueva was earning $50,000 a year at a Philadelphia company that rents out sound systems and video projectors. But he got laid off in the fall, and now he is making $8 an hour operating the amusement park game on the Seaside Heights boardwalk at the Jersey shore.
"I never really thought I'd be working here," Villanueva, a 22-year-old with a wife and two children, said Thursday. "I thought I'd be a customer here."
All over the country, as unemployment rises, U.S. workers like Villanueva are lowering their expectations.
"The demographics of this year's summer work force is going to change into more well-educated, semi-retired, people in crunches, people happy to be employed," said Patty Ceglio Bishoff, director of operations for CoolWorks.com, an online bulletin board that helps people find summer jobs in scenic areas.
About 8,000 people turned out for a job fair run by the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association in South Carolina last month — double the number from the previous year. Some of the 60 employers ran out of applications within hours.
Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, also got twice as many job applications this year. And members of the California Attractions and Parks Association won't have to hire as many foreign workers this year, said the group's president, John Robinson.
Red Jacket Resorts, which runs five hotels on Cape Cod and two in New Hampshire, had to turn people away and cancel its usual pre-summer job fair because managers were already swamped by local job-seekers. The number of foreign workers the chain uses has fallen 10 percent this year.
"From the standpoint of being able to hire efficiently, hire the right people, it's been the best year in a long time," said Ken Smith, Red Jacket's director of operations. "It's a sign of the times. We're basically in the hiring driving seat."
The Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island normally hires about 350 workers from overseas, mainly Thailand and Eastern Europe, and about 250 Americans. Managing director John Hulett said he expects to hire about 30 more Americans than usual this year.
Some employers said they still prefer laborers from overseas.
"I have to force them to take a break," said Cindy Buziak, owner of the Holly Beach Hotel, a bed and breakfast in Wildwood, New Jersey. "American kids just want to get in and get out."
That's not the only problem facing teenagers this year, said Austin Lavin, who co-founded Myfirstpaycheck.com, a job site for teens.
"Teenagers have to be better prepared than they've ever been before," Lavin said. "It's no longer OK to just show up in jeans and a T-shirt and ask for a job."
Anna Zakharova, a 20-year-old hotel management student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, said it might be easier for her to get summer work in her native Russia. She applied to one hotel in the U.S. and hasn't heard back.
"If I had a job, I'd definitely stay here," she said.
Some businesses cautioned that while the flood of domestic job applicants allows them to skirt the cumbersome bureaucracy involved in hiring laborers from overseas, many of these out-of-work Americans may not be ideal employees.
"I'm not convinced that all of those people who are unemployed would be a good fit for us," said Susan O'Donnell, human resources manager at Hotel Viking in Newport, Rhode Island. "If they were meant to be in hospitality, they probably already would have been. Just because you're on unemployment rolls doesn't mean you want to go off them and clean toilets."
At the shore, Villanueva's new job entails enticing players to use a hammer to launch rubber frogs through the air and land them inside one of four rotating lily pads to win a prize.
"If it feeds your children and puts a roof over your head, it's perfect," he said. "It's enough to live on."
He smiled as a 2-year-old girl used the hammer to smash the frog instead of striking the launching pad.
"Here, let me show you, honey," he said, folding the frog's legs underneath its rubber torso, the secret key to a successful frog flight. With help from her dad, the girl sent it airborne. It splashed down in a pool of water just short of a lily pad.
"That's OK," Villanueva said. "Come back and try again soon, OK?"
-- Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Wayne Parry in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina, and Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, New Jersey.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
By Hilary Russ