Cover Story: Taking a Flier

Airport employers import foreign workers to fill jobs

Kelly Burleson and Sean Hughes

Jobs. Lately they seem scarce, particularly the good ones. Especially for young people. This summer has been the roughest in some time for teenagers and twentysomethings. Both U.S. News & World Report and Time magazine ran stories bemoaning the employment outlook for college and high school students. Corporate internships are fewer, and older workers downsized from large companies end up competing with students for less glamorous jobs like waiting tables, lifeguarding and parking cars.

Still, jobs go begging in some places. One such place is Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

With unemployment rates still high, you'd think airport employers would have no shortage of capable workers. As in years past, this hasn't been the case.

Unable to find enough workers from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, many CVG employers have looked overseas for summer help. Starting in June students from China, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and several other countries came to the Tristate to work in the airport's restaurants and gift shops.

"They're fabulous employees," says Alyson Little, human resources manager for HMS Host, one of the airport vendors that hire foreign students. "It's a great experience. We get to learn more about them, and we can show off what American business is all about."

The students came to Host via a Boston-based organization, the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE). Others came to the airport independently after landing a first job in Greater Cincinnati.

"Last year we got them from Kings Island," says Brian Pope, general manager of Hudson News, another airport vendor. "A lot of them want another job while they're here."

If employers such as Paramount's Kings Island and airport vendors have to hire foreigners to fill all their slots, there must be an incredible shortage of Cincinnati area students willing and/or able to work summer jobs. Local kids must have it pretty good to turn down decent jobs, right?

The answer is far from simple. Sure, young people in Over-the-Rhine need jobs. But jobs require good work references, transportation and a general familiarity with customer service. But those aren't the only the impediments. In some ways, the distance between Over-the-Rhine and the airport is farther than the distance from Europe to CVG.

'Afraid you're going to stay'
It's easy to see what's in this relationship for the foreign workers. The pay is definitely more than what they'd find back home.

Little describes a young man from Albania who saved more than $4,000 while working at the airport in 2002. Not only was he able to continue his college education, but he helped provide for his entire family for a year — the gross domestic product in Albania is $3,000 per person.

Many airport vendors have a difficult time simply finding and keeping workers, even though wages can go as high as $10 an hour for cashier positions. What's in this relationship for the employers is simple — good workers.

Turnover among the foreign workers is almost negligible, and they work hard.

"We lose very few," Little says. "It's a whole different work ethic. They take pride in everything, even something as simple as making a biscuit."

FoodBrand, another of the airport's food concessionaires, hired 20 or so foreign student workers last summer.

"We were opening up a bunch of stores at once," says Dana Hoium, an assistant manager. "We needed a lot of bodies. They were very enjoyable to work with."

"Some are good, some aren't," counters Joe Pagano, general manager of Anton Airfoods. "We don't hire (foreign students for) summer help. We have internships — it's a year-long program where they learn all facets of our operation."

CIEE touts several benefits to employers looking to hire foreign workers through the organization. They speak more than one language, including decent English, and, according to CIEE's Web site (, "bring with them a global perspective often lacking in U.S. college students." They're dedicated employees, because the chance to work in the United States is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They can help broaden the horizons of local employees by exposing them to other cultures.

Edite Liparte, who works for Host, is from Latvia, where she says "to find a job is more difficult. We don't have as many places to work."

Saving money, though, is a challenge for the 20-year-old student.

"You have the highest wages, but you also have the highest prices," she says.

Martin Chamrad, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student from the Czech Republic who bartends at one of Host's cocktail lounges, disagrees.

"Some things are more, like food," he says. "Some are less, like gas and cars."

One thing that's added to Chamrad's summer income is tips.

"Tipping in my country is considered rude," he says. "Not so here."

The extra money allowed him to buy a van. His only trouble assimilating into Greater Cincinnati has come when he tries to buy liquor using his international driver's license.

"They say it's not real," he laughs. "I tell them, 'It's an international driver's license.' "

Host has hired more than 60 foreign students. Many of them stay at The Drawbridge in Fort Mitchell. Others choose to get their own places.

"They want to Americanize," Little says. "So they rent apartments and buy cars."

When they return home, they bring back not only money but job experience.

"It's fascinating for them," Little says. "They learn very desirable skills. When a fast food operation (from the U.S.) goes over there, these people have an advantage."

As the leaves turn in the fall, the students' four-month stay draws to a close.

"It's easier to get a visa to come here in your second or third year (of college)," Liparte says. "In your fourth year, the U.S. government is afraid you're going to stay."

Though she's enjoyed America, Liparte looks forward to going back to Latvia.

"I like my home," she says, smiling.

Chamrad will take a vacation before heading home to the Czech Republic.

"I'll go to California," he says.

Host will bid farewell to these students and then welcome workers from South America over the winter. These are mostly professionals long out of school.

"Last year we had a dentist and a business owner," Little says. "They want to get a better grasp of English and also to gain an advantage in their careers."

Never been there
Using experience from a summer job to gain an advantage in building a career — sounds like a sensible option for any young person. But are these foreign workers denying local students an enriching experience?

That might be true if there were no other entry-level jobs available. But the airport and Kings Island aren't the only employers that have to work to attract workers. In fact, the local job market seems to be rebounding. The unemployment rate for the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was 4.7 percent in May, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number doesn't count all the unemployed, of course. And the MSA includes everyone from Indian Hill — where young people don't need jobs — to Over-the-Rhine, where they can't find them.

But it's not a simple matter of putting on clean clothes and hopping the Metro to start a new job waiting for you at the airport. Unemployment is a multifaceted phenomenon.

"Perception is a monster," says Beth Smith, president of Cincinnati Works, a nonprofit agency that specializes in finding jobs for the seemingly unemployable. "Some people think the airport is farther away than it is. I took many job seekers to the airport, and they had never been there."

Kids from poor families don't often travel by plane. Some don't travel at all. Going from a ghetto to an international airport, with tens of thousands of people passing through, can be intimidating — not to mention dealing with the kind of security that makes even frequent fliers nervous.

"These people are coming from a different place," Smith says. "I took a job-seeker out to lunch once, and he had never been to a restaurant. The river is way wider than you think it is. Working at the airport isn't a matter of going to the coatroom in the back and hanging up your coat. But there are good jobs at the airport. It's a nice place to work and it's an interesting place to work."

Why then are people from the Rhine River valley taking jobs that people in Over-the-Rhine need?

"We've always had more jobs available than we have people to fill them," Smith says. "In the entry-level market, our experience is it's thriving. The No. 1 risk factor is a patchy job history. Employers see you've quit other places quickly and they figure you'll quit on them, too. Turnover is expensive."

Last year Cincinnati Works helped 589 people find jobs. So far this year they've gotten 325 job seekers hired.

'Too reliant on them'
Each year the Council on International Educational Exchange helps more than 5,000 U.S. employers with their seasonal hiring and internship needs, sponsoring more than 35,000 students. Employers contract with CIEE to import workers, all of whom have Social Security numbers and the appropriate work visas.

Though jobs were scarcer in the United States this past year, CIEE spokesperson Elizabeth O'Neil says the organization's efforts weren't greatly impacted.

"We don't have final numbers yet," she says, "but I'd say they're steady."

Students enter the CIEE program in a variety of ways.

"We have job fairs (overseas) and take key employers over to meet face-to-face with students," O'Neil explains. "We work with a lot of local organizations. The students pay a program fee, and there's no cost to the employer."

When the telemarketing no-call list went into effect last fall, many in that industry immediately predicted massive layoffs and bemoaned the loss of good paying jobs, even though wages for such positions hover around $8 an hour. Yet jobs at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which pay between $8 and $10 an hour, go begging.

Many of the airport's employers hardly ever remove their job postings from the board at the Kentucky Job Services office in Terminal One, and turnover is constant.

Transportation is one key reason prospective employees might shy away from CVG. The Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) has a bus route to the airport, making its first stop at CVG at around 5:15 a.m. on weekdays — but many shifts start at 5 a.m. On weekends the last bus leaves at 10:45 p.m., well before many of the shops and restaurants close. Some locations in the Delta terminal stay open as late as 11:30 p.m.

"TANK has really done a nice job of trying to accommodate different shifts," Smith says. "There are certain shifts they might miss. And they might be able to get back downtown, but the buses to their neighborhood aren't running that late."

That means having to arrange your own transportation, but even that has drawbacks. FoodBrand's Hoium thinks even employees who drive feel they have to deal with a transportation problem.

"They think it's a hassle getting out here," he says. "Then once you park your car you're still 15 or 20 minutes from your place of work."

That's because a shuttle bus has to take you from the employee parking lot to the terminals. Once there, it can still take quite a while to go through security and get all the way to, say, Concourse C, the Comair area that's the airport's furthest outpost and one of the busiest.

Yet what seems like a troublesome commute for locals doesn't faze the foreign workers, whose wages more than make up for it. Median household income in Ohio is $29,000 and in Kentucky about $25,000. In the Czech Republic, it's roughly $13,000. Even the lowest paying jobs at the airport exceed that.

At a time when the airline industry is taking a beating, airport employment offers a certain degree of job security. You can't just outsource these jobs to China or India or Guatemala.

There's the other kind of security, too. Most of the people at the airport work "behind security," meaning they along with all visitors and travelers are screened by Transportation Safety Administration personnel. As a worker, the chances of you being involved in, say, an armed robbery are nil.

Still, with the want ads section in the Sunday paper seemingly shrinking by the week, airport jobs go unfilled or need to be refilled constantly. It's been that way at CVG for years and hasn't really changed with the souring of the economy over the past few years.

Come next year, most of the students will return to the U.S., as employers scramble to fill positions during the peak summer travel months. Most will come back to Cincinnati and the airport.

Hoium says he's not sure he wants to bring so many back next year — but only because the foreign workers are so good.

"We got to be too reliant on them," he says about his experience in 2003, when almost two dozen dependable workers had to be replaced at once when their terms ended in October.

In the book Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser describes workers from Mexico and other Central American countries cleaning out slaughter houses in the Midwest. The work is horrifically disgusting, hot and dangerous.

It's understandable that Americans would resist undertaking such employment, but why an airport would have trouble attracting workers — to the point that many vendors have to import employees from overseas — is consternating.

The employment problem will only get worse as CVG continues its 50-year expansion plan, which means more jobs that employers might have a hard time filling. Then again, there are college students all over the world who will need summer jobs in the years to come.

They'll come to Greater Cincinnati to make some money, improve their English and learn valuable skills. And they'll help make CVG a truly international airport. ©

P.F. Wilson is the concourse manager for manager of Hudson News at CVG. Gregory Flannery contributed to this article.