Wins and Tips for Managing Foreign Labor

As with all employees, setting proper expectations immediately will help prevent issues from arising in the future, but with many different countries, backgrounds, and cultures, be prepared to expect the unexpected and don’t assume your foreign exchange students know the basics of living in the United States.

I still vividly remember one of my former managers saying, “Change is inevitable; how you adapt to change will determine your success in the future.” 

Fast-forward a couple decades and I found myself working at an iconic waterfront hotel in Northern Michigan. Just after Christmas in 2018, we were notified the hotel was sold to new ownership, and eventually major renovations of the entire property were going to take place. The new ownership group brought in new management, and also promoted several key employees into supervisory positions. 

Every summer, my hotel employs approximately 50 international exchange students on a J1 Work/Travel Visa, as it is difficult to find enough local staff to fulfill the departmental needs on a seasonal basis. Most of the large resorts in Northern Michigan have turned to this option to meet their staffing requirements.

Our new hotel ownership group had never had to use seasonal foreign labor before, as its other properties were much smaller than this new acquisition. In April 2019, I was asked to join the Human Resources team and manage all facets of the incoming foreign labor, including: coordinating housing, arrival and departure details, new hire orientation, and all “other duties as assigned.” I had several years of experience assisting with foreign labor at another large resort, but I was not expecting all of the unforeseen challenges that were in store for me this season. 

For the majority of our international exchange students, this is their first time in the United States. I am sharing my experiences as a general trainer in hopes it will provide helpful insight for anyone employing seasonal foreign labor in their workplace.

  1. Travel Arrangements and Baggage Security: The students provide their own transportation and arrive individually, so a detailed spreadsheet of arrival dates and times is helpful.

WINS: Advanced e-mail communication with welcome letter, arrival instructions, photograph of hotel shuttle, and copies of arrival schedule for the front desk. Have the students provide the arriving flight number or bus number, so you can track it for delays.

TIPS: Have the students make an inventoried list of all their items prior to departing and stress baggage security at all times while travelling. While it seems like common sense for experienced travelers, unfortunately, a few students had their backpacks and/or luggage stolen with all their personal possessions and money. This led us down the path of the Greyhound Luggage Reimbursement process where a pre-prepared list of items and approximate value would have been extremely helpful.

In case of a lost/stolen passport, the exchange student must contact his or her closest embassy or consulate (in our case it was in Chicago, IL, 317 miles away).

  1. New Hire Orientation and Employment Paperwork: I created orientation folders with the front page personalized with job start date, job assignment, housing information, and a checklist of necessary paperwork (Passport, DS-2019 form, Visa, etc). I also created a general information page with emergency contacts, housing addresses, bus information, and an FAQ document.

WINS: Social Security can provide extra applications, so include them in the orientation folders with a sample page filled out (highlight the specific areas that cause the most confusion. For example, the date format in Europe is DAY/MONTH/YEAR, the opposite of the United States).

Large groups require an appointment; generally four per trip can be processed within an hour.

TIPS:Reinforce attendance and uniform policy in the employee handbook.

  1. Employee Housing: Our exchange students are living in one of three rented houses near the hotel and are responsible for taking care of it.

WINS: Posted signs with the house address, hotel address and telephone number, “in case of emergency” instructions, and Wi-Fi information.

TIPS: Cleanliness became a big issue, and I had to create a cleaning schedule, assign teams, and follow up regularly to ensure it was done. For several of the students, this is their first time away from home, and they were not taught basic life skills such as emptying garbage cans or cleaning up after themselves. 

Next year, I will conduct a Housing 101 training session and include things such as how to clean up after yourself, break down garbage (such as cereal boxes and milk cartons), follow a recycling list, how to use a garbage disposal, and a reminder that the tap water is safe to drink (several students were not aware they could drink the water).

  1. Attendance and Job Performance: For many students, this opportunity is their first job anywhere, and depending on their job assignment, they may need quite a bit of training. Also in different cultures, time and attendance isn’t strictly reinforced as it is in the United States.

WINS: Have departmental managers talk to exchange students ahead of time and determine if they’re early birds or night owls and schedule accordingly.

TIPS: Start by teaching them basic skills, such as how to tie a garbage bag properly, so it doesn’t fall into the garbage can (the outdoor maintenance team will thank you), have departmental managers document all attendance and performance issues, set firm expectations immediately and reinforce them. Also, post “NO CELL PHONE” signs on the doors leading to the front of the house/hotel.

  1. Emergencies: Medical emergencies can arise at any time; the key is to be prepared for them and have a plan of action in place. 

WINS: Posted “in case of emergency” signs in housing and always having a manager-on-duty available at the hotel to make decisions and communicate any emergencies.

TIPS: The students are under a group PPO health plan thru Aetna, with predetermined office co-pays and prescription costs. I would stay with them during appointments or at the hospital so they weren’t alone.

As with all employees, setting proper expectations immediately will help prevent issues from arising in the future, but with many different countries, backgrounds, and cultures, be prepared to expect the unexpected and don’t assume your exchange students know the basics of living in the United States.

Norm Bowbeer, CHS, is a general trainer at West Bay Beach, a Delamar Resort.


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