Help Wanted: Vermont ski areas short on snowmakers

It’s that time of year when Vermonters start itching to hit the slopes. But what would a Vermont winter look like if there weren’t enough snowmakers?
Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 2:42 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 24, 2021 at 5:37 AM EST
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JEFFERSONVILLE, Vt. (WCAX) - It’s that time of year when Vermonters start itching to hit the slopes. But what would a Vermont winter look like if there weren’t enough snowmakers?

At 7 a.m., Dave Gagnon is just about done his 13-hour shift as a snowmaker at Smugglers’ Notch, but he says it’s all worth it.

“You get done a long, painful shift out on the hill all night, and you change your boots, put my snowboarding boots on and get right in line, first thing in the morning,” he said.

Gagnon has been making snow for 18 years and hasn’t gotten tired of enjoying-- and watching others enjoy-- the end product.

“Hey, that’s snow that I made! And watch out, there’s a little bit of my blood over there. But I think we covered it deep enough in the snow you don’t have to worry about it,” Gagnon laughed.

But the job certainly has its challenges.

“People get pinned down and the high pressure out of the gun has you working as hard as you can to keep it from destroying you. And you’re trying to communicate to somebody like, ‘HELP!’” Gagnon said. “It’s nice to have someone there paying attention, to turn something off, make your life a little easier and safer.”

This is why having plenty of staff and good communication is key.

But Justin Thoelke, the snowmaking manager at Smugglers’ Notch, says finding help has been an issue.

“The biggest problem is people won’t apply for the job,” Thoelke said.

From Facebook posts to online job postings and print ads in magazines, nothing seems to attract workers.

Thoelke knows snowmaking is not for everyone and says the hiring problem started with the pandemic, but things are looking up.

“It’s better than it was last year,” he said. “We’re getting closer, but we’re still five or six guys away from being able to run full crew.”

A typical schedule would be four days of 12-hour shifts, but a few gaps in the schedule is making for long days on the mountain.

“Five 13-hour shifts, good times,” Gagnon said.

But the team says it won’t impact the season for skiers; they’ll just work that much harder.

“Challenge accepted,” Gagnon said.

You have to pay attention to a lot of little things when you are a snowmaker, like the chairlifts-- making sure they are clean and fully functioning for the next day.

“Be resilient to the weather for sure and accepting of whatever weather that comes,” Gagnon said. “Everything will be great all night and then you just blink for a second. Then all of a sudden the winds just heading in the opposite direction, you just got to get out there and turn every gun, otherwise, the snow just starts building up and building up. And you just start digging out hoses.”

A snowmaker’s job is 100% weather-dependent. If it’s cold, they could be working around the clock until the job is done, leading to a bigger paycheck at the end of the week.

“Paid overtime, time and a half and work up a pretty good paycheck for yourself,” Thoelke said.

Someone with no experience can start at $15 an hour. The more experience you have, the more money you can make.

And anyone who works at Smugglers’ Notch gets a free season pass.

All employees are given all the gear and training they will need for the work.

“A lot of love to do this job. You have to love being on the mountain. Love being outside. Love making snow,” Thoelke said. “Once you’ve trained them how to do it, if you love it, it’s hard to get away from it.”

Snowmakers are seasonal positions from November to January. But if your season goes well, you may be able to stay on with the company working lifts until April.

The best part of the job?

“Being on the hill in the middle of the night, stars are out, the snow guns are going,” Thoelke said. “It’s peaceful up there.”

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