A recent study by Ski-Patrol.net found that Ski Patrollers, Lifeguards and others involved in recreational protective service work (“Patrollers and other RPS Workers”) are among the lowest paid workers in America. Data for our research came from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, a reputable source, so we decided to take a closer look at the statistics to see if we could determine why that is.
After all, “paid” patrollers are highly trained workers with certifications across a number of skill areas, many of which are re-certified annually. It seems illogical that their compensation would rank somewhere near the bottom of the pay scale for American workers, below parking lot attendants and just marginally above wages that waiters and waitresses “claim” on their tax returns. In fact, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, over 97% of all US professions have higher compensation than Patrollers and other RPS Workers.
It’s important to note that 90%+ of ski patrollers that are also National Ski Patrol members in the US take no compensation for their work, and do not appear in this category of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The compensation of those 20-25,000 or so patrollers shows up under their “day jobs” as doctors, nurses, business executives, lawyers, public safety workers and virtually every other profession on the list. The Department of Labor statistics provide detail on 1,394 jobs, with “Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and Other Recreational Protective Service Workers” as one of those categories.
Our analysis used Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics most recently published data from 9 October. The mean hourly rate (average) for the category including patrollers was $10.05. The median hourly rate (the mid-point of all wages reported) was $9.16. This means that most paid patrollers make closer to $9.16 than $10.05.
Where the statistics review annual wages, it is for workers that identify themselves primarily as Patrollers and other RPS Workers, and those wages likely include non-ski patrol work off season. The average annual salary was $20,890 around the US, with a median annual salary of $19,040. According to the findings, most paid workers in this category earn closer to $19,000 than $22,000 on an annual basis. The 90th percentile of annual salary around the US was $29,170, meaning 90% of all paid ski patrollers make less than $29,170. It’s worth noting that since a large percentage of workers in this class are lifeguards, who tend to be young seasonal workers and are generally less trained than patrollers from a medical perspective, the average may be a better measure than the median. But as you can see in the chart above, even using the average, it is clear that most paid patrollers do not earn what would be considered a living wage.
Colorado had median annual compensation for Patrollers and other RPS Workers of $19,430, with 90% of patrollers making less than $27,870. New York had median annual compensation of $21,770 and with 90% making less than $30,390. Alaska’s long season had its patrollers represent the second highest paid group, with annual compensation of $30,000, and 90% earning less than $41,530. Michigan had annual compensation of $18,950, and 90% of patrollers earning less than $27,420. Pennsylvania had annual compensation of $18,040, and 90% make less than $22,680, slightly below Idaho, Utah and Wisconsin. A chart containing full detail on states where the majority of US resorts operate is included below. Click on the chart to see an expanded view of the data.
When you see where this falls within the context of all jobs in the US labor force, it is clear that there is a disconnect between the training and value provided by patrollers and the compensation they receive. For perspective, the 12 positions that are directly above patrollers on the pay scale are:
Graders and sorters of agricultural products
Manicurists and Pedicurists
Farming, Fishing and Forestry Occupations
Food Preparation Workers
Parking Lot Attendants
Locker Room, Coat Room and Dressing Room Attendants
Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners
Short Order Cooks
Non-Farm Animal Caretakers
Retail Sales Workers
In fact, patrollers and other recreational protective service workers rank 1,363rd on the compensation list of US occupations out of a total of 1,395. You have to go up a few hundred positions to reach the “Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics” category. EMTs and paramedics had median annual compensation of $31,270, with 90% making under $54,710; and the level of training for those professionals working in much less hazardous environments is equivalent to just one of the many skills required to work as a ski patroller. Certainly there are other factors at play.
The seasonal aspect of patrol work plays a role in low annual compensation, but it is also among the lowest of all workers on an hourly basis. The most competent patrollers love to ski and are among the best skiers, so getting paid a low wage to do what they love to do in a place they choose to live and work is one reason. A small segment of paid patrollers even travel to the southern hemisphere to work off-season, where their compensation would not likely be reported in US compensation statistics. Likely the most significant factor, however, is that the US has a unique, mostly volunteer, ski patrol system. The vast majority of patrollers take no monetary compensation for what they do, and when costly patroller uniforms and gear, medical supplies, transportation and other self-funded expenses of volunteers are factored into the mix, it’s one of the most expensive volunteer jobs there is. This unique set of circumstances has the economic effect of keeping wages for paid patrollers artificially low, even at resorts that don’t utilize the services of volunteers.
The average age of ski patrollers in the US is now over 50, indicating that younger candidates are unwilling to accept either the low wages noted above for paid patrollers, or the non-financial remuneration offered by resorts in the form of free passes and discounts on food and gear for volunteers that some resorts offer. With dog walkers, coat checkers and parking lot attendants making more than paid patrollers, it’s no wonder that the average age of patrollers around the US continues to rise. The seemingly endless acrimony at the NSP exacerbates the situation and will continue to fuel the departure of good patrollers that are not being replaced in the system.
As volunteer numbers dwindle, so does the good will, safety and seemingly ubiquitous support they offer resorts in service to guests. And with this loss of the most experienced patrollers, also comes the loss of their diverse knowledge base and skills. In the not too distant future it will likely start to impact many aspects of mountain operations, including insurance rates and the business models of resorts nationally. This shift will negatively impact the smallest resorts first, since they tend to depend most on the services of volunteers. Even resorts that don’t employ volunteers will be affected, since volunteers are a significant factor in artificially depressing paid patroller wages, and the volunteer patroller ranks act as a feeder system for highly competent paid patrollers.
Unfortunately, most resort operators are likely either oblivious to this problem, or think that it will not affect them. The NSP’s senior leaders may understand the organization’s aging patroller issue, but have failed to do anything effective to address it. In fact, the actions of NSP’s senior leadership seem to indicate a belief that patrollers will continue to bear the increasing liability risks, occupational hazards and expenses associated with their extremely time-consuming volunteer job. NSP’s leaders have also expended resources in recent years expanding into the areas of “Mountain Hosts” and OEC for non-alpine environments. This strategic diversion may help resorts of all kinds save money on other 4-season endeavors by extending its efficient highly skilled first responder workforce into those other business areas, lowering insurance premiums and compensation expenses. But it also detracts from the NSP’s core mission of skier and rider safety, and of providing competent aid to those sustaining injuries in an alpine environment, at a time when Alpine Touring and other forms of off-piste recreation growth looks more like it did in 1938 at the NSP’s founding than even 10 years ago.
Ski-Patrol.net believes this dynamic will continue to devolve over the next ten years, unless it is addressed from a strategic perspective soon. Otherwise, it will almost certainly fuel an unfavorable structural shift in the US National Ski Patrol System, and the skier and rider safety model across the entire winter sports industry.
Captain Harvey Coffin Mackay House, 19 Pleasant Street, Suite 3F, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01930, U.S.A.