MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Desirae Long, an eighth-grade teacher in San Diego, got her first job when she was 16, spinning cotton candy and tossing churros in sugar at Sea World. To this day, she won’t eat either of them.
Kate Medley, a visual journalist, took a summer job shaving ice for sno-balls inside a hot, sticky hut near an Interstate exit in Jackson, Miss. She earned $3 an hour and all the sno-balls she could eat. For a 12-year-old, it was a dream job.
Before Hallie Jackson became the chief White House correspondent for NBC News, she cooked French fries and handed out frozen Snickers bars at the pool snack bar near her house in Yardley Township, Pa. Her clothes smelled so bad after work that her parents made her strip them off in the garage, but it was a great first job. She learned the value of camaraderie and the relationship between hard work and a paycheck. And, she said, she developed a skill that serves her well in her current job: “You’ve got to always be hustling.”
But those kinds of summer food memories, born from what was once a rite of passage for American teenagers, are fading as fast as a soft-serve twist at a Midwest water park.
You can still find high school and college students boiling hot dogs and cleaning the fryer at the clam shacks, country clubs and state fairs that spring to life when the weather turns hot. But the food that fuels a summer vacation is now more likely being prepared by temporary workers from other countries or local adults trying to make the gig economy work for them.
“It used to be all college kids,” said Bob Benser Jr., who owns the Murdick’s Fudge shops on Mackinac Island, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The Murdick family first opened a candy shop in 1887, starting a confection craze that is so much a part of the culture here that summer tourists are called fudgies.
Although youth employment in the United States still spikes in the warmer months, the number of teenagers in the summer labor force fell to 43 percent in 2016, from almost 72 percent at its peak in 1978, according to the most recent figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pressure has come from several directions. School started stretching into summer. Employment laws became more restrictive. Scooping cones or running a dough-filled Hobart were no longer considered worthy résumé builders.
At the same time, demand for summer workers rose. After 9/11, domestic travel acquired new appeal; Americans took more vacations, but shorter ones. With a laptop and a good internet connection, work could be done anywhere.
Vacationers started arriving at summer destinations in early May and showed up well into the fall. Trying to staff a fudge shop or marina restaurant with a work force that vanished when classes started in August was a headache.
Employers began making use of workers from other countries with H-2B visas, which are granted to businesses that have specific kinds of seasonal work. But those visas became more difficult to obtain under the Trump administration, which made changes to the program that it said were meant to protect jobs for Americans.
Last summer was bad, but people who run seasonal businesses say this summer seems worse. On Jan. 1, the first day employers could apply, the federal Department of Labor received 81,600 applications for 33,000 summer-season visas.
“We can’t fill those jobs any way else, but now it’s gotten to where we just need more workers, period,” said Mr. Benser, whose family has three stores on Mackinac Island and two more in nearby towns. Things are so tight this year he might not be able to open the three Murdick’s shops he also owns on Martha’s Vineyard, he said.
Mr. Benser, 54, is also Mackinac Island’s tax assessor and the president of the tourist board, and is building a boutique hotel on the same street where John Jacob Astor made his first million trading furs in the early 1800s.
Mr. Benser took over the fudge business from his father, Bob Benser Sr., who used to run the Tastee-Freez next door to the original Murdick’s fudge shop, which he bought in 1969. Back then, the season lasted about 75 days. Now it cranks up the first weekend in May and runs until the end of October.
For years, teenagers and college-age employees made fudge, waited tables, cleaned rooms and did all the other jobs required in a summer resort town, he said. Now, they make up only about a third of the workers. The jobs are more often filled by people in their 20s and 30s from countries including Mongolia, China, Romania, Bulgaria and Jamaica.
“American kids don’t want to work, and the foreign kids need the money,” said Joanna Tamalyn, who was raised on the island and manages room and board for the foreign workers employed at Mr. Benser’s many enterprises here, which include restaurants and hotels.
Carnel Samuels, 40, came to Mackinac Island from Jamaica 15 years ago, after Mr. Benser traveled there to recruit workers. He had never heard of fudge. Now, he winters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and spends his summers making fudge and trying to teach each summer’s new batch of workers how to do it.
It’s much harder than it seems. First, Mr. Samuels boils water in a copper pot to calibrate the cooking times for the day, which can go up or down depending on heat and humidity.
Each batch starts with about 15 pounds of sugar taken from beets grown in the Lower Peninsula (on a map, from the thumb of the state’s glove shape), and butter and cream from dairies in the Upper Peninsula. Some corn syrup is added for consistency, then Belgian chocolate, vanilla, Michigan maple syrup or any other number of ingredients. Murdick’s has recipes for 30 flavors.
The hard part starts once the copper pot is emptied onto a slab of old marble in the middle of the store. The boiling mass is initially contained by a frame of stainless steel bars. Once the fudge cools slightly, the bars are removed. The candymaker has to quickly work around the edges of the fudge with a wide paint scraper, flipping it with a controlled motion that new workers learn by practicing on a round salt container.
When the candy is set, a worker picks up a long-handled spade and starts moving the fudge with long, rhythmic strokes. Work too slowly and it seizes up; work the fudge too hard and it gets grainy. “You want to move the fudge only as much as it wants to be moved,” Mr. Samuels said.
On its busiest day, when 15,000 people are on the island, 20 batches will come out of that old copper pot over a 10-hour day. That’s nearly 600 pounds of fudge, which leaves the store in half-pound slices carefully wrapped in white paper and packed in a box with a little wooden knife.
The new workers never get it right in the beginning.
“Most of the kids leave every day with burns on their arms,” Mr. Samuels said. “You have to spend two seasons to get it right.”
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