The Obama administration is going to great lengths to make sure Scherbina and about 100,000 other foreign student workers are not disappointed. Last summer, the popular program, aimed at creating good will abroad, was rocked by scandal when students working at a candy warehouse in Pennsylvania staged a protest, complaining of isolation and overwork.
On May 11, the State Department issued rules that ban foreign students from jobs that could be harmful, limited them to light, seasonal occupations that are not likely to displace U.S. workers and required closer scrutiny of their conditions.
But the new rules do not address a broader, more profound question that some immigration and labor experts have raised about many sectors of the economy. Today, more than 50 million Americans of traditional working age are not employed, and yet a growing number of domestic jobs — from hotel clerks to nurses to computer scientists — are being performed by foreign-born workers.
For college-age Americans, there is a high rate of unemployment among those from poor families and fierce competition among middle-class students to build résumés that show responsibility. So why, critics wonder, are fewer young Americans snapping up relatively easy summer jobs? In other words, why is Scherbina here?
“The glory isn’t there any more. A lot of young Americans just don’t want to be lifeguards,” said Douglas Winkler, whose Hyattsville company manages 225 pools in residential complexes and hotels. When his father started the firm in the 1950s, all the guards were local kids. Today, one-third of Winkler’s seasonal staff of 650 pool workers are foreign students, mostly from Eastern Europe.
“The international students are really grateful to be here and have a job, while American students have so many other activities and demands on their time now,” he said. “I truly wish we didn’t have to rely so much on international labor, but the bottom line is that we don’t have any choice.”
At the much larger High Sierra Pools in Arlington County, managers hired about 600 Americans and 900 foreign students for the summer. One reason for the lopsided numbers, they said, is the United States’ longer academic years and sports programs that cut into the summer, leaving the company scrambling to fill shifts.
“We have to staff pools from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the Americans can’t commit to the entire season,” said Radac Kaczor, a manager at High Sierra who is from Poland. “For us to replace them with international workers requires a lot of effort. We have to find them housing and make sure they have good English and swimming skills. If we could fill our staff with 100 percent Americans, we would.”