Philadelphia News & Search
Soon it will be summer, when New Jersey turns once again into the land of the Alien Abduction, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Wacky Worm roller coaster, Dante’s Dungeon, Crazy Mouse, Demo Derby, saltwater taffy, funnel cake, and curly fries.
Not all of the Garden State is blessed, alas, with such wonders. We’re talking about that thin, sweet slice of it known as the Shore in summer, when sunburned throngs pour onto its carnival piers and boardwalks looking for calories and thrills.
But who is that person strapping you into a steel scream machine that’s about to fling you skyward — and upside down?
Who makes your change, guesses your weight, and pulls the lever that launches your log-flume ride? Who’s the bleeding, one-eyed goblin lurching toward you in the haunted house? Who puts the teaberry in your taffy, the pineapple on your (ugh) ham pizza, and makes Shore days into happy memories?
“We hire about 230 to 250 [workers] from the end of June to Labor Day,” said John Kavchok, personnel director for Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City. Most range in age from 14 to 21.
Some of the older among these can come from all over the globe on four-month J-1 college student visas. Their numbers are smaller these days than in decades past, employers and tourism officials say, but that’s not because of President Trump’s efforts to restrict access from certain countries.
“When the economy takes a downturn, American kids who previously didn’t need a summer job now do,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May Chamber of Commerce. “Also, I’ve never spoken to an employer who was not inclined to hire a local person first.” Foreign students are “much more expensive to hire and train,” said Clark, “and there’s also the language barrier” that limits the tasks some can perform.
So, what does the personnel director at a major pier want in a funnel-cake fryer or head-bandaged skeleton?
“Basically, we’re looking for kids who are intelligent and outgoing,” said Kavchok, who grew up in Frankford and started working at Gillian’s as a teenager 28 years ago. “I thought it would be one summer,” he marveled as he strolled through the pier’s nearly century-old carousel, running a hand over its motionless (for now) white horses. “But I fell in love with it.”
Most summer workers start in mid-June, he said, “and we ask them to stay through Labor Day,” although keeping them into the waning days of summer can be a challenge. American college students typically return to classes in late August, he said, and foreign students often grow itchy to see New York or Washington or the Grand Canyon before heading home.
Most will work six days a week and start at $8.50 an hour — pennies above minimum wage, with modest raises for those returning for another summer. Saturdays and Sundays are obligatory for just about everybody, but there are benefits of a sort. “We give them 25 percent off at our pizza shop,” he said. “And on their day off they can wear a wristband that lets them on the rides for free.”
That teenager lofting your Ferris wheel carriage 130 feet above the beach might not have a driver’s license, but chances are he or she has attained puberty. State law requires that ride operators be 16 or older, and Kavchok said the piers choose them from workers who are attentive and responsible.
“We don’t start them out on the Giant Wheel,” he said, glancing skyward at Gillian’s gleaming white Ferris wheel. “We start them on the smaller rides, and if they excel we move them to bigger and bigger,” starting on slow weekdays.
Yet even after five summers at Gillian’s, the thought of operating the big wheel still “makes me nervous,” said 24-year-old Andrew Boylan of Somers Point.
“I run the monorail” instead, he explained last week, taking a break from some preseason maintenance chores. “I make sure the parents are strapped in with their kids, that hands are inside the trains, and that there’s enough space between the cars,” which take about four minutes to round the course. He earned $10 an hour last year, and was so busy “that I didn’t go to the beach once.”
Most of the shops and eateries along Ocean City’s boardwalk were still boarded up last week, but the sliding gates at the Promenade Food Court were half open. “We’ve got eight shops inside,” said owner Rose Baratta-Salugta, who was taking a break from ready-making chores at a small table overlooking the sunlit ocean.
“We need 80 workers during the season,” she said, and “look for outgoing, clean-cut kids that aren’t shy,” including the cooks, “because any time we might need them at the counter.”
Signs around the food court, which her parents started in 1985, testify to the variety of its cuisine: gyros, burgers, pizza, tacos, burritos, crab cakes, cheesesteaks, funnel cakes, clams, pierogi, crepes, mozzarella sticks, curly fries, and more.
And what’s the toughest job here? “The fryer,” she replied without hesitation. “It’s hot, you have to pay attention, and the fan doesn’t help much,” she said. “It’s not easy.”
To the south, past the shuttered Haunted Golf, Johnson’s Popcorn, a sunglass store called Shades, a curly fries shop, and Polish Water Ice, Shriver’s Water Taffy was open as it always is, 364 days a year.
“We’re closed on Christmas,” said general manager Holly Kisby.
In continuous operation since 1898, the store appeals as a workplace to girls and young women more than boys, she said. The shop needs about 90 employees in summer, and counter workers can be as young as 14, but for the cooks she needs muscle and toughness, Kisby said.
“I try to get kids in high school and hope they stay through college,” said Kisby. “That’s ideal.”
Walking through the glass-walled kitchen at the rear of the store, she pointed out the long, steel machines that aerate, flavor, mix, extrude, cut, and wrap the taffies. Boxes on the floor bore such flavors as wintergreen, bubblegum, licorice, teaberry, raspberry, strawberry, and peach.
But to start the process, cooks must hoist 50- and 100-pound trays of ingredients from one machine to another, “and it’s hard, hot work.”
She looks for friendly, outgoing youngsters, she said, but is wary of those who come in escorted by a parent, “because the parent’s usually making them do it. I like the ones who apply by themselves and keep calling, because they’re the ones looking for work.”
Philadelphia News & Search