Shoulder season, for many Central Oregonians, brings to mind a sense of anticipation for the outdoor opportunities that are afforded by summer or winter.

For seasonal workers, however, shoulder season can be a time of uncertainty and stress, as the gap between summer and winter employment may be widened by unpredictable weather, snowpack or forest fire.

In Deschutes County, 51 outdoor recreation businesses — or those that manage, guide or facilitate outdoor recreation — “accounted for an average annual employment of 953 jobs” in 2017, said Damon Runberg, an economist at the Oregon Employment Department. That was the equivalent of around 1.2 percent of the overall workforce in Deschutes County.

Outdoor recreation jobs climbed to about 1,200 during the peak of 2017’s winter season and hovered above 900 in July and August of that same year.

During the shoulder season months of June and October, the jobs available dipped to 726 and 549, respectively.

Outdoor workers who are grappling with part-time, seasonal or low-paying work should stay resilient, said Michael Gassner, the program lead and senior instructor at Oregon State University-Cascades’ Tourism, Recreation and Adventure Leadership Program.

“Seasonal work is the nature of the industry — it’s nothing to shy away from. I just think you’ve got to have a lot of perseverance,” said Gassner, who has worked seasonally and part time in and outside of academia. “If you want something, you’ve just got to stick with it, whether you’ve got 20 bucks in your bank account or $5,000 — you just need to see it through.”

Mallory Duncan is well acquainted with the ebb and flow of Central Oregon’s seasonal work.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he moved to Bend in the fall of 2016.

He had just spent the first of several summers working as a raft guide in Maupin. He was paid minimum wage during his initial two-month training block.

“That was the toughest part for me — being absolutely broke while having a job,” said Duncan, 26, whose pay went up after he became certified to guide multiple-day trips.

Rafting season begins in June, peaks in July and August, and dries up in September.

When Duncan began his winter job search in Bend, he kept his options open, although as an avid backcountry skier, he hoped his work would be tied to the snow. He was interested in jobs like working for ski patrol at Mt. Bachelor, ski instruction and music promotion.

As his job search stretched from weeks to two months, Duncan grew concerned because his student loan payments and rent were eroding his checking account. Just as he locked down a part-time, seasonal ski tech job at Crow’s Feet Commons, a downtown bike and ski shop, he scraped out the last $20 of his checking account.

He didn’t feel secure until he subsequently snagged another part-time, seasonal job at Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, as a ski instructor.

“My goal was to do something enjoyable even if I wasn’t going to make a lot of money. It was definitely pretty stressful,” Duncan said. “It was tough because I was committed to (moving in) with my buddy, so I didn’t have an out. I don’t want to say I felt trapped, but it was like, I better get this job or else … I don’t even know what my options would have been. It was a pretty dire situation, for sure.”

Working math

Runberg said tabulating the number of outdoor workers in Central Oregon can be tricky.

Ski resorts created jobs for about 2,700 workers across Oregon in the 2016-2017 winter, according to an employment department report that Runberg authored.

About a third of those workers did not work in the state the year before, which may reflect outdoor workers’ interstate migration.

Deschutes County’s summer job numbers do not include the 715 additional jobs the area’s 12 golf courses created in 2017, Runberg said.

Also not included are jobs in industries auxiliary to outdoor recreation, such as hotels, brewpubs or retail shops.

Mt. Bachelor employs about 150 people year-round, with a winter peak of about 875 workers, said Drew Jackson, Mt. Bachelor’s director of marketing.

Summer employment peaks around 450 workers, including those employed by Sun Country Tours, a guiding service owned by Mt. Bachelor’s parent company.

“Outdoors recreation is a tough nut to crack,” Runberg said. “There is a lot of activity that happens beyond the direct jobs in outdoors recreation companies. If we counted that broad swath of impacts, summer blows winter out of the water.”

Firefighting to FedEx

When Portland native Michael Honeywell, 25, moved to Bend to take a firefighting job with a government agency in June, he spent the summer sleeping in his truck.

Honeywell could have leapt into Bend’s rental scene right away, but finding the money for deposit and extra month’s rent would mean he’d be strapped for cash should his truck break down.

“The problem is — and this comes down to the stress of being a seasonal worker, especially as a firefighter — you never know when your season is going to start or end,” Honeywell said.

He couldn’t continue with a private firefighting outfit he’d worked with because this year’s fire season began in March and he still had to wrap up his final term studying geology at Portland State University.

He worked as a carpenter as he finished school. While looking for work in geology, he found he would need an advanced degree for many jobs in the field.

“I remembered how much I loved fighting wildfires, and I figured I would get back into it,” Honeywell said. “The reason I love fighting wildfires is that every day is a mental and physical challenge. Each fire is a little bit different. I learn something every day and it challenges me.”

Since fire season typically stretches from March to November, Honeywell was recently elated to land a delivery job for FedEx during the winter. He said his supervisor wasn’t bothered by Honeywell’s seasonality.

“(Winter) is when they’d need me most,” said Honeywell, adding that he’ll stick with physical, outdoorsy work as long as his body can stand it. “Enjoying what I’m doing every day is number one.”

Duncan’s employment situation made a shift toward permanence one day last winter during a backcountry ski outing on Kwohl Butte.

As they skinned up the mountain, Duncan’s friend, who works for Dynafit, a ski company, offered him a full-time job as a Northwest sales representative.

“I said, ‘That sounds awesome, I would love to do that,’” said Duncan, who is completing his first month on the job.

The full-time position will be seasonal through a trial period. If all goes well, Duncan’s role will extend through the summer months. While his responsibilities may slow during the shoulder months, he’ll still be earning a paycheck.

Gassner said a career arch in the outdoors industry like Duncan’s is the result of being idealistic and not giving up.

He added, “Having the perseverance to do what you want to do will take you to where you want to go.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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