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Summer job outlook on shore is promising

OCEAN CITY — Lower Shore residents looking to earn a few extra bucks this summer may be in luck, as this year’s job outlook is promising.

Seasonal employee Laura Krahl serves guests drinks at Seacrets in Ocean City. A steady economic recovery, coupled with increased gas prices and restrictions on visas for foreign workers, is expected to bode well for local job seekers.

Leighton Moore, owner of Seacrets in Ocean City, said the number of people he’s hiring for the season is hovering around 500, which is average.

“Our hiring numbers dropped three or four years ago, but they’ve leveled off,” Moore said. “We expect the same amount of business we had last year, so we’ll have the same number of employees.”

Seacrets is the town’s largest seasonal employer.

A steady economic recovery, coupled with increased gas prices and restrictions on visas for foreign workers, is expected to bode well for local job seekers.

“Overall, everybody in the industry is a lot more optimistic for this year, compared to the last three years,” said Memo Diriker, founding director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University. “There’s a general sense of optimism in terms of visitors, what they will spend and, of course, in terms of employment opportunities.”

Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said the town has seen a lot of new businesses opening and a lot of businesses expanding, which of course yields additional jobs.

“There’s actually more job availability than there has been over the past couple of years,” Pursel said. “I don’t know of any scientific reason, but we’ve seen a lot of activity going on.”

This year, the State Department announced changes to the J-1 visa program, used by students from dozens of countries who work in Ocean City throughout the summer. The new regulations cap the number of participants to ensure program officials can monitor sponsors and participants.

The requirements are also expected to help State Department officials verify that students entering the U.S. on J-1 visas have jobs lined up before entering the country. This should take a chunk out of the 3,000 international students who live and work in Ocean City during any given summer, leaving more jobs for local residents.

“In the past, when the economy was doing well, those hospitality businesses didn’t have enough local people covering their job openings, so they hired the foreign students,” Diriker said. “That’s not an issue now. There are plenty of people willing to take the jobs.”

Increasing gas prices have more vacationers opting for a road trip rather than a plane ride, and the Lower Shore’s proximity to major metropolitan areas including Baltimore and Philadelphia makes it a prime destination. It also doesn’t hurt that the Lower Shore has the lowest gas prices in the state, especially Salisbury, according to Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“When I run into motorists who are heading to Ocean City for vacation, I always tell them that if they can make it there on a half tank of gas, they can fill up when they get there with the cheapest gas in the state,” Averella said, adding that while the Lower Shore boasts low prices, Maryland, compared to other states, is rather high.

As of April 19, the national average price of gas was $3.89 per gallon. The week before it was $3.91 and the month before it was $3.85. Averella said over the last few weeks, gas prices everywhere have either held steady or declined slightly, “suggesting we may be at or at least near the peak prices for the season.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that retail gasoline prices will peak at an average of about $4.01 per gallon. Averella said nationally, gas prices will average at about $3.95 per gallon for the summer driving months, and if that’s the case, it will be an increase of 24 cents above the average price tag for the same period last year.

Diriker said rising gas prices are not expected to affect the number of people commuting from Wicomico and Somerset counties to work in Ocean City. It’ll take another “dollar or two jump” before residents stop traveling for work, he said.

“Before that happens, people will probably adjust their other behaviors, such as cutting back on expenses, changing the vehicle they drive, carpooling or using Shore Transit,” Diriker said. “There are gradual steps in the increasing price of fuel, and there are other things people can do in increments before they get to the point where they gauge the value of the job.”

Wicomico County has no summer job market, according to Brad Bellacicco, executive director of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.

“There are some jobs, but mostly for young people within the community itself,” Bellacicco said. “But we really have a lot of people driving to Ocean City. My son works part-time there as a bartender.”

Diriker said there’s a natural slowdown in economic activity once summer hits Salisbury.

“While the economy overall is improving, that particular seasonal job market isn’t going to change this year,” he said. “It’s a residual effect of the recession, when a lot of companies reduced their employment, especially during the summer months when not as much retail activity is happening.”