Official questions foreign interns project

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2004

FAIRBANKS (AP) Hotel Owner Doris Lundin can make polite small talk in the language of her Japanese customers. What she really needed was for someone to explain to foreign guests at the Fairbanks Hotel how to catch a cab and how to flush the toilet.

That's where Risa Watanabe came in.

''She completely walked on water,'' Lundin said of the young Japanese college student who came a couple of years ago to learn about the hotel business. ''She was very interested in learning and took on a big part of my operation.''

Watanabe and others who have followed were part of a federally sponsored internship program that allows foreign students to bypass a lengthy visa process to enter the United States to work.

But the program has drawn the ire of Department of Labor Commissioner Greg O'Claray, who wonders if it might displace Alaska workers.

''One thing that concerns me as the labor commissioner is that when our unemployment rate is little over 5 percent in July when tourism is at its peak, then someone isn't getting a job,'' he said.

The program lets foreign students stay from four to 16 months while learning a trade and polishing their English, said Jan King, regional coordinator for Cultural Homestay Internat-ional, one of national nonprofit companies that screens prospective interns.

The program has been picking up interest within the Interior tourism business community. Those who use the program praise the workers.

O'Claray is skeptical.

''We must use our best efforts to exhaust our Alaska workers first and then other U.S. citizens,'' he said.

In 2002, wages earned in Alaska totaled $8.1 billion. Of that, about $1 billion has left the state, he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

O'Claray said his department plans to find ways to help Alaska tourism businesses find qualified workers.

''There has got to be some middle ground,'' he said.

The program is not intended to take jobs but to be a vehicle for cultural exchange, King said. In addition, it is regulated to avoid abuses, she said.

Employers write a detailed description of the intern's duties. Their progress is checked monthly, King said.

Deb Hickok, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the FCVB has used the program successfully. FCVB has already had two interns come and go and another is expected in April, she said.

''They help us with the Japanese,'' she said. ''That's a real asset. That's why we do it.''

Bernie Karl, who has 30 foreign students from 11 different countries working for him at Chena Hot Springs Resort, says the program widens his and his employees' views of the world.

''It's the most interesting mix you've ever seen,'' he said. ''Here in the employee dining room, it's like a world history and geography lesson.''

The interns also benefit. One worker from Korea earned enough money working with a chef while at the resort to go home and buy his own house, Karl said.

''Knowing him, he'll open up his own restaurant,'' he said.

Lundin, of the Fairbanks Hotel, said she sees the program as the best way she can serve her Japanese customers. It also helps her to have steady reliable employees since she hires workers seasonally.

She has been warmed by watching the personal and professional growth of her workers, she said.

Watanabe, her first intern, was able to go back to Japan and turn a volunteer job in the tourism industry into a paid position by using the skills she learned in Fairbanks.

''That's kind of a neat success story,'' Lundin said.

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