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updated 6/2/2004 3:52:03 PM ET 2004-06-02T19:52:03

It's a sunny day and Marta Sokol is smiling and slinging beer into the trunks of cars pulling in to Brew Thru, a drive-through beer and wine shop.

In decades past, this was the kind of job that an American college student might have done over summer break as a way of earning pocket money and enjoying the beach life on the Outer Banks.

But Sokol, a slight, blonde 24-year-old, already has a master's degree in finance and monetary policy from the university in her home town of Poznan, Poland. After she graduated last year, she was offered a job as a commercial loan officer at a bank in Poland, but passed it up to work at the Brew Thru, and as a management trainee at a Kill Devil Hills motel.

Nationally, the young Pole is one of more than 170,000 young foreigners working in service jobs at restaurants, groceries and summer camps that in the past served as the first rungs on the employment ladder for American youngsters.

Not only do foreign workers have a great work ethic, employers say, but they also are willing to work through the busy Labor Day weekend. American college students _ many of whom now opt for career-boosting internships or summer coursework _ tend to quit work and return to class before September, leaving some resort businesses in the lurch.

Sokol is in her second stint working on the Outer Banks. She was here in 2002, then went back to Poland to finish her university degree.

"I just have to work because I just have to earn some money to survive here," she said, adding that she doesn't believe she is displacing American workers.

While American youths still fill the vast majority of summer-season jobs, resort-area businesses say their need for labor outstrips the supply.

So more and more of them turn to thousands of English-speaking young people who come yearly from Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

They work at beach destinations in North Carolina, Maine and Ohio, in woodsy Door County, Wis., at Colorado ski mountains, and on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

During a typical Outer Banks summer, some 300,000 vacationers flood the 120 miles of barrier islands that jut into the Atlantic Ocean _ an area populated by just 30,000 year-round residents.

"There is no labor pool to speak of here," said Camille Lawrence, owner of the upscale First Colony Inn in Nags Head. "In a town that has about 30,000 residents, many of whom are doctors and lawyers and real estate salesmen and children and retired people and teachers, what kind of labor pool does that leave?"

The Outer Banks now imports about 1,200 foreign students a year, up from about 25 in 1997, said Nancy Ballantine, director of Pathways International, a two-year-old nonprofit created to help place foreign workers on the Outer Banks. Like Sokol, many work two or even three jobs.

And it's not just restaurants and hotels doing the hiring.

The Food Lion grocery chain employs about 600 foreigners, mostly Poles. About half work in stores on North Carolina's Outer Banks and the rest in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Rehobeth Beach, Del.; and Ocean City, Md., spokeswoman Tammie McGee said. The company declined to discuss salaries, other than that the foreigners and American workers are paid equally _ about $6 an hour for entry-level workers.

The 7-Eleven convenience store chain hires foreign workers for beach locations in North Carolina and Virginia.

Last year, about 90,000 foreign students _ compared to 30,000 in 1999 _ entered the USA under cultural visas that allow them to work four months and travel for a fifth. About 20,000 foreign workers come to the U.S. under special visas for camp counselors, a number that's changed little in the past five years.

This year, for the first time, the demand for seasonal workers was so strong that one visa program, the H2B, hit its limit of 66,000 in March. The H2B is for temporary, non-farm worker; companies that receive H2B visas must certify that U.S. workers are not available to fill the jobs in question.

Five years ago, the government issued only about 30,000 H2B visas.

The labor crunch has left some vacation destinations short of the seasonal workers they depend on. Resorts in Florida and Colorado claimed all the available H2B visas over the winter, which meant Tina Hewett, general manager of the 115-room Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, was not able to hire about a dozen Jamaican dishwashers and housekeepers and is cleaning rooms herself.

So hotels have recruited workers who don't need visas _ from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, New York City and even locals, said Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

Despite the strong demand for foreign workers, they make up just a fraction of the 21 million 16- to 24-year-olds the Bureau of Labor Statistics said were employed last July, most in leisure and hospitality or retail jobs.

Still, the percentage of high school- and college-age Americans with summer jobs dropped to the lowest level since 1964 _ less than 60 percent of the population of nearly 36 million.

The Labor Department says one factor in the decline is that more young people are spending all or parts of their summer in the classroom. Last July, just over one quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in school, up from 16.3 percent in July 1994.

Employers were also hesitant to hire teenage workers during the recent recession, when adults were feeling the pinch of unemployment. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, this summer is expected to be another tight one for young workers.

At the First Colony Inn, Lawrence pays her foreign student workers the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Workers pay $25 a week for housing and use of a car maintained by the inn _ a bargain in the coastal community where lodging is costly. If they stay for the entire summer, Lawrence's workers get their housing costs reimbursed, plus a bonus.

Most hope to return home with a resume proving they have the skills to do business with Americans in English _ and a bigger savings account.

"Their idea of a lot of money is real different from our idea of a lot of money," Lawrence said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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