LAKE JUNALUSKA — Each summer, Lake Junaluska Assembly’s workforce swells by at least 100 as the conference and retreat center gears up for the busy conference season.

During a time when many employers are struggling to find seasonal help, Karen Kirby, the human resource director at Lake Junaluska, said the process is becoming easier.

That’s because several years ago, the Assembly personnel began to cultivate partnerships with nearby colleges to build their student workforce so that even if classes begin in mid-August, students can be available on weekends to help out during large events.

Last year, the Assembly reached out to CCI Greenheart Exchange, an organization that offers summer work experiences for students from more than 60 countries. The nonprofit works with the J-1 Work and Travel Program.

"We cultivated a relationship over the course of a year," Kirby said. "There were a lot of questions back and forth. Lake Junaluska went through quite a vetting process just to become an approved host organization. In the end, we were able to hire 15 international students from eight different countries."

The students received lodging and meals in addition to their salary, Kirby said, noting that all lake employees receive meals during their shift and lodging is available for those who need it.

"They helped us fill seasonal front-line positions," Kirby said of the international students. "In addition, we were able to continue summer employment with local individuals. We work with universities and we continue to have a relationship with in our local community."

Under the international program, students are allowed to work in the country for three months and can travel for two weeks. The students started at different times from early May to late June, extending the time frame that help was available.

"It was a fabulous experience," Kirby said. "It not only filled our needs but provided an opportunity for the students to come here and learn and experience Lake Junaluska and the surrounding community."

Kirby said it is always a bit of a challenge to find employees because much of the business is seasonal while most job seekers need full-time employment.

"As the largest tourism employer in in Haywood County, we have our fair share of challenges when it comes to hiring and retaining employees," said Jack Ewing, executive director at Lake Junaluska Assembly. "We generally hire about 100 seasonal employees each summer, and our HR department is constantly looking for creative solutions to address this need."

Lake Junaluska maintains a year-round staff of about 180, Ewing said, and part of the creative solution to staffing involves workforce development training at Haywood Community College and other local schools that will help prepare local applicants. 

While business at the conference center used to be concentrated during the summer months, there have been extensive efforts to extend the season to year-round. A partnership with Cataloochee Ski Resort helps swell the winter guest rolls, and the lake is home to the Balsam Range Art of Music Festival, which completelu filled the available rooms for a weekend last December.

Will all that's being done to expand business at the Assembly and network with partners regarding staffing, Kirby said the workforce challenges are being whittled away.

"From the hiring perspective, it is easier to hire when you can offer more consistency. We have a fantastic sales department, and in the HR department, we are making better connections with local individuals through job fairs and cultivating partnerships," Kirby said.

Another level of partnering is with other area businesses that share personnel needs so cross-referrals can be made, Kirby explained. For instance, if a person is looking for employment at Lake Junaluska but for some reason isn't a good fit, Kirby said referrals are routinely made to other businesses and vice versa.

"With the initiatives we’re taking and the connections we're making, it's getting easier," Kirby said about filling positions. "It's always going to be a struggle, but we're constantly making strides and coming up with new initiatives to recruit and get the word out that Lake Junaluska is a great place to work."

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