OCEAN CITY -- Vega Mozajeva thinks she's gotten the hang of this summer resort gig: Work as many hours as possible, rack up a big payoff in tips, then hang out with friends who usually share cramped, run-down apartments. Oh, and head to the library for a 4,000-mile e-mail lifeline to the folks back home.
Like an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 others, the Latvian college student has joined an army of Europeans hired to fill one of about every four seasonal jobs offered by grateful beach merchants who have struggled for years with a labor shortage.
It's during the end-of-summer Labor Day crunch when foreign students are worth their weight in gold in beach towns such as Ocean City. Unlike their American counterparts, who are back at school hitting the books, students from England, Ireland, France, Spain, Lithuania, Armenia and other European nations don't have to return to classes for four to six weeks.
Mozajeva, a 19-year-old business and economics major, expects to take home at least $4,000 next month, 10 times what she might have earned this summer in her hometown,
Riga, the Baltic seaport that is Latvia's capital. Meanwhile, she's cramming in as much fun as possible.
"You can't make money in my home, not like here," says Mozajeva, whose parents own a corner grocery in Latvia. "I wanted to see America, to earn much money, to experience something new."
Andrea Schlottman, supervisor of the tiny Worcester County branch library in Ocean City, says she might have a better idea than anyone else about how many foreign students have landed jobs in town this summer.
"Last month, we had 1,542 people come in to use our Internet computer terminals, and I'd say about 90 percent were foreign students," Schlottman says.
Lining up for computers
The library limits Internet sessions to 30 minutes each, and the wait can stretch to 45 minutes.
"It's not uncommon to come into work and find a line waiting for us to open," Schlottman says.
Valerija Simorina, another native of Latvia, walks to the library at least once a week to e-mail friends during free time from her job at Higgins Crab House. She has been working late nights for the past two months, which is fine with the 22-year-old economics major.
"I wanted to see a new country; I was never abroad," says Simorina. "I like to save money, too. I hope I come back here next year."
Merchants in beach towns up and down the East Coast have come to depend increasingly on foreign workers.
The nation's booming economy and low unemployment have made it more difficult to lure American students.
In Ocean City, as in other resort towns, spiraling housing costs tend to keep away young Americans, who can save money by working near home and living with their parents.
Recruiting on the Net
Business owners have tried recruiting on the Internet, and they have tried holding job fairs for retirees who might be lured back to the work force for seasonal jobs.
Joseph Hall Jr., who waded through 2,000 Internet applications before hiring about 25 foreign students for his family's restaurant, says several restaurant operators are working to organize a job fair next spring at universities in Ireland or elsewhere in Europe.
"The most difficult thing for us this year was having to hire them through the Internet," Hall says. "You really want to be able to interview face-to-face."
Most students get temporary work visas with the help of a half-dozen nonprofit agencies such as the New York-based Council of International Educational Exchange, a student employment and travel service founded after World War II. This year, the agency placed more than 20,000 foreign students in the United States, says marketing director Nick Meaney.
Students pay their airfare and other costs up front, then arrive in New York for a two-day orientation at Columbia University before heading out to work.
'Sense of adventure'
Some students come with the goal of making and saving money. Some just want to earn enough to live in the United States for the summer. Some want to save a little, then be able to travel in the states before they go home.
"It's a program for people with a backpack and a sense of adventure," Meaney says.
Unlike most foreign students, who are allowed temporary work visas for two summers, 21-year-old Lisa Cogan, who is majoring in civil engineering at University College in Dublin, Ireland, says she expects to return to Ocean City next year for her third year working at the Kite Loft.
Cogan, who has dual citizenship because she was born in Florida, says her job offers her a way to spend the summer in the United States beofre heading home for college.
"University is free in Ireland, so I work just for the opportunity to come here," says Cogan. "If I make money, that's a bonus that will help me buy books or clothes."
Students such as Cogan, Simorina and Mozajeva are the ones who collect end-of-summer incentive bonuses offered by merchants who need help through the resort's more lucrative "second season." Business continues to boom through September, when weekend crowds average more than 200,000, and into October, when 140,000 visitors come to the beach on sunny weekends.
"They really are vital; the town couldn't operate without them," says Hall. "We've grown so strong in September, and the weekends in October are good. Service would really suffer without them."