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Cheap Foreign Labor

Smile, you're working in Great America.

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There's a little tunnel, sort of a covered bridge, in the walkway for employees between the main offices and the public area of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. Filled with the usual notices and legal postings, it also features one sign proclaiming in large letters, "Smile, you're onstage!"

At first glance it seems as though every Great America employee is walking around with a smile plastered on his or her face. It's like a convention of blue-shirted Stepford wives and husbands. But on closer inspection it seems the smiles just might be sincere. After all, this place is filled with families and screaming kids and teenagers and rides and fun and junk food galore and it's summer and what more could anyone want? Great America traffics in entertainment and happiness. Heck, America traffics in entertainment and happiness.

This summer some 450 kids from Europe are learning how to smile like an American, how to sell fun at Great America, in the park's International Program.

"I've always intended to come to America," says Owen Shave, a physics major at the University of Manchester in England and a certified ride operator here in the summer. This is Shave's second season at Great America, and this year he's been promoted to "lead," supervising other ride operators at his station. "We have so much fun, it's unbelievable," he says. "If I wasn't having fun here, I wouldn't be working here. I've learned leadership skills. I've learned motivational skills. I've learned organization. I feel a lot more ordered in my life. That helps me when I study back home. Working a scheduled shift here gets me into a work ethic."

Great America's International Program swung into high gear in the mid-80s, when Jim Franz joined the human resources department and brought in the first group of "internationals," a bunch of Irish kids. "When Six Flags Great America first started operations in 1975, we had a few inquiries from European students about working here," says Franz, now the human resources manager. The park found they were ideal employees. "First we thought it would be neat for our employees to work with people from different cultures," Franz says. "But after a while we found that when all of our American students go back to school at the end of August, the internationals can stay until October and November. When we saw how late in the season they were able to work, we said this is a perfect niche market for us."

Franz adds that the tight labor market also makes the internationals a welcome resource. For its U.S. employees Great America draws on high school and college kids in the area from Libertyville north. "The North Shore, the Highland Park-Lake Forest area, is a tough employee market to get into. A lot of those kids don't have summer jobs--a lot are in tennis camps or summer camps."

European students are steered to Great America by the Council on International Educational Exchange, the Center for Cultural Interchange, and InterExchange. The federal governments of the United States and the participating European countries have reciprocal agreements to exchange equal numbers of students. The students pay the agencies' fees--ranging from $700 to $1,400--to cover the costs of visa processing, air travel, insurance, and an orientation program.

Nerijus Urbonas comes from a small town in Lithuania, Klaipeda. When he started school there three years ago--he's studying business administration and English at Lithuania Christian Fund College--he found he wanted more of the bigger world he'd started to taste. "Some of my friends told me about the exchange programs, and I gathered information about it from the Internet," he says. He hooked up with an Irish agency called American Work Experience.

Urbonas is tall and thin with light blue eyes and an easy smile. His accent is fairly thick, and sometimes he pauses to find the right English word. But like Shave he's been promoted to lead in this, his second season at Great America.

It's a hot and humid day in early August. The flow of people into the American Eagle roller coaster, Urbonas's station, is never ending. Riders wait in narrow, mazelike walkways like cattle at the old Union Stockyards. It seems suburban families have been sprung from their ranch homes after a summer of cool temperatures and heavy rains. "Today's going to be our busiest weekday yet," a passing ride supervisor observes. Urbonas is covered with flop sweat as he makes sure the operators seat riders properly in the cars, placing the lap bars just so, warning them about keeping their hands inside, and cutting off the flow when the cars are full. "Safety is everything," Urbonas says as the coaster pulls out.

The sheer immensity of Great America--it has 3,000 employees during peak season--can be daunting to kids from small-town Europe. "This theme park is quite a bit larger than anything they've ever seen," Franz says. But over his two seasons here, Urbonas has learned to take it in stride. "It's tremendous," he says. "I'm now used to this kind of hugeness."

Training and orientation for Great America's internationals is extended in order to negotiate cultural differences. "Some of the students, when they first meet people here, are taken aback by the fact that Americans are so open," Franz says. "People'll start talking to them about personal things or their life stories right off the bat. In a lot of European countries, that's just not done."

Some internationals working in the food-service areas are stunned to learn that health codes require that seemingly good food be thrown away every night. "They think Americans are wasteful at times," Franz says. "Sometimes they think, this is America--everything is free. But we have to instruct them on rules and regulations of our operations."

Almost embarrassed, Franz admits that many internationals must be taught the basics of American hygiene. "In some European countries, some people might not use deodorant as much as we do," he whispers.

On the other hand, everything American is fast becoming universal. "Everyone in the rest of the world watches American movies all the time," Shave says. "So you get a pretty good idea of what America's like. Personally, I watched American movies, I listened to American music, I watched American TV shows, so I was all over America before I came here anyway. But some things surprised me, like all of your policemen carrying guns. That's something you have to get used to. Otherwise, it's just exactly as I expected."

Shave, double soaked from sweat and splashed water from the Logger's Run, where he works, has even found a Chicago institution that reminds him of home. "I love baseball," he says. "It shows on satellite cable. I've been to see the Cubs. I support the Motherwell soccer team. They play near Glasgow in the Scottish premier division. It's a family tradition. You probably wouldn't choose to support the Cubs if it wasn't for your family, because they aren't too great. That's the same with Motherwell--they never win anything."

The internationals live in dormitories at Carthage College, a private liberal-arts school in nearby Kenosha. "We have limits because we don't have cars," Urbonas says. "We could buy them, but if we don't sell them before we go home, it's kind of problematic. We travel by Metra train or we have American friends who give us a ride." Urbonas and Shave, like most of the internationals, have made forays into Chicago, where they might gawk at the Sears Tower or shop or go to a museum. "I was sure Chicago would be a very big place," Urbonas says. "I just didn't expect that if you don't have a car, you're almost not a person here. But now I'm used to that."

The internationals enjoy all the privileges of Carthage College students while on campus. They have access to the Internet, they play in the gyms and fields, and they eat in the college cafeteria. Though Great America wouldn't release absolute figures, it subsidizes two-thirds of the cost of housing and shuttle-bus transportation to and from the park. The remaining one-third is deducted from each international's paycheck.

The college's isolation can be a problem for some. "I write E-mails to my friends back home, hang around with my friends here, but there is actually no place to go around the campus," says Urbonas. "The lake is pretty, but right now it smells pretty badly." To counter the loneliness, Urbonas and his girlfriend convinced some two dozen other students from their college to work the summer at Great America. "So it's a small community now," he says.

Many of the internationals choose to work extra hours. "At the moment, I'm working about a 54-hour week," Shave says. "It's fine. I could have worked a shorter shift, but right now I'm working for money. Anything over 40 hours is time and a half. I'm happy with that." Internationals earn the same rate of pay as U.S. citizens at Great America, starting at $6.15 an hour and earning 30-cent raises for each 200-hour increment they work. "I'm aiming to save two thousand bucks before I leave," Shave says.

Nobody is required to work overtime. "In fact," Franz says, "we have more of a problem trying to get them to cut back on some of their hours. If you have kids working every hour of the day, they'll get tired out. There is a safety concern for them and our guests."

"I like it," Urbonas says. "I'm not afraid of responsibility. It's fun to work."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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