SANDPOINT — "A mountain of opportunity" may sound like a bad cliche when it comes to Schweitzer Mountain Resort, but there are a lot of career options available at what Scott Auld calls, "the island in the sky."
With nearly 3,000 skiable acres and year-round events, Schweitzer hires about 900 people each year and about 85 of those jobs are year-round.
"Our peak employment is over 600 people this time of year," Auld said. "Which is far more than most people realize."
Those are just a few of the facts Sandpoint High School teachers learned about Schweitzer Friday during a Community Connections business tour that also included the Sandpoint Library, Wildwood Grilling and Encoder Products Company.
Friday's tour was the second of the school year for teachers, supported by a grant through Panhandle Alliance for Education.
The grant was written by SHS counselor Jeralyn Mire, computer-aided design instructor Malia Meschko, and college and career mentor Amanda Ott. As a bonus, some teachers obtained a professional credit for taking the tour, which six are required every five years.
The goal of Community Connections is to learn about the current economic trends among businesses in the area so the teachers can create a relevant curriculum for the students. While the tours are focused on local industry, many of the skills required by major businesses in the Sandpoint area would be relevant in cities around the country.
"It opens your eyes to the amount of opportunities that there are in Sandpoint, for entry-level or higher education," Ott said. "For me, I think about it a lot for students to be able to leave and come back because, being one of those students that did that, I had no idea there was so many opportunities."
"I think it's exciting for staff — if there's this many opportunities in Sandpoint, imagine how many there are in Spokane, Boise, Los Angeles — and it's just to let kids know there is a whole world out there and there is tons of opportunities," Mire said.
The Sandpoint Library was the first stop of the day Friday for about 30 Sandpoint High School teachers who participated in the tour. Auld saved the teachers a trip up the mountain by giving a presentation on Schweitzer in the library, but the teachers agreed to make the trip to the resort next year to better relay information and opportunities to their students.
Schweitzer has more than 30 different departments in eight divisions of employment. The resort even has its own utility company — Mountain Utility Company, LLC.
The main skill employers at Schweitzer hire for, Auld said, is a positive attitude. The resort's service philosophy is "passionate, friendly, genuine people creating great experiences." Therefore, employees are generally hired for attitude, because they can be trained for skill.
While most of the tours gave the teachers information about employment opportunities and what companies look for in applicants, the library tour revealed a wealth of resources students can use to succeed in school.
As time was running out and the group needed to move on to Wildwood Grilling, they split up into two groups — one toured the library and learned about tutoring opportunities in the Lifelong Learning Center, while the other group learned about the digital resources available through the library.
Mike Bauer, coordinator of the Lifelong Learning Center, said they have about 45 students using the tutoring center, and about 60 percent of those students are in middle school. Ann Nichols, library director, said they would like to see more high school students in the tutoring center, whether to tutor or to be tutored.
Digital resources available through the library include Facts on File for analyzing controversial topics in a language students can understand, historical documents, testing information, maps and more. Meschko said it is important for students to understand how to properly research topics rather than just look it up on Google.
Pam Webb, SHS English teacher and librarian, said just getting the students aware of the resources at the community library is important as well. Since students have the use of laptops, libraries are not being used to their full ability, she said, but it is changing.
"Libraries around the world are going more toward community centers," she said. "People get so wrapped up in their (electronic) devices, but there is a craving to exchange ideas and get new information ... the library is much more than just checking out a book."
The smell of cedar infused fish and vegetables permeated the air as Nate Adam of Wildwood Grilling barbecued up some food for the group to sample.
A chorus of "this is so good" and "amazing" could be heard as the teachers enjoyed the salmon and vegetables during the third tour of the day. The salmon was grilled on Wildwood Grilling's cedar planks and the vegetables were bound in a cedar wrap.
The group visited both the main office location and the mill on Shingle Mill Road where the grilling planks, wraps and smoking chips are made and sold to companies across the country and in a few other countries around the world.
Owner Ernie Brandt said Wildwood Grilling uses lumber that is "not good enough" for the lumber industry. For the purpose of the company's products, they can cut out the bad defects and still have plenty left over to create the pieces needed for planks, wraps and chips made from cedar, alder, red oak, maple, cherry and hickory.
As Brandt spoke to the group, a trend began to emerge, linking a specific skill required by Schweitzer to a skill required by Wildwood Grilling. As a company that is continuously hiring, Brandt said, one thing they look for in employees is a good attitude.
Webb pointed out that their philosophy is similar to that of Schweitzer in that a bad attitude can "poison the whole atmosphere."
"It's interesting to hear two big companies in our community who have the same philosophy, so we can go back to our classrooms and say, 'You guys have got to get your act together. You can't be the mean kid who's got an A, it's not going to work for you.'"
Brandt added that communication and writing skills are important as well. Entry-level jobs on production typically require a high school diploma, and upper-level jobs require a college degree.
"And we are always looking for the exceptional person for a job we don't have yet," Brandt said.
The final stop of the day was in a large building alongside Highway 95 in Sagle. It is somewhat obscure in that so many people drive by it each day without realizing Encoder Products Company employs 150 people to make a product that is inside so many machines around the world.
Encoders translate information such as speed or distance into a digital signal for machines that use conveyor belts, like a baggage scanner in an airport, or is required to do a particular job with specific timing, like high-speed labeling equipment for jars. They are also used in elevator control systems, vending machines, chair lifts at ski resorts like Schweitzer, and many other machines as well, according to the company.
James MacLachlan, a corporate officer at Encoder, said jobs in the encoder industry start in production at $9.50 to $10 per hour, adding that it takes three to four years to "get good" at it.
As with the other large businesses, Encoder is always hiring, and one thing the company looks for in employees is work ethic.
"The biggest problem we have trying to hire people is getting people who are punctual and can communicate," MacLachlan said, adding that some people have failed to even show up for interviews prior to being hired.
The company doesn't mind putting in the investment to teach an employee some of the technical skills, but they need to show up, he said.
As the day was wound to close, SHS instructor and CTE coordinator Alex Gray said he has toured many of the businesses before, but as the are always changing it is useful to revisit some of the areas of opportunity that he can relay to his students.
"We always have discussions about what is available locally," Gray said.
Marcia Wilson, executive director for PAFE, said she enjoyed the diversity of the businesses.
"Each so different, each with so many opportunities, all quality places to work, and the common thread was soft skills," Wilson said.