More and more young British winter sports fans are training as ski instructors, some in the local indoor snow centres, and some on the other side of the world in their gap year. But which route is best? What are the pros and cons of being a ski teacher? And is there a job waiting when you qualify?
The contradictions of the ski instructor life are perfectly summed up by James Cove, an instructor for almost a decade and now editor of the PlanetSKI website ( planetski.eu). "My first piece of advice: don't do it," urges Cove, who goes on to describe the many downsides of making a career out of being a ski instructor. These include long and expensive training, overdemanding clients, being stuck on the nursery slopes on great powder days, endlessly repeating the same instructions, the lousy pay and rare tips ("Much of what the client pays goes to the ski school and the taxman," says Cove.)
The upsides are considerable, though: "When it goes well, it is about as much fun as you can have in life. The mountains as an office, fresh snow and blue sky, endless fun and laughter, wild après-ski and unbreakable friendships," he says. "I wouldn't swap it for the world."
How good a skier do I need to be?
The better you are, the easier it should be. However, it is not unheard-of for novice skiers to take an intensive course over a few weeks to learn to ski well themselves before moving directly on to learn to teach the skills they've just learnt. In fact, having the memory of learning on the latest version of skis and boards fresh in your mind can be an advantage in being able to empathise with novice skiers and boarders when you start teaching. Plus, many experienced skiers are told they must relearn the basics correctly as soon as they start their training. Good people skills are as important as being able to ski well, too – even more so when teaching beginners.
What qualifications do I need?
The long-standing British certifying body for UK-based ski teachers is Basi, the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (01479 861 717; basi.org.uk), based in Grantown on Spey in Scotland. However, a growing number of tour operator-style organisations are offering ski-instructor training courses, particularly in Canada (001 514 748 2648; snowpro.com) or New Zealand (0064 3451 1534; nzsia.org), where you can gain ski-instructor qualifications awarded by Basi-equivalent bodies in each respective country.
Most of the different national bodies are affiliated to the Swiss-based International Ski Instructors Association (0041 31 810 4111; isiaski.org), which has 38 national members. Their qualifications should reach an international standard at each level.
How soon can I be an instructor?
The courses vary, as do the levels of achievement. But the Snow Centre (0845 258 9000; thesnowcentre.com) in Hemel Hempstead offers one-week instructor courses run to Basi standards on indoor snow. After this, you can teach on one of the UK's artificial surface slopes. A further two weeks are needed to teach the basic level required to teach on snow, and they need to be taken in the mountains. Many initial courses are for two to three months, but higher levels tend to take longer. You can opt to become a snowboarding, cross-country-skiing, Telemark or adaptive ski instructor.
Where do I train?
Nonstop Ski and Snowboard (020-7720 6500; nonstopski.com; nonstopsnowboard.com) offers courses in France, Canada and New Zealand, and has taught more than 2,000 people to be instructors since launching in 2002. Almost half of its clients are gap-year students, and their 11-week courses in France and Canada begin in January 2011, with package prices starting from £6,295. The 10-week courses in New Zealand run from July to September, so you can learn in the northern hemisphere's summer, and be teaching a few months later.
Ben Hunt, now a 21-year-old theatre management student at the University of Sunderland, took a ski-instructor training course at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, Canada two winters ago. He was invited back as an instructor during his university holidays last winter. "It was a fantastic experience with a qualification at the end of it, worth the investment and the commitment. The lifestyle is great: being on the mountain all day, interacting with people. Although I don't see my career as an instructor, I know I can always go back to a job I enjoy, and the management skills I've learnt are transferable to a wide variety of different careers," he says.
Other companies that provide similar training/accommodation packages include the Base Camp Group (020-7243 6222; basecampgroup.com), which also offers eight- or 12-week courses in Bariloche, Argentina in summer 2011 from £6,990.
Meanwhile, the Warren Smith Ski Academy (01525 374 757; warrensmith-skiacademy.com) has many of the same venues and also offers summer training on Saas-Fee's glacier in Switzerland. The International Academy (029 2066 0200; international-academy.com) is part of Tui Travel, the company that owns the leading tour operators Crystal and Thomson. It has training courses in Canada, America and New Zealand.
Will I get a job?
Unfortunately, fewer Brits are skiing than two years ago, while the number of people training to be ski teachers has increased (Basi's membership has grown from 4,000 to more than 6,000 in the past two years). This doesn't add up to good job prospects. Further bad news is that those who are still skiing are cutting back on ski-lesson spending. There's even some politics thrown in: the US has made getting temporary work visas harder, while the French (despite equal employment rights across the EU), continue to look down on non-French ski-instructor qualifications.
One of the holy grails of ski instructor-dom is landing a position with the Prada-clad school in St Moritz (0041 818 366 161; suvrettasnowsports.ch) or the private school of Austria's exclusive ski-school equivalent, Zürs (0043 5583 2611; skischule-zuers.at). Here the most highly valued instructors are booked up years ahead by wealthy repeat visitors as part of a package with the best suites and restaurant tables.
Working nine to five?
Being a ski instructor is always going to be a balancing act. It can work well for those in their twenties and gap-year students, but the lifestyle can be more challenging for those trying to keep a family together in the UK, with long-term job security unlikely. This insecurity has changed for the better in recent years as the UK now has six year-round indoor snow centres offering permanent employment, and there are also opportunities on the country's 60-plus artificial surface slopes too.
"Our full-time instructors have a regular income, and are based near their family and friends in the UK. We also support their ongoing training and development." says Peter Hinde, snow operations manager at Chill Factore near Manchester (0161-749 2222; chillfactore.com). "Around 60 per cent of the instructors who were employed when we opened three years ago are still with us now. Our retention rate is particularly strong among our full-time staff, with instructors such as Geoff Whewell now working year-round at Chill Factore after completing 14 winter seasons in Europe."