Ski instructor course 14: Survival on the slopes

Can you actually make a living as a ski instructor? Three professionals tell their story

Instructors from the Warren Smith Ski Academy, Verbier

On the job, from left: Rob Stanford, Tom Goldney, Tom “Scouse” Lewis and Jordan Revah

What do ski instructors live on when the snow melts? Can you make enough to survive the winter, let alone the other seasons? And what use is a ski qualification in summer?

These are just three of the questions regularly asked by skiers – and of course would-be ski instructors.

The first thing a professional instructor will tell you is that it takes time to build up work. As a newly qualified member of staff at a ski school, you are last in the pecking order. You will be given classes at busy times – Christmas, February half-term, Easter – but in quieter weeks you may end up with none at all.

Starting pay for an instructor at a Swiss resort is typically £13-£16 an hour, so a novice will have a challenge making ends meet. However, instructors say that if you continue training, secure further qualifications, and gain a reputation for reliability and professionalism, your pay rate and workload will improve steadily.

I asked three of the coaches at the Warren Smith Ski Academy about their own experience. Each has managed to turn their passion for skiing into a lifestyle that pays – but in very different ways.

WSSA instructor Tom Goldney (in yellow) with our traning group

Tom Goldney (in yellow) teaching our group

Tom Goldney, a 28 year-old from Hertfordshire, spent several summers doing a variety of jobs in Britain before finding the perfect complement to his winter work: managing a watersports centre at a lake in Oxfordshire, where he teaches water skiing, wakeboarding, knee-boarding, and barefoot water skiing ( “The sports have a lot in common,” says Tom. “Waterskiing is all about confidence, balance and coordination. Like with skiing, you need to be supple enough to bounce instead of break; confident enough to take the risk to change; and flexible enough to create the shapes you need to make the most out of the equipment.”

Since doing his first ski instructor course 11 winters ago in Andorra, Tom says he has “sweated blood and tears, and spent a fortune on training. But you do this job for the lifestyle, not the money. And the work is incredibly rewarding. Thankfully we deal with people in their best frame of minds – they come willing to learn, like a sponge, ready to absorb. They leave all their stress at home, there’s no nine-to-five grief.”

WSSA instructor Rob Stanford (right) with Will, a gap-year trainee ski instructor

Rob Stanford (right) with my fellow trainee Will

Meanwhile Rob Stanford, also 28, spent his first few summers after qualifying working at the artificial outdoor slope where he first learned to ski at the age of seven, just minutes from where he grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. “It was really nice going back, and staying with my mum and dad,” says Rob. “And it really inspired me in my teaching – you get such a variety of people to work with.”

As well as skiers brushing up their skills and groups of schoolchildren, Rob regularly taught a group of autistic skiers – “always a challenge, but really rewarding” – and a group of blind children. “Their other senses were so amplified, they were superb – a real pleasure to work with. They made me think really carefully about how I communicate.”

Perhaps his most challenging, yet rewarding, student was a young offender who arrived with a pair of minders. “It was a problem even getting the ski boots on,” says Rob. “He had a tag on one ankle, and on the other he still had the wound where the police dog had got him.” By the end of two hours, though, he was skiing the whole slope. “He’s the quickest learner I’ve ever had,” says Rob. “Totally fearless. I wish all my students were like that.”

Tom Lewis (right) coaching would-be ski instructors in Verbier

Tom “Scouse” Lewis (right) coaches the group

As for 25-year-old Tom “Scouse” Lewis, from the Wirral, becoming a ski instructor was a dream since childhood. His parents took him on ski holidays from an early age, as well as to the local Merseyside Ski Club. “I thought the people who taught me were the best thing since sliced bread,” he says. “Being a ski instructor seemed the coolest job in the world.”

First, however, Scouse needed a skill that would get him to the Alps – so straight after GCSEs he did a year’s training as a chef, in Chester. For two winters, he ran and cooked for a 20-guest chalet in Courchevel; in his spare time he trained as a ski instructor, as well as learning how to service skis “for beer money” (see blog 17).

Scouse moved to Verbier where he built up his skiing experience and qualifications in subsequent winters, but summers proved more of a challenge. Initially he worked back home as a chef, but the long and unsocial hours meant he barely saw friends or family. The solution: a job at a factory packing Coco Pops, Cheerios and muesli – with every evening and weekend off.

After four winters of ski training, Scouse landed his current job at the Warren Smith Ski Academy. As well as running week-long ski courses and coaching future ski instructors, Scouse teaches summer camps on the glacier at the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, and in the spring and autumn gives day courses at indoor artificial snow slopes around the UK.

Which proves that you can make a living working on snow year-round as an instructor, even without setting foot in the southern hemisphere. The journey there, however, is anything but one long holiday.