EXPERT INSIGHT : HOW TO BECOME A SKI INSTRUCTOR

Have you ever been skiing and wondered what it takes to become a ski instructor? Or, got to the end of an epic winter holiday and wished you could stay forever?!! We hear you people. We totes hear you.

To help you guys live your dream we sat down and had a chat with qualified instructor and WE ARE SNO’s Operations Director, Adrian Gourlay. WE ARE SNO are a leading provider of instructor training and over the last 10+ years Adrian has been helping passionate skiers and snowboarders turn their dreams into reality, by introducing them to a career in snowsports.

We fired 10 questions at Adrian that we hope will help you guys figure out the ins and outs of becoming an instructor.

1. What are the different courses available? 

That’s a good question, and surprisingly complex to answer. 

There are now two main types of course, they are: instructor internships and instructor training programmes, and the main differences between the two are:

An instructor internship is training and certification course that includes a guaranteed job offer to work as a full time ski or snowboard instructor post certification.

A training programme is focused only on the training and certification aspect, no offer of employment or work experience is available.

In recent years the ski internship model has become increasingly more popular. This is due to people looking for a more complete package with tangible work experience and the chance to earn a wage in the same season as training and qualification. There is also still a demand for training programmes, they tend to be more popular with those who do not have the eligibility to work, those with time constraints and students looking for a ‘gap’ experience prior to university.

There are different levels of qualification available on both ski instructor internships and training programmes. The entry level qualification which is required to legally work as an instructor in the majority of countries is the level 1. The most basic of qualifications, level 1 can easily be achieved after three weeks of training by most intermediate level skiers and snowboarders. The qualification is gained by sitting a practical exam between 3-5 days in duration, once obtained it allows the holder to teach at beginner level.

Naturally, level 2 is the next stage of qualification and holders can teach at intermediate level. This demands a more technical level of aptitude but is still very achievable for advanced skiers and snowboarders. The 5-7 day exam is preceded by a specific level 2 training package ranging from 3-5 weeks in duration. Note that the level 2 qualification is the industry minimum standard requirement for anyone wishing to pursue a career as an instructor and gain employment after their first winter season.

There are additional qualifications that can also improve your chances of gaining employment post training. They range from freestyle and race specific exams to niche qualifications for teaching children and avalanche safety.

If you are thinking seriously about an extended career in snowsports, like most professions, there is a structured pathway requiring further education and qualifications. The level 3 (ISIA) and subsequent level 4 (ISTD) are quite a step up from the basic level 1 and 2 qualifications, and are seen as a longer term goal for most professional instructors.

There are obvious benefits when moving through the levels. You can expect your salary and demand for lessons to increase, as you move up in the hierarchy of the school. There will be opportunities to coach fellow instructors, to teach on instructor training programmes and even start examining for the governing body.  

The four levels of qualification are largely recognised as comparable between most national governing bodies, with the exception of France. Here you are required to have a minimum of 3 years teaching experience and a minimum level 3 qualification to teach just as a trainee. If you aspire to work as a fully fledged instructor in France the bar is set even higher. You are required to hold the level 4 qualification (ISTD) and to complete the difficult Euro Speed Test to be considered for a position.

2. What are the best countries for becoming an instructor?

There are 39 countries that are member states of the International Ski Instructor Association (ISIA). This means there is a range of destinations you can train to become a ski instructor and travel with your qualifications to work. There is no doubt that Canada and Japan are the most popular, especially with the majority of those based in the UK, Europe and Australia. 

Whilst Japan might seem like a strange destination to some, those in the know will be well aware of its allure. With huge demand for English speaking instructors, a high starting wage for first season instructors and unrivalled snow quality, it all adds up to an unforgettable course. Both Japan and Canada have an abundance of internship providers, so you are likely to find a great resort where you can try your hand at real-time instructor employment. 

If you’re finding it hard to choose between resorts and settle on a preferred destination, a good online resource is Snow Season Central. Their website gives a detailed breakdown of what it is really like working a season in the various different resorts. They have information on applying for visas to accommodation and even the best nightlife to check out. 

3. Are artificial or indoor slopes a suitable place to gain instructor qualifications?

This is a question I commonly receive from people in the UK who are interested in becoming instructors. Whilst it may seem like a cost effective alternative to sit a level 1 exam at home it won’t actually help you out as much as you think, especially if you are searching for employment. 

Learning to ski and teach in an artificial environment is certainly not the same as being in a resort, people often struggle with the transition. Looking for employment as a level 1 instructor is extremely difficult, especially when the industry minimum standard requirement is the level 2 qualification. 

My advice would be to save up and look to enroll on a full mountain course, you’ll get far more out of it. Most training providers will make you sit the level 1 training and qualification again anyway, especially if the qualification was gained in an artificial environment. 

4. What age or gender do you have to be? 

Instructor courses are technically for anyone, however, we do find that the majority of interest comes from those aged between 18-30. Ski internships are slightly different as they require the participant to take up employment post qualification. This is only available to those legally allowed to work in a particular country by means of a work visa, typically a working holiday visa. 

5. How much experience should you have?

Once again, this depends a little bit on the course provider and/or the qualification you’re aiming to obtain. A realistic minimum for level 1 would be 3 weeks of current on-snow experience and around 6 weeks for level 2. For a basic benchmark, you should be able to comfortably link turns, under control, down an intermediate pitched slope. 

At WE ARE SNO we set our standards a little higher and request between 4-6 weeks for level 1 and 8+ weeks for level 2, this helps us to protect our high exam pass rates.

6. What qualities and experiences are useful when applying for a ski instructor internship?

I usually find that those with prior skills or knowledge of coaching, mentoring or tutoring have an advantage. Often the skillset is directly transferable when comparing it to some of the challenges within the ski industry.

People who have worked through the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme or completed volunteer work. Those who have spent time living away from home, have travelled and can speak another language also do well.

7. How much does training cost on average?

This is where things can get a little tricky as really no two courses are the same. A good place to start would be around the £5k mark with some of the more expensive, multi-qualification options priced at £7k and over.

When choosing a programme it is imperative that you carry out thorough research. You should drill down into the inclusions and make sure you are comparing like-for-like. The majority of courses will not include flights, equipment or insurance, but most will be able to offer assistance, discounts and special offers on the above elements. 

One of the benefits of a ski instructor internship is that you can start earning a full-time wage as soon as you qualify. This wage should be enough for you to live off and be self sufficient, depending on work levels and circumstances. 

8. Things to look out for when selecting a suitable course?

There can be some anomalies with certain courses and providers that are not too easy to spot. Always be wary of companies that charge in a currency that is not local to where the company is registered. Ensure that all exam fees are included in the overall fees. Some providers don’t include the level two exam on the level two course, which is strange.

The best advice has already been mentioned and that is to ensure you research the options. Any reputable company worth its salt will have independent reviews online that you can read through and get a good feel for what you can expect. 

9. How much extra money do you need to have on top of the course fees?

This really depends on the individual, their lifestyle and spending habits. For internship courses I like to base this on what is legally required by any country issuing a working holiday visa. Upon issue or activation of the visa, the holder is required to provide proof of cleared funds in the region of £2,000. If you are looking towards a training programme without the option of paid employment then you would need significantly more. This would depend on the duration of the course but based on an 11 week course you might say £4k minimum.

10. Any top tips for securing an instructor job once qualified?

If you’ve completed a level 2 ski or snowboard instructor internship, you’ll be in a really good shape to find future work as an instructor. Here are a few tips to help you secure that job regardless of the qualification you’ve achieved. 

  • Don’t be picky when it comes to resorts. Of course the majority of newly qualified instructors want to work at the larger more glamorous resorts. The reality is that you have a far better chance of gaining employment at the smaller and lesser known areas. You are likely to get more work here anyway and become a better instructor because of it.
  • Stand out from the other applicants by creating a personalised covering letter specific to the resort you are applying for. Research the resort and area and mention things that attract you to working there. Don’t be lazy and send a multi-bust email, take some time to find out the name of the ski school or HR director. Follow up your application with a phone call to introduce yourself.
  • Work hard during your course and put everything you have into gaining as many qualifications as possible. Volunteer for extra shifts and help out in other departments, it will get noticed. The industry is small and the community is a fantastic place to network.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Go live that dream folks! 


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