After working part-time at Busch Gardens while earning college degrees in social work and nursing, Erica Carwise will hold on to her theme park job once she finds a full-time job in her chosen career.
"I've always worked two or more jobs and Busch Gardens is two to three times as flexible with work scheduling as anybody," the 25-year-old USF graduate said while she made turkey wraps as a culinary supervisor at the Orang Cafe in Jungala.
Her bosses routinely shifted her work hours around study time during finals week for school. They trusted her enough to let her off for a few weeks to deal with a personal family issue without prying into why. They okayed a "surprise" graduation party her mother threw for her on two days notice.
Indeed, Busch employees agreed with Carwise in the Tampa Bay Times Top Workplace survey, citing work schedule flexibility as a major reason they prefer working at the Tampa theme park. It's helped make Busch Gardens a go-to employer.
"We learned how to be very flexible because we employ a lot of students with strange hours and people who rely on us for second jobs," said David Bode, vice president of human resources. "Plus our work demand varies so much."
Busch needs a minimum of 1,500 people to keep the place open seven days a week. They bulk the staff up to 4,500 for the peak summer and winter seasons between Christmas and Easter. But needs vary dramatically with weather, the day of the week, the time of day and attendance projections, so the park has made schedule juggling an art form.
"It's great," said Chris Noyce, a 21-year-old USF environmental sciences major in his third year as a ride operator. "When you work is almost up to you."
Employees post their availability on a company website. Shifts are pared down to work units of four to six hours. The computer matches available employees to attendance projections and work demands two weeks ahead of time. The supervisors then fine-tune and juggle the actual work assignments — even down to the same day.
One-day notice call-ins for reinforcements and shift swapping is commonplace because departments cross-train workers. About 400 workers are full-time USF students who can take a free campus bus to a dropoff across the street. An equal number are seasonal snowbirds who winter in area RV campgrounds until Easter every year. Local retirees and hundreds of past part-time workers asked to be kept on a pool list for temporary jobs.
The flexibility has been a godsend to Rohan Garricks, a 39-year-old Jamaican working on U.S. citizenship whose wife needed to return to their home island for four months before her U.S. residency status was approved. A stage manager for the Iceploration show, Garricks had to switch his work schedule drastically to take care of their U.S.-born toddler in Tampa as a single parent.
Working a 32- to 38-hour week freed him up to earn his masters in project management in half the time.
"Busch Gardens has made it so work doesn't interfere too much with your personal life," he said.
Trust is earned first, however. The park gets 3.5 applicants for every job opening. Interviewers are looking for friendly, outgoing types with a good work attitude. Newcomers start as seasonal workers, then look for openings as part-timers when the lean season starts. The zookeeper jobs are so coveted that openings are rare and usually filled by people with behavioral science degrees or animal husbandry work experience.
Pay isn't that great: $8 to start, then up to $14. But the heavily landscaped, meticulously manicured theme park offers pleasant surroundings and a path to management.
After all, James Acheson, chief executive of the Tampa park's owner, Sea World Parks & Entertainment, started his career directing traffic in the Busch Gardens parking lot while working on his USF degree.