The convergence of a shrinking labour force and exploding tourism has produced a unique scene for Canadian hotels. Traditional labour pools are deserts now, drained of the human resources that used to stock hotel front-desk, restaurant and housekeeping workforces.
The demand for labour in hotels “far outreaches what’s available,” says Philip Mondor, president of Tourism HR Canada. Between 2010 and 2018, 100,000 jobs went unfilled — advertised positions that tourism employers were unable to find workers for and business expansions that never occurred because labour shortages made them unviable. The Canadian government’s immigration hike (increasing intake to 0.9 per cent in 2020) still anticipates a 64,000-job shortfall.
What’s more, says Brian Cammack, regional vice-president of Human Resources at Marriott International, the labour shortage in this iteration of the perennial crisis is unique because it extends from entry-level jobs, such as housekeeper and line cook, to directors of Operations and general managers.
The reasons behind this reality are clear — birth rates are declining, workers are aging and technology’s getting trickier. The hotel workforce is skinnier in some parts of Canada and fatter in others. And then there’s the problem with perception. Hotel jobs, says Alana Baker, director of Government Relations at the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), are perceived to be low-profile, entry-level placeholders that don’t offer flexibility, decent pay or a chance to climb the ladder.
Now layer this scene with the fact that Canadian tourism is booming. Last year was a record one, with 21.13-million travellers visiting Canada, leaving $102.5 billion in their wake — a massive contribution to the country’s economy.
“If we continue to go down this road, operators who run lean and small businesses will close because they won’t be able to find skilled workers,” says Joe Baker, dean of the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts at Centennial College.
No wonder the subject of labour challenges “comes up constantly” when Alana Baker talks to members and political decision-makers.
“But I’m hopeful,” adds Joe Baker. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Reinvention is everywhere in mid-2019 and you could light a match off the energy. The government’s stepped up, prioritizing the sector with serious initiatives. Hospitality schools have sharpened their knives to spearhead programs linking prospects with employers sooner and with more intention. And hotels themselves have devised fresh strategies more applicable to a trying reality whose hiring conventions need constant revision.
Right off the bat, there’s wisdom to be found in big organizations such as Netflix and Google — also victims of a labour shortfall — which have devised solutions hoteliers can borrow. These employers have learned to shift their hiring focus from education and experience to skills and demonstrated competencies — a hiring innovation, says Joe Baker. He says hotels need to get similarly comfortable with non-traditional talent pools and soft skills such as communication, cultural sympathy, personal resilience, empathy, persistence and confidence.
The recent layoffs in auto plants in Oshawa, Ont., offer a case study for this kind of thinking. While these manufacturing workers’ skills may not, on paper, seem applicable to the hospitality industry, Joe Baker calls them transferable. “Someone who’s been working on a team, who understands communication, process and quality control, who can follow directions, might be well suited to work in hotels.”
Indeed, says Mondor, the HR world has to start designing jobs for workers and not the other way around. “If you don’t design a job that fits them,” says Mondor, “you won’t survive.”
Meanwhile, the government is doing its piece to ensure the industry’s survival, introducing the Destination Employment program late last year. Developed with HAC and Tourism HR Canada, this three-year pilot project is designed to alleviate labour shortages in its five target regions — the Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Atlantic Canada — and offers new Canadians meaningful, stable employment. The program aims to employ at least 1,300 in sustainable, well-paid, long-term hotel jobs.
Other programs are also being implemented to address this challenge. Future Skills — funded by the federal government and delivered in partnership with Ryerson University — is a macro version of Destination Employment. Also established to address the skills gap, it applies federal funding to programs that attract and develop talent in local markets. And Get into Hospitality, a four-week program under the Prince’s Trust charity, began targeting under- and unemployed youth in September 2018, with an invitation to get to know the hospitality industry through classroom time, technical training and job-shadowing at Marriott — the sole Canadian partner. Like Destination Employment, for which Marriott’s Cammack sits on the board, this program targets individuals who might otherwise have been overlooked and grooms them for hospitality employment.
Up next, says Alana Baker, needs to be an all-hands-on-deck push among key stakeholders to kill erroneous perceptions about hotel work and spread the message that there’s “a beautiful career path here.”
“Making the industry sexy is about showing students career pathways,” says Dario Guescini, director of Work Integrated Learning and Experiential Education at George Brown College.
Retention is part of the objective here. Today’s workers, says Joe Baker, “want to know they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. Not only are you a bellman in a hotel property, you’re an ambassador of kindness.”
Hospitality companies have to do a better job of communicating this on campus, says Frédéric Dimanche, director of Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University.
Marriott’s taken the lead on this front, adding two full-time leaders dedicated to university recruiting and relations to its team. And, Be Our Guest — a partnership of hotels and educational institutions launched in Toronto last year — starts the conversation even younger by inviting high-school students to consider the industry with training and job-shadowing.
Adapting requires courage on the part of hotel operators, says Joe Baker. Hiring managers and HR departments have to resist blaming external factors for their labour challenges and ask, “‘What can we do with the talent pool and hiring practices we have to make a difference?’ The Canadian tourism industry will not cease to exist. We’ll innovate, we’ll change.”
Written by Laura Pratt