Hotel manager talking to customers at hotel desk

By Morag McKenzie

The largest department in any hotel in terms of number of employees — and some would say importance — is housekeeping. Yet the labour gap remains stubbornly high with 116,375 jobs in tourism unfilled, which equates to 6.2 per cent of tourism jobs, according to Tourism HR Canada’s Q3, 2023 report. The majority of these, says the report, will be in housekeeping.

Root Causes

Reasons for housekeeping’s labour gap varies by region, size and type of property. However, human resources experts agree, many prospective job seekers perceive housekeeping as a less attractive entry point and career path within the hotel industry.

Hotel companies are seeking to change this, working in partnership with local colleges, universities and employment services to promote the central role of housekeeping services in hotel operations. “Many students don’t understand the importance of housekeeping services and available opportunities to grow their career in it. We’re trying to change that at job fairs and other recruitment events,” states Lauren Massie, director of Human Resources for the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, Toronto Airport.  

Many of the labour problems caused by the pandemic also still linger today, such as changes in work visa regulations that have impacted hotels’ ability to recruit newcomers to Canada. Chris Giang, Human Resources manager for Canada’s largest hotel, the 1,590-room Chelsea Hotel Toronto explains, “Work visas are hard to get and there’s a lengthy wait time to renew them. There’s also increasing competition from other sectors for employees with similar skill sets. Many left our industry to go to work in hospitals during Covid and haven’t returned as they get steady work even if the room isn’t occupied. This isn’t the case with hotels, where occupancy and number of room attendants required to work varies.” 

The aging housekeeping workforce is also seen as a significant issue. “Our long-serving room attendants have been with us for up to 46 years so [our workforce is] aging. In 2022, we successfully hosted our Chelsea Hotel job fair and in 2023 we promoted referring friends and hired many new colleagues that way,” says Giang.

The high cost of living, particularly in tourism hubs, is also impacting recruitment efforts.  “As employers, we really need to ask ourselves why someone would want to work for us, and if you don’t have a great answer then you have some work to do,” says Mandy Farmer, CEO of B.C.-based Accent Inns, Hotel Zed and ROAR.

Recruitment Strategies

Hosting and attending job fairs, community partnerships, online postings and referrals are central to all housekeeping recruitment efforts. 

Hotels are also re-branding and focusing their people strategy around their core values and vision. “In 2022, we launched our annual “Awesome Wanted” employer brand website amidst the tourism industry’s hiring crisis. This has been a game-changer for us. We’re going into our third year and our hiring needs have decreased significantly. Our turnover rate decreased 15 per cent (from 72 per cent to 57 per cent) and our retention rate is 82 per cent — almost double the average retention rate for the accommodation and foodservice industry which is 42 per cent,” explains Farmer.

Sheraton Gateway focuses on Marriott’s core people-first value, which is central to its recruitment efforts. “Our recruitment efforts include partnering with local community-based organizations, including Humber College, Canada Training Institution, Youth Employment Services and local job fairs,” concludes Massie.

Keep it in the Family

An important part of growing hotels housekeeping teams are providing cross-training and leadership opportunities both within the department and, where possible, across the hotel and sister properties. “We cross-train our room and public attendants and provide opportunities for attendants to become ‘Certified Trainers’ which is a wonderful leadership opportunity,” says Massie.

Developing your own leadership team is also very important within the housekeeping department. This includes identifying emerging leaders and giving them the opportunity to develop. “Managers from across all our hotels and support teams are encouraged to nominate a rising star to participate in our ‘Emerging Leadership’ program. Emerging Leaders comprises three sections: Leading Self, Leading the Work, and Leading Others. The goal is to teach leadership skills and encourage rising stars in our company to gain confidence in their roles and in their lives,” adds Farmer.

Internal promotions are also extremely important in growing your housekeeping team. “We have recently made several internal promotions including four floor managers, one assistant director of Housekeeping
and our director of Housekeeping,” adds Giang.

Retaining Good People

The housekeeping department is known for retaining long-service employees. “Putting people first, providing leadership and other opportunities within our own and across Sheraton and Marriott properties and creating a welcoming community are the core of our retention strategy.  We have many room attendants with 30-plus years of service,” explains Massie.

Another important retention strategy is reminding them of the importance of their position to the success of the property. 

“Retention is our secret sauce. Today, 39 per cent of our housekeeping team across our organization have been with us for more than three years, and 19 per cent of them have been here for more than a decade. Housekeeping isn’t an easy job, and it says a lot about our culture and our compensation model that so many folks have continued to work in these roles for
so long,” says Farmer.

Long-Term Solutions

Many believe the hospitality industry, and housekeeping departments in particular, have a long way to go to close the labour gap. “However, our current strategies are working and we’re starting to see more applications, which is very positive,” says Massie.  

Federal regulations around visas and the number of hours international students can work also play an important role, says Massie. “The number of hours international students can work was increased from 20 to 40 and extended until April 2024. We’re hoping this is extended again.” 

However, many believe the long-term solution to the labour gap is shifting your focus from recruitment to retention. “I’m not seeing labour shortages with our organization. In fact, we’ve been able to significantly reduce our recruitment budget this year. Shifting from focusing on recruitment to focusing on retention and employee experience is the way out of this issue. The problem isn’t with labour; it’s with employers,” concludes Farmer.


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