Recruiting good people is tough — ensuring they enjoy their jobs is even harder 

Strictly speaking a hotel is just bricks, mortar, tile and carpet — often very nice carpets, of course — but it’s not primarily these physical features that attract guests. What turns a hotel into a place people really want to spend time is service. And service depends on human beings. 

The hospitality industry has long focused on finding quality, service-oriented people, but this has been a little more complicated lately because, well, there just don’t seem to be any people. Whether you call it the “labour shortage,” “war on talent,” the “Alberta effect” or “invasion of the housekeeper snatchers,” for the first time in recent memory, hotels are genuinely struggling to fill roles, from the laundry room all the way up to the board room. Now this staffing challenge — some would call it a crisis — is forcing organizations to carefully monitor the way they do business.

“The most recent data shows [Alberta] at a 3.3 per cent unemployment rate, which is as low as it’s ever been,” says Dave Kaiser, Edmonton-based president and CEO of the Alberta Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA). “Our sector of accommodation and foodservices unemployment is at 4.4 per cent. The government considers five per cent balanced labour, so anything below that is officially considered a labour shortage.”

Although the shortage is most intense in the West, across the country GMs and recruiters report great difficulty finding staff to work in housekeeping, maintenance, laundry, and all levels of food and beverage. “There don’t seem to be any positions where there is an over-abundance of staff,” Kaiser notes dryly.

With the pool of workers getting shallower, hotel companies are rapidly rethinking strategies for recruitment and retention. Scott Allison, vice-president, Sales and Marketing at the Toronto head office of Marriott Lodging Canada Inc., says its aggressive college and university recruitment policy includes assigning all VPs and GMs responsibility for particular institutions. “We do that with customers as well, and this is another stakeholder group that’s really important to us,” he says. “Making somebody at a senior level responsible for [a college] sends the message that it’s important.”

Allison says another powerful tool for reaching students is inviting recent graduates now working for the company, to speak to former peers. Colleges are more important than ever, says Allison, because the personnel shortage is now reaching into mid-level management and leadership positions as well. As a result, Marriott is putting extra effort into hanging on to corporate staff — particularly those with skills that are most transferable from industry-to-industry, such as finance, sales and marketing, and e-commerce.

Janice Smith, Toronto-based director, Quality and Recruitment, for Delta Hotels says in addition to using established resources, her organization has cast its hiring net further afield. For example, several years ago Delta moved away from using the hospitality search engine Hcareers in favour of its own careers website. Based on the number of unique visits, and the percentage of hires from the site, Smith says it’s providing an excellent ROI. They can also advertise the “Careers” link on virtually any electronic or paper page. “I’ve even added the URL for the [hiring] website to my business card,” she says. “Basically, we are promoting all the different opportunities available exactly as a salesperson would. I consider myself a marketer.”

However, Smith also has a different view on the on the widespread staffing squeeze, believing many hospitality organizations have gotten stuck in familiar recruiting patterns and have been slow to explore other avenues. “I’m not saying it’s easy to find qualified individuals. I believe there might be a shortage from traditional sources, but when you start to tap into all the other sources available, I don’t believe there’s a shortage.”

Smith says, “We participated in a [Toronto] job fair in October focused on new Canadians, persons with disabilities, aboriginals and visible minorities that attracted about 5,000 people. We were the only hotel company of 200 employers. Why is that?” She says Delta has been forging partnerships with organizations that advocate for recent immigrants, among other groups. They are also in the infancy stages of mentoring program for aboriginal students studying hospitality management. “The aboriginal community is the fastest-growing community in Canada. How many employers within, or outside our industry are tapping into that market?”

Another route hoteliers are exploring is hiring workers from outside Canada. Last year the AHLA completed a temporary foreign worker toolkit to help members access the program, and walk them through all the complicated steps involved. So far, Kaiser says they’ve helped bring in between 400 and 500 temporary workers in addition to many others who’ve arrived via different channels. The AHLA has also had some success moving early participants in the temporary worker program into Alberta’s Provincial Nominee Program — a longer-term solution that expedites permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship.

New government measures are also speeding up the federal program — at least somewhat. “It’s still a 17-week process,” Kaiser says, but “the word we have from the government is they now start from a ‘Yes, you will get your workers’ position and only move to a ‘No’ if a property or employer has some fundamental problems.”

The Quality Inn in Grand Prairie, Alta., is now on its second wave of workers from the Philippines, in a program spearheaded by general manager Felix Seiler, and later adopted by the entire CHIP hospitality group (and detailed in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Hotelier). Despite their success, Seiler says between red tape and easing people through culture (and weather) shock, bringing in foreign workers is not a step to take lightly.

“There is cost involved,” Seiler says. But he believes there’s a steeper cost involved in being constantly short-staffed or training people over and over. “Obviously it won’t solve all your problems,” he adds. “We still recruit heavily within the community.”

Of course finding workers is only the first step. Until the labour crunch gets severe enough that an order-in-council allows you to chain recruits to their housekeeping carts and stoves, you’ve also got to find a way to hang on to them. “We’re now seeing the industry embrace things like benefits and retirement programs,” says Kaiser. “Working on human resources practices to become better employers and make our industry an industry of choice is a long-term project, but it’s one we have to do,” he says.

To improve new employees’ experiences, Smith says every Delta hire’s first 90 days involve in-depth orientation and thorough training. Non-management employees also have a designated trainer assigned to teach them the ropes. “We want to make every single employee — regardless of their title or duties — feel like a valued business partner,” she says. To stay competitive in areas that are important to associates, Allison says Marriott regularly surveys new recruits, and employee satisfaction, as well as turnover, is a fundamental part of the bonus structure, compensation plan and performance reviews of its general managers.

On the front lines, GM Seiler says one of the most important factors in retaining employees is what he calls the pipeline — a sense of mobility within the organization. “They like to feel [they’re] not stuck in a certain job,” he says. “We try to pick the right people and let them know they can evolve in the company and move up.”

Dave Kaiser says it’s time for both companies and operators to ask themselves why someone would work for their hotel instead of one down the road, or even another industry. “In the past we had to ask that question about our customers, now we have to ask it about our staff,” he says.

Additionally, the reality of an aging population and a declining birthrate means the current crunch is probably not a temporary blip. “It’s not just the hot economy in Alberta,” Kaiser says. “These are fundamental issues pressing on our industry and we need to prepare for changes, because when it comes to finding workers, the future is not going to look like the past.”                       


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