There is no question the pandemic has impacted Canada’s hospitality workforce immensely.
“The pandemic has had an overwhelming effect on the teams at our hotels,” says John Wilson, vice-president Hotel Performance, New Castle Hotels & Resorts. “Due to very low business volumes, many associates were laid off or furloughed, thus reducing the overall staffing at the hotels.”
As he explains, this drove leadership teams to get creative and adjust their approach to suit business volumes and guest needs. “We’ve had to adjust staffing levels in all areas and cross train to cover multiple areas with less staff while still maintaining guest satisfaction,” shares Wilson. “We have fewer full-time and more part-time staff at this point. This gives our general managers the ability to quickly adjust levels based upon business volumes — something they’re all used to doing, just never at this low level.”
According to Tourism HR Canada, January 2021 marked the fifth-consecutive month of tourism-employment decreases, with a drop of 135,300 jobs — representing an 8.6-per-cent decline from the previous month and accounting for 27.6 per cent of Canada’s total drop in employment from December to January. In the accommodation sector, employment decreased by 18.5 per cent and the number of employed individuals fell below 100,000.
Overall, the accommodation sector has seen the greatest loss of employment within the tourism industry, down 42.4 per cent since the start of the pandemic. As of January 2021, the unemployment rate for the sector stood at 29.9 per cent.
It’s expected to take several years for tourism employment to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Tourism HR Canada had originally projected that this would take until 2025 in some sectors, but, given the impact of the second wave of the pandemic, Calum MacDonald, VP, Labour Market Intelligence, indicated these projections were likely optimistic during the organization’s recent webinar Workforce Shortfall – And What It Takes to Re-start Canada’s Tourism Workforce.
The prolonged period of uncertainty caused by the pandemic has only exacerbated the industry’s challenge of attracting and retaining skilled workers. “Before this pandemic, we were facing shortages, both in terms of the number of workers and the skills needed for this sector — and this has been the case for a decade,” says Philip Mondor, president & CEO, Tourism HR Canada. “Coming out of [the pandemic], the shortages are projected to be more acute. We’re already hearing from businesses and employers [that they’re] having difficulty finding workers.”
And, while this may seem unusual given that many businesses remain shuttered or are operating with reduced services, MacDonald explains, “Based on the loss of employment we have seen, the increase in the unemployment rate in the fall [was not] as great as we would have expected. So, that suggests either that those who [lost] their jobs this fall are not seeking new employment right away or they’re finding jobs elsewhere.”
“We also know that sentiment towards our sector has taken a hit,” adds MacDonald, pointing to Tourism HR Canada’s recent survey assessing Canadians’ perceptions of working in the tourism industry. The survey, prepared by Montreal polling and market-research firm Leger, found 46 per cent of Canadians are willing to recommend a career in tourism, which is down 16 percentage points from 2017.
Overall, uncertainty and concerns regarding the stability of the industry have led people to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. In fact, when asked about the perceived risks they associate with working in tourism, more than 70 per cent of respondents ranked concerns around the economic stability of the industry, reduced hours, job loss and work closures during COVID-19 as high or extreme risks.
Further, half of respondents noted they negatively view the tourism industry as a place of work, with 39 per cent indicating their perception is more negative than before the pandemic. Even more concerning, respondents who had worked in tourism were significantly more likely to indicate that their view of the industry is more negative now (50 per cent), as their perceptions of personal health and safety have been negatively affected.
This is despite operators’ best efforts to ensuring safety and comfort. “One of the first things we did when the pandemic hit was [work] to create a safe environment for both our associates and our guests,” says Wilson — a sentiment that has been echoed by operators across the country over the past year — citing PPE, new protocols and enhanced cleaning procedures.
“It’s going to be very important that we address the concerns of individuals who have worked in the industry, as they act as ambassadors and spokespeople for our industry,” says MacDonald. “If those individuals have a negative perception of the industry, it can lead them to dissuade others from pursuing a career, or even just a temporary job in the sector.”
With ongoing changes to restrictions, safety protocols and best practices, ensuring all staff members are trained and up-to-date on new procedures has become an ongoing effort. As Wilson points out, cleaning has been a key area where New Castle has been focusing its training efforts, as it’s of paramount importance for both guest and staff safety. “Our hotels have always had strict cleaning procedures but, with COVID-19, we’ve reviewed all of our procedures and re-trained our staff on safe cleaning practices,” he explains. “We constantly review new brand standards and listen to direction given by the local health authorities…Through the leadership of our general managers, the teams constantly communicate best practices to adjust as needed based on any opportunities or challenges that arise.”
But, as Mondor stresses, the industry’s workforce will require new skills beyond those necessary for weathering the current crisis. “Tourism is a different game than it was before; there are new skills that have emerged and different demands in terms of what’s happening in workplaces,” he explains. “This is not just about frontline workers, a very large portion of the upskilling, re-training or new skilling is focused largely on operation and business needs…Indeed frontline [workers] do need new skills as well, but our data and employers have suggested that that’s not the bigger challenge, many of those are fairly tenable to manage.”
During Tourism HR Canada’s workforce webinar, Mondor highlighted specific skills that will be key to re-starting the tourism workforce, which included those centred on business innovation, new technology, financial management, community engagement, business resilience, human-capital management, environmental/sustainable practices and social/cultural intelligence. And, while many of these areas were of interest prior to the pandemic, it has only accelerated the pace of change and, effectively, amplified the need.
“There is a very different work context that we’re dealing with [in this new reality],” says Mondor. “People are requiring anchor staff that are highly versatile, with skills that can be adaptable to a range of environments; that can have a level of independence or autonomy. The more casual workers are likely going to still serve a number of our needs, but businesses are tending to focus on those anchor workers, because of the adaptability that’s required.”
This ties directly into the fact that operating and staffing models will likely see long-term — if not permanent — changes going forward.
“It is going to take a long time for business to return to pre-pandemic levels and labour will follow hand in hand,” says Wilson, though he adds, “I am uncertain whether we will ever return to the same staffing levels in the future. This pandemic has hit hard and fast and has forced our teams to get creative and look for innovative ways to run their businesses.”
Wilson is not alone in this belief. In fact, during recent quarterly earnings calls, most major hotel companies have touched on adjusting staffing and operating models for the long-term, embracing some of the cost-saving measures introduced over the last year.
“On a positive note,” Wilson adds, “this crisis has made our teams even stronger, more collaborative than ever before and [given us] a heightened appreciation for each other.”
Tourism HR Canada reports that, in January 2021, tourism employed 1,435,300 workers, almost 30-per-cent fewer than the more than two-million workers employed in January 2020. This represents a loss of 10,200 full-time and 11,300 part-time jobs.