As hospitality labor shortages grow, the industry evolves in an attempt to attract new workers


Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort - PHOTO COURTESY DISNEY VACATION CLUB
  • Photo courtesy Disney Vacation Club
  • Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort
Update 05-13-2021 with details and comments regarding the new partnership.

Central Florida wasn’t hit as hard by the coronavirus pandemic as many other tourist destinations, but the region definitely suffered. Tourism in the area tumbled by more than half, taking many hospitality and service jobs built around the industry down with it.  As the area begins to recover, local hospitality leaders hope this restart will offer a chance to build a better industry than the one that came before.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford corridor has 102,000 fewer tourism jobs in February of this year than just one year ago. Preliminary data for March finds a 34.9 percent decline in hospitality jobs as compared to a year prior. The last six months have all seen reports with more than one-third fewer hospitality jobs than the year before.

Still, even with the decline in positions, hospitality locations throughout the region are struggling to find workers. The problem isn’t relegated to just Orlando. Forty-two percent of small business owners nationwide have reported issues with filling open positions.

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) conducted a study of hospitality workers. Out of the more than 4,000 respondents, more than two-thirds expected the ongoing pandemic to have a long-term negative impact on the industry. More than a third are planning to leave the sector within the next year. The numbers were even more severe for entry-level workers.

This feeling of discontent has led to walkouts and strikes among low-wage workers across the country, who were saddled with the term "essential worker" to keep them in their jobs at a time when working in close quarters can be dangerous. Seeing the essential tag and the lack of willing workers as leverage, many workers used their position to push for better working conditions and wages.

In spite of this rising tide, the National Restaurant Association has remained steadfast in refusing to embrace a $15 an hour starting pay. High-profile members are beginning to push back, however. In February, Denny’s came out in favor of higher wages. The diner chain’s Chief Financial Officer reassured investors recent moves by places like California and Florida to push minimum wage to the long-sought $15 per hour is beneficial to sales.

Things look drastically different in lodging, where multiple major players are already shifting to higher starting pay. Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando have committed to $15 per hour starting pay. Meanwhile, the State of Florida is on a five-year trajectory to the same figure. This September, the first of those stairsteps to $15 will occur, with the statewide minimum wage jumps to $10. Florida Republicans are attempting to fill the voter-passed amendment with loopholes to exempt businesses from paying their workers fairly.

The labor shortage has resulted in pay increases for some positions in an attempt to attract qualified candidates. Dr. Peter Ricci of FAU led the research on hospitality worker satisfaction. In announcing the findings of the study, he warned, “the shortage in hospitality workers cannot continue if the industry is to sustain long-term growth and profitability.”

Even with the pay increases, many workers are hoping to exit hospitality. Similar to the last recession, interest in continuing education has jumped drastically during this time. Low-paid workers are seeking career changes into industries with higher pay and more job security.

The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health oversees the application program for more than a hundred schools. They’re reporting a twenty percent increase in applications. Things are even more extreme in Florida. The University of South Florida, based in Tampa, saw a nearly two-fold increase in applications for its Master of Public Health. Other health industry-related programs also saw a major uptick in interest.

As huge chunks of the current labor pool are leaving the industry, hospitality leaders hope they can build back better with a renewed focus on education and career advancement opportunities.

An awareness campaign led by The American Hotel and Lodging Foundation is focused on improving the industry's image regarding investments in workers, safety, and community relations. The AHLF is doing this via youth training programs and diversity initiatives.

The American Hotel and Lodging Foundation (AHLF) is leaning on its Empowering Youth Program, an initiative to provide young people entry-level positions and training curriculum to help them advance within the field. Empowering Youth, which is now found in ten U.S. cities including Orlando, has garnered support and partnerships from major industry players.

The program is readying to launch a new partnership that will help students become more familiar with new technologies within the industry while helping roll out safety measures for current workers.

Update: On Thursday, the AHLF announced a new partnership with Relay. A tech company focused on voice-first cloud communications and is best known for their panic button linked two-way communication devices that hospitality workers wear. For every purchase of Relay push-to-talk devices by a hotel, Relay will sponsor a hotel employee’s training and development in the AHLF program.

“We are extremely grateful for Relay’s investment in our Empowering Youth Program, which is committed to helping Opportunity Youth find lifelong careers in the hotel industry,” said Rosanna Maietta, president & CEO, AHLA Foundation. “As the industry begins to recover from COVID-19, investing in our industry’s greatest resource – our employees – will be more critical than ever, and generous partners like Relay allow us to do just that.”

Relay executives pointed to the ongoing labor crisis as to why such partnerships are important. “Restoring hotels and other hospitality jobs are central to getting our economy back on track. Relay stands with the leisure and hospitality sector to help rebuild and strengthen the industry through investment in the next generation of employees,” said Jon Schniepp, SVP, Marketing at Relay. “We’re proud to partner with the largest national philanthropic industry organization in the AHLA Foundation to empower the future hotel workforce with cutting-edge training and workplace innovation.”

While the program may ensure in the future the quickly changing industry will have the skilled labor it needs, in the meantime, the local labor shortage continues to persist.  In fact, it may get worse as Disney and Universal continue to reopen more on-site hotels in the coming months.

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