You thought the recession solved Canada’s labour shortage problems? It didn’t
Hoteliers have been on a bit of a labour rollercoaster lately. While the recession saw the number of people working in the Canadian hotel industry drop from 423,000 in 2008 to 320,000 in 2009, according to Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, an improving economy has some breathing a sigh of relief. Now is not the time to sit back and relax, though; smart hoteliers have already switched their focus from layoffs to a looming labour shortage.
“By 2015, there are going to be serious shortages. I’ve been saying this recession is a little blip on the radar — and certainly it is a blip — but it’s given companies breathing room to prepare,” says Bill Pallett, senior-vice president of People Resources at Delta Hotels and Resorts, an employer of some 7,100 people. “As we look to the future, we know that when the economy does come back, we had better be fully prepared, because the talent shortage will get worse. The demographics don’t lie.”
According to the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC), labour conditions are changing dramatically. While the March 2010 unemployment rate in the tourism sector was 8.2 per cent — 0.8 per cent higher than the March 2009 rate — the CTHRC predicts market conditions will turn around quickly and make way for a labour shortage in the tourism sector that will surpass 13,000 full-year jobs in 2010; by 2025, this figure could balloon to nearly 257,000 jobs.
“As a sector, we need to be preparing now. Companies that are not prepared will be really challenged to find the labour talent they need,” says Pallett. “We’re not panicked, but we better get prepared.”
Anecdotally, some hoteliers already admit to having difficulty finding staff for available positions. It’s well-known that good sales people are scarce in Montreal, one hotelier says, while another in Toronto notes English-speaking entry-level staff with any hospitality experience are tough to find. For his part, Pallett says banquet managers have replaced IT professionals at the top of the national hard-to-find list, while recruiting in prairie city centres can be a struggle, too.
Competition from new sources is also rising, says Pallett. The financial sector is becoming more customer-centric, for example, and lifestyle communities — managed like hotels but different than seniors’ homes — are often hiring the same people as hotel companies. “They are attracting hospitality professionals because they’re run like hotels with the same structures,” he says. “They’re looking for general managers, food and beverage directors and directors of sales; as a result, we see them out on the circuit at career fairs, and we see them talking to hotel people as they grow.”
That’s why traditional venues for finding talent won’t be enough, Pallett explains. And those looking at immigration to solve the problem are short-sighted. For example, New Zealand and Australia have their own labour shortages to deal with. Successful hoteliers, then, are expanding their approaches to find the right people. “You really have to have a multi-faceted approach. It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” says Pallett. “We’re not just marketing to hotel students, and not just marketing to our towns. We can’t ignore some of the non-traditional sources of talent. We’re going to have to tap every source.”
Providing a good place to work is the first step in the right direction, says Kathleen Machabée, general manager at the Aloft Montreal Airport. Though salaries near the airport are lower than they are in downtown Montreal, she says she has no trouble drawing suitable applicants to her property; the unique funkiness of the Aloft property — which is the only one in Canada — goes a long way to attracting and keeping staff. Still, she admits, management is willing to work harder to keep its employees in this climate. For instance, when an Aloft night auditor needed a month off for training for his part-time job, management made arrangements to have his shift covered.
“This is the kind of good relationship we have; we always make sure we retain our top employees by trying to accommodate them as best we can,” Machabée says. “When you have someone like that who’s good and loyal, you don’t want to lose them.”
Pallett agrees. While he says that making the Great Place to Work Institute Canada’s 2010 list of best places to work shows Delta is doing things right, it’s not an excuse to rest. Delta is launching an employee value-proposition survey to make sure its talent-acquisition approach is strong. Pallett says the electronic survey, to be completed by both current and potential employees through the Delta career portal, will be aimed at determining what people are looking for in a work experience. Is it about travel opportunities or working for an environmentally conscious hotel? Is it about being treated as an individual and being given feedback and learning opportunities? Also, how do the needs of each demographic differ?
“Or maybe it is the same across all demographic groups; we don’t know yet,” Pallett says. “We have to look at the survey data and make sure all our strategies are aligned to those value propositions, whatever they might be.”
For its part, Metropolitan Hotels has been doing more leg-work to secure the qualified staff its four properties need, says Seemi Marwaha, Metropolitan’s director of Human Resources. (The brand has two hotels in Toronto, one in Vancouver and a new resort in Canmore, Alta.) Many new Canadians lack experience in the hospitality industry, which means increased training at Metropolitan’s expense. Where Metropolitan once routinely hired engineering staff with skills already in place, she says it’s not rare to train housekeeping staff for engineering positions.
“We’re investing a lot more in training because these people generally don’t come with hospitality experience. Some 90 per cent don’t come with any industry experience, but they have the ambition and they want to learn,” Marwaha says. “We’re not adverse to that, because we see what the labour shortage is going to be like in the near future.”
In fact, Metropolitan’s attention to the predicted shortage started back when it might have been more focused on layoffs. Creative scheduling — including increased part-time work, split shifts and shorter shifts — was used to retain most staff so as to be in a better position when the economy improved.
“We had to find creative ways to retain our staff,” Marwaha explains. “We have qualified folks with us. We’ve invested a lot of time in training and we don’t want to lose them. We had to find creative ways to keep them within our operations with minimal impact to their livelihood.”