Addressing Labor Shortage in NH Travel and Tourism
By MARK OKRANT, NH Travel Guru
For several decades, the travel industry has been a highly sought-after source of employment, due to its reputation for accessibility to diverse cultural groups and diverse work experiences. As the state of New Hampshire enters its vital summer travel season, the industry is very concerned as job openings currently far exceed the number of people who will accept them.
Around the world, the travel industry’s seeming infallibility as an employer is under serious attack in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in New Hampshire, where tourism has long been a major source of employment and a vital part of the economy, this situation cannot be ignored.
Since February 2020, when the pandemic began, employment in the hospitality and tourism industry in the United States has declined by 1.5 million jobs, with accommodation experiencing the largest decline (-20%). This has manifested itself in many ways, even affecting enrollment in university host programs nationwide. According to Peter Ricci, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at Florida Atlantic University, “For the first time, we are actually seeing parents discouraging their children from enrolling in hospitality programs.”
Why does this happen? At the height of the pandemic, employers engaged in practices that served to “amplify and accelerate pre-existing conditions,” according to Bruno Eeckels of New York University. Workers were laid off and the industry’s lack of flexibility became apparent. Therefore, other forms of employment that offered elasticity of schedules and clear pathways to upward mobility – both perceived to be lacking in the hospitality and tourism industry – had a distinct advantage in attracting both recent college graduates and furloughed employees of accommodations, restaurants, attractions, and related businesses.
To date, the response from the myriad of businesses and services that make up the tourism industry has been insufficient. Although the compensation offered to the typical hotel clerk, waiter, maitre d’, lifeguard and countless others is significantly higher than pre-2020 salaries, it hasn’t had the desired effect of bringing employees back into the trenches.
Part of the problem lies in the very nature of hospitality employment. Charyl Reardon, President of the White Mountains Attractions Association hit the nail on the head when she told us, “The pandemic has brought about an attitude of change. As workers got used to the idea of working remotely, the service industry is all about connecting with people. Or, as Reardon put it, “You can’t wait on the tables at home.”
Before 2020 in New Hampshire, second home owners in the North Country who were simply looking for something to do could count on spending hours working in theme parks and other businesses. Now, some of those same people spend their time working online, while others prefer to use their free time to visit family or experience the state’s outdoors. Both motivations are further fallout from the pandemic.
So, given all that we have described, plus a still-changing migrant worker situation, what should the industry do? Suggestions include: creating more schedule flexibility in hospitality jobs, increasing benefits, and clearer mapping of career paths. Perhaps one of the most innovative responses came from Reardon herself, who proposed that Plymouth State and the University of New Hampshire make their dormitories available to a workforce of was made up of trainees and others. Students would have the opportunity to work for the same employer for multiple summers and be able to graduate well prepared to take on desired management positions upon graduation.
Note to government and business decision makers: A healthy tourism industry is absolutely essential to the well-being of the general public and the economy.
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Mark Okrant’s The NH Travel Guru column returns to InDepthNH.org after a three-year hiatus. Mark is Emeritus Professor of Tourism Management and Policy at Plymouth State University. He has spent more than four decades as a tourism educator and twenty-five years as a research coordinator for the state’s Travel and Tourism Development Division. He is a past president of the prestigious International Travel and Tourism Research Association and the author of fifteen books. The innovative Kary Turnell Mystery Tour centers around his nine New Hampshire-based whodunits.