Accommodating tourism’s HR needs

It’s not often workplace training requires staff to kick back and enjoy themselves at some of the finest hotels in the country.

But then, Hills Health Ranch isn’t a typical employer.

“People think it’s a perk, but it’s also very educational,” said Pat Corbett, president of the 20,000-acre spa and fitness ranch in the British Columbia interior.

“Some of the people here, especially at the entry level, haven’t had a chance to see the world. So we want them to have an opportunity to see the different standards that are out there.”

But more than the training approach, it’s the fact that there’s staff training at all at the ranch that sets it apart from industry norms. There is not enough emphasis on training and skills development in this industry, say industry-led bodies such as the Canadian Tourism Human Resources Council.

The hard part is convincing employers that change is needed. With the Winter Olympics just seven years away, it’s not just B.C. employers that should brace for a shortage. The ripple effect will be felt across Canada.

“The last two years have been an anomaly,” said Jon Kiely, communications director of the sector council, which has the mandate of developing the workforce in this industry.

He’s talking about a pending labour shortage, which has been masked by the severe decline in travel after September 11, and prolonged by the Iraq war and the SARS outbreak this year. It’s estimated that, in addition to the 1.6 million workers currently in this industry, there will be a need for 90,000 more in the next two years. The most difficult-to-fill positions, according to a study conducted by the sector council before September 2001, include housekeeping, management, cooks and reception.

It might seem like a cliché by now, but one of the reasons for this projected shortage is demographics. The young may not be smaller in numbers (in fact, as children of the retiring baby boomers, they themselves make up an “echo” bulge in the population, as coined by demographer David Foot). But they are expected to move in as wide swaths of baby boomers retire. And with a glut of choices, most are unlikely to choose an industry where the work disappears after Labour Day, weekends and evenings are often spent at work, and hiccups like SARS can throw them out of a job within a matter of weeks.

Better remuneration

“The industry is caught in a vicious circle,” said Stefan Gröschl, assistant professor at University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in Ontario. “For a long time, we have been employing part-timers, and in terms of wage and benefits, we haven’t had the best reputation. So as an industry we attract low-skilled employees who are not going to be highly motivated, and that shows in the quality of their work and service.”

There’s nothing new in what he describes, of course. But increased expectation on the part of vacationers means that to stay competitive, hotels, restaurants and tour operators have to put a new emphasis on finding staff with the right balance of communication skills and service-oriented attitude. The problem is, workers who like working with the public and excel in customer service, said Gröschl, are also highly coveted in other industries.

Despite this competition for talent, the industry doesn’t know how to recognize and reward workers, said Gabor Forgacz, assistant professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Business in Toronto.

“The salaries are disproportionately low considering the demands and the complexities of the job, especially at the low- or mid-management level. It’s only worthwhile to stay in this industry if you’re going to open your own business,” said Forgacz.

Forgacz sees better remuneration as a solution to better retention, while Gröschl thinks the answer lies in more training. At the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council, Kiely believes the industry’s image can be improved by emphasizing that wages for many positions are bolstered by gratuities, and there can be meaningful career paths in tourism.

Part of the solution, said Kiely, is looking outside the usual labour supply — beyond the young and the part-time students to new immigrants, aboriginals, as well as older workers who are in the middle of a career change or who want to work part-time.

But if the industry is turning increasingly to these groups for new hires, it has to be ready to place more emphasis on training and skills certification, said Kiely. The sector council has several initiatives to promote standards. One is to encourage educational institutions to provide tourism-related training that is part-time and more modular, to make it easy for people to work and study at the same time.

The second is to establish national occupation standards — the skills needed for each position, including literacy, numeracy and employability skills. The third tack is to create and promote certification programs for some 30 occupations, from fresh water angler guide, heritage interpreter through to banquet server.

But Kiely admits that it’s a hard sell. Less than one per cent of job seekers and workers have any of the above certificates.

“This industry tends to be preoccupied with immediate needs. Hotels are much more willing to put dollars in advertising rather than training because the pay-off may take longer. And employers are not convinced that there is a shortage. It’s out of their vision.”

The 2010 deadline

With the Winter Olympics coming to British Columbia in 2010, the province’s tourism industry expects to create between 50,000 and 84,000 new jobs by 2010. That requires a “reinvention” of the sector, particularly of its image, said Arlene Keis, CEO of go2, a provincial industry-funded body created this year with the mandate of co-ordinating HR development strategy.

“If we’re going to grow and thrive, we not only have to reinvent ourselves in image and reality, we have to develop world class employers and world class products.”

The to-do list is long, and will include the promotion of “best practices” employers. But it also has to start with educating business owners on employment standards — “like what are the overtime rules?” said Keis. “We’re going to have to hit them from all angles, and all we have is the power of influence. But like the bank ad goes, we’re going to do this one customer at a time.”

One such so-called customer, Pat Corbett of Hills Health Ranch, doesn’t need much convincing. Thanks to programs like the training excursions that feel like holidays, he has been able to hang onto staff, some for 17 years.

“If we want people to reach out to guests and care for them the way we would, then we have to reach out to the staff and pay attention to their personal development,” said Corbett.

At Intrawest’s Whistler Blackcomb mountain resort, director of employee experience Kirby Brown said the company’s reputation as a good employer means he has never had difficulty recruiting, even though the high cost of living in Whistler is typically a turn-off.

The company, which employs 3,900 people at peak season, offers staff an array of benefits, including pension, stock purchase plan, and dental, vision and medical benefits. Seasonal workers don’t get medical benefits, but they get other perks such as 50 per cent off food and 66 per cent off of movies in town. The training program includes 30 courses in-house and a budget for education reimbursement.

“The traditional philosophy is that the amount of dollars in your pocket ranks somewhere down there in terms of what’s important to people, I believe that is true only after you hit a certain quality of life,” said Brown.

“So the industry needs to understand what that baseline is, and it needs to pay them what it takes to feel comfortable. And beyond that, there are certain things that this industry can offer people that other industries can’t, and it’s what I call the lifestyle options.”

Brown broke off and looked out the window onto the mountain slope, where he spotted a mother bear and her cub. His job has taken him to exactly the place he wants to be.

“This is an industry where people can really enjoy the products they’re selling, and they can have a really good time doing it. So even if you have a fishing lodge way up north, well, there are compelling ways to sell that job up in the fishing lodge way up north to the right people.”

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