The Canadian tourism sector continues to face a critical shortage of labour, with projections forecasting worsening conditions if the status quo remains unchanged. If more workers cannot be attracted to the sector, it risks losing its competitive edge as businesses cannot meet demand, service quality diminishes…and tourists go elsewhere. This information will come as no surprise to employers already facing shortages, but it is a scenario that needs to motivate policy makers, career counsellors, and industry advocates.
The dwindling pool of potential workers is only part of the recruitment challenge. As a destination for employment, tourism has many advantages, but it also faces limitations.
Perceptions—mostly misperceptions—of what it is like working in the sector can be damaging to filling vacant positions and attracting people to meet the projected growth.
A Tourism HR Canada survey revealed many favourable perceptions of tourism employment. In general, 62% of respondents would recommend a job in tourism to family or friends, and this number was even higher (69%) among respondents who had worked in the sector.
Further, respondents who had worked in tourism reported gaining many valuable skills, especially those necessary for working with others and for providing exceptional customer service: communication skills, empathy, listening skills, and anticipating customer needs. These “soft skills” are vital to a successful career in any sector.
But the survey also revealed areas of concern, especially related to respondents’ perceptions around turning a tourism job into a career. Besides chefs and some management positions, most jobs in tourism were seen as temporary or placeholder jobs.
Of the 27% of respondents who had worked in tourism, the median duration of their employment in the sector was three years. When asked why they had left, the most frequent responses were “other/better career opportunities” (36%) and “desire for a career change” (31%).
When those who had not worked in tourism were asked why they had never done so, 41% cited other/better career opportunities.
Many people do work in tourism while attending school or training for their desired vocation. The flexibility that some tourism jobs offer has always been part of their appeal to students, artists, entrepreneurs, and others whose lifestyles benefit from increased flexibility at work…but there are also stable, well-paying positions for those who seek a more traditional work schedule and the opportunity to build a successful, rewarding career.
While tourism offers the short-term or seasonal work some seek, often overlooked are the corresponding full-time supervisory and managerial positions available.
Every business that employs seasonal or part-time staff also needs permanent, full-time employees to manage the day-to-day operations and planning needed to be successful. Many of these mid-level and management employees start on the frontline and work their way up the ranks as they master new skills and learn different facets of the operation. These positions can vary from HR to marketing, sales to corporate trainer, finance to event planning.
Survey participants who had worked in the industry were more likely to indicate that working in tourism helps build the skills needed for opening a business. We know that 7% of those employed in tourism identify as being self-employed, and that 73% of tourism businesses (over 72,000) are small businesses, employing fewer than 20 employees.
These businesses are more likely to promote from within and be progressive in their efforts to retain employees, partly because of their owners’ career experience and partly because they recognize that it costs less time and money to provide the training an employee needs to advance within the organization than to find and train a new hire. Frontline workers are trained in other areas of the organization, move into more challenging and better compensated full-time supervisory and managerial positions, and build a tourism career in the process.
While tourism professionals in occupations with positive perceptions, like chefs, hotel general managers, and business owners, may have had some formal education in their field, many of these individuals started in occupations looked upon less favourably, such as prep cooks, dishwashers, servers, and bartenders. Herein lies the disconnect between perception and reality: without the experience gained in occupations perceived as less desirable, an individual may never have been able to attain the occupation that is positively perceived.
Tourism stakeholders must confront these perceptions of tourism occupations and work to showcase tourism career pathways to the public and to frontline employees. Innovative HR practices, career fairs, partnerships with co-op programs, job shadowing, mentoring, and social media campaigns are a few options.
If jobs continue to go unfilled because job seekers look elsewhere or frontline staff leave after a few years, service will suffer and tourism businesses will lose an important source of experienced mid-level and management employees. At stake? Our success and economic impact in an extremely competitive global market.