Management [lived] Experience Required

By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Director

During critical moments in our personal and professional lives, there is tremendous value in becoming aware of exactly what’s unfolding in front of us so we can dial up a fitting response to adversity. This is a life lived through adaptability—a skill key we have all developed over the last couple of years, but also one built into our DNA as modern-day global wanderers.

The talent challenge presently facing Canada’s tourism and hospitality industry, including at the management and executive level, is a genuinely wicked problem. A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons including incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

Complex Problems, Comprehensive Solutions

Crafting a single solution to a problem as complex and nuanced as our current talent crisis is unrealistic. The number of organizations at national, provincial, and regional levels working with government agencies to develop systemic solutions—such as Tourism HR Canada’s Propel Student Work Placement Program, Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association’s Passport to Hospitality program, and the many more active projects—is inspiring and provides the right amount of hope and tangible resources required to develop several active solutions to this wicked problem.

One aspect of solution co-creation that should not be overlooked is both simple and profound: understanding. Much has been said about the attrition of our workforce with many reasons cited for a relative mass exodus from our industry—lower than average wages, long hours, less than ideal workplace cultures being some of the most common. One of the reasons this is a wicked problem is that our “workforce” is not a homogenous group. And we run the risk of painting our 2019 industry stats of over 2 million people strong “workforce” with the same brush. This problem is wicked for a reason.

Perspective and Reinvention

There is a significant group within our workforce that is characterized as frontline or hourly. These individuals are elemental to our businesses’ value proposition, and many are focused on new recruitment and retention strategies to support this talent pipeline. But there is another influential segment of our workforce that gets less media and government attention: our managers and executives. They have also sacrificed and been sacrificed through the last couple of years. They have had to make the tough decisions and work double duty as conditions changed. So as we build comprehensive solutions, might it be worth checking in on the present state of our managers and executives? I think so.

If you have ever been in the process of trying to reinvent your career either of your own volition or because you were thrust into that position by circumstances beyond your control, you may recall that these become critical moments of vulnerability, reflection, and eventual renewal. So as we seek to understand how the present talent challenges are affecting our managers and executives, I believe it is beneficial to find wisdom from those actively going through the career search process, or even better, from someone who helps with the comings and goings of the People section in our trade magazines. Why? So we as employers can engage in proactive recruitment and retention strategies to improve our chances of success in the talent game.

Ask an Expert

Pre-pandemic life found businesses and operators seeking the services of talent recruiters for hard-to-fill roles. These days, talent recruiters have become one of the many solutions to hiring challenges.

Valerie Upfold is one of Canada’s unique recruiters focusing primarily on the hotel and restaurant industries. Having her own rich experience in the sector, she brings an understanding of people and process that makes talent connection meaningful and impactful for her clients and job seekers. She has spent more than 25 years in the hospitality and tourism industry, most notably with national brands within the Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality portfolio, both as a manager and with almost a decade as their director of HR. She reinvented her career and has spent the last 10 years as a recruiter, both with a larger firm and now with her own.

From her vantage point, while the number of active searches has increased dramatically, the number of candidates seeking new opportunities has actually declined over the last couple of years. With the high volume of managers and executives leaving the industry, many who have retained their jobs are wary of taking the risk of departing their current organizations for fear that if their new organizations face a downturn, new employees could be cut first. While the anecdotal evidence points to this being a job seeker’s market, if career mobility is less popular, those companies seeking new talent at the management and executive level may face additional challenges if potential job seekers are not motivated to take the leap of faith required to find new opportunities.

“We are seeing experienced managers and executives leaving one sector of the industry looking for another,” stated Upfold. “For example, many restaurant managers are looking for opportunities in private clubs because they’re motivated to find stability. Hotel managers and executives are looking for those corporate office jobs more and more.”

Upfold sees three kinds of managers and executives being sought after for new opportunities:

Group 1: Experienced managers who aren’t looking because they’re afraid of the “first-in-first-out” risk in a new job should conditions worsen for their new company.

Group 2: Managers and executives actively looking for jobs outside of the industry such as those in corporate roles within hotel and restaurant brands. Over the last two years, they have had to go back to what they were doing at the start of their careers because their team was laid off or let go. Teams are still not at same level as they were 2019. These managers and executives do not feel challenged and are burnt out. They want to change into a more stable industry where they believe this won’t happen again.

Group 3: This is the group who want to stay in tourism and hospitality, so they are looking at this as an opportunity to really decide where they want to go next in their career. They have adopted a YOLO (you only live once) attitude. They saw that the industry was unstable, they accepted it, and now they’re motivated to find their dream jobs.

“Candidates are choosing recruiters because we know what is happening in the market, especially around who is paying well and where the great places to work are. Also, unfortunately companies are not paying their current employees what they are paying new employees. They have to pay as much as 20 per cent more to get someone in the door, but they aren’t giving their employees this same increase,” shared Upfold.

“On the other side of things, companies are choosing recruiters now more than ever because they’re looking for solutions. Many have tried on their own via Indeed, company websites, etc.  They need a recruiter to get in touch with people who are working. We’ve always known that the best employees are working, not actively looking for jobs. I have had clients that didn’t want to use a recruiter pre-pandemic now dropping off retainer cheques at my house,” Upfold added.

New Lessons to Learn

While we understand salary is always an influential factor in any career decision at a management and executive level, the post-pandemic world of work has revealed some new components of seeking employment that are worth considering for organizations trying to find or keep managers and executives. Workplace culture, the ever-elusive work-life balance, and other benefits continue to surface as priorities for experienced job seekers at the management and executive level.

Upfold has found that management retention has become as important as recruitment.

“Employers need to do a better job at keeping their people, now more than ever. The companies that are doing the same things they were doing pre-pandemic are the ones that are losing even more talent now.”

She reflected that job seekers are looking for more vacation time, some flexibility, including working from home where possible, and above all else the sense of being valued by their employers. In a very tangible way.

“The companies that have changed what they’re doing from an HR perspective are keeping their employees. Some are giving current managers and executives the same pay bump being offered to new recruits. Companies should be proactive when it comes to salary, not just for the money, but to demonstrate to their managers and executives that they are valued.”

Behind-Closed-Doors Advice

Recruiters often have behind-closed-doors dialogue with both candidates and employers. There is a lot of wisdom and insight contained in those conversations that is rarely shared. When asked to identify what some of the most frequently present topics of conversation are, both from the job seeker and the employer, Upfold shared some valuable perspectives.

“Employers should know from the candidate perspective: money is not always a deal breaker, especially now. If you have no more salary room, offer more vacation days, extra days off in the summer or long weekends. We know these are not traditional in our business but it’s time to update our practices to succeed in this new world of work,” stated Upfold. “Offer work-from-home options even if it’s difficult to fit into your business model. Find a way to adapt.”

“And candidates should know from clients: even though it may not be a great HR practice, employers are checking “back door” references. Reputation still rules the job hunt, so being an intentional leader has never been so important. Business success and values go hand-in-hand in 2022 and in the future. Do the right things through your career and you will keep climbing the ladder. And if you have made mistakes along the way, own them and demonstrate that you have learned from them.”

These are challenging times indeed. But there is no shortage of ways to learn and adapt. We need an engaged management and executive cohort within our workforce. Finding ways to recruit them and retain them through value and values is one sure-fire solution to this wicked problem.


Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the board of directors at Tourism HR Canada and Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.