Help Wanted: Dealing with the Short Supply of Tourism Workers

The tourism industry is currently facing a crippling shortage of labour compounded by accelerated demand for tourism products and services. The supply of qualified workers is far short of demand and it will only get worse. This has an impact not only on the economy, but also on social and political stability.

More than ever, tourism employers across Canada report that the critical shortage of skilled labour has led to hampered growth, foregone investment and less innovation, higher operating costs, reduced profits, eroded ability to compete, inferior customer service, and managers doing ‘double duty’. All of this has led to increased workloads, lower morale, higher staff turnover, and eroded image.

The topic was front and centre at the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia’s Annual Tourism Summit. A panel of tourism leaders, including Tourism HR Canada President Philip Mondor, shared insights on national issues affecting the sector’s competitiveness and how the sector can take advantage of the growth and increased recognition of economic importance to address some of the challenges around product, people and policy. The discussion consistently highlighted the shortfall of labour as a prime constraint to growth. Regional operators spoke of its negative impact on day-to-day business, and are urgently seeking solutions.

Annually, Tourism HR Canada hosts a Labour Market Forum that brings together tourism operators, industry associations, government representatives, organized labour, educators, and other groups to focus on the prevailing labour market issues that impede tourism’s ability to grow and compete. The consensus stemming from the 2017 Forum: focus on strategies to address labour shortages, particularly:

  1. improving investments by governments and employers;
  2. boosting productivity;
  3. further diversification of the tourism workforce;
  4. increasing immigration and improving mobility; and
  5. transforming education and training programs.

Participants identified the need for investments to go beyond infrastructure and marketing. Tourism is more than the destination: it’s about the experience—authentic, tailored, compelling, quality experiences delivered by skilled tourism professionals—yet investment in the tourism workforce is lacking. Despite the abundant long-term and well-paid employment opportunities in tourism and hospitality, funding opportunities to help attract, train and retain workers in the sector are absent. Governments and employers need to invest in workforce planning, detailed studies and improved coordination of resources.

Boosting productivity is a way to optimize the talent of the existing tourism workforce. Skills gaps inhibit the ability to grow and compete. Employers may not be tapping into the full range of skills current staff bring to the job. Youth may have the latest social media skills and newcomers bring sought-after language and intercultural skills. Other workers may require skills retraining to efficiently cope with changing demands. This is becoming more acute as work continues to transform in response to social/cultural, economic or political factors: innovative technology, new regulations, improved ecological practices, and more—all requiring new knowledge and skills. Increased incentives and funding that will enable employers to invest in training and skills development will ensure the workforce is competitive. Employers will benefit from increased retention, reduced absenteeism, reduced waste, and fewer accidents. The bottom line: investments in skills training will result in increased revenues and happier, more productive staff.

The tourism and hospitality workforce is more diverse than most. It has a higher percentage of youth, Indigenous peoples, newcomers, and women. Other than the food and beverage industry, tourism also has a higher percentage of workers with a disability, compared to the overall workforce. Still, there is room for further heterogeneity. Participants at the 2017 Forum identified the need to increase participation from Indigenous peoples, and refugees and other immigrants.

Relatedly, the fourth priority focused on increased immigration and improved mobility. Participants discussed the need for favourable immigration policies that will support the talent supply required by tourism, and the need for increased flexibility and improved efficiency in employing immigrants.

One additional priority is the need to transform education and training programs. Participants understood the importance of close collaboration between education and training bodies and employers to ensure programs produce graduates well equipped to meet current and future skills needs. Employers expressed the need for a curriculum that was more responsive to emergent demands, and advocated for programs that focused on broad-based skills development, and for knowledge and skills specific to product development and management. Participants also talked about the need to increase the demand for post-secondary programs: attracting more students into tourism and hospitality programs to help increase the supply of qualified workers.

There has been a lot of progress on many of the priorities identified for 2017, although more work is needed to address systemic and complex labour market issues. The labour market will become increasingly more competitive as the supply of qualified workers becomes scarcer. Tourism’s ability to compete and thrive requires the collaboration of businesses, governments, industry associations, and academia all working together with the overall aim of creating a more resilient and inclusive labour market.