Attracting, retaining employees in a tight market

Nearly all U.S. hotels (87%) say they are short of staff, according to a mid-September survey by the American Hotels and Lodging Association (AHLA). This was a small improvement from a previous survey in May, when 97% cited labor shortfalls. Still, 36% of properties characterize their staffing shortage as severe. Respondents report having 10.3 open positions per property, on average.

Contributed by Alex Rhodes, national managing partner, Hospitality and Restaurants, Grant Thornton, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a similar story. Total hotel employment as of September remained almost 400,000 below its pre-pandemic level in February 2020.

In our work with hospitality industry clients, we hear anecdotes that suggest the labor situation is improving. The trend may be in the right direction with incremental progress coming. But the data show that significant challenges remain.

The key lesson is that employees in hotels and resorts have options. Perhaps they will go work for a competitor, or maybe they will decide to leave hospitality and work in another industry. This is the environment today, and it shows why hotels need to redouble their efforts to recruit and retain the workers they require.

To that end, we have identified four actionable areas in which a sound strategy can help ensure that you can attract and keep the people you need:

Training and career development. The first 90 days are critical when a hotel brings a new employee on board. A robust and high-touch process to bring new people onto the team becomes vital. This is your opportunity to make an employee feel involved with the property and connected to the organization.

This initial period is the moment to ensure that the new employee has the knowledge and training to do the job well. Turnover is more likely when a worker doesn’t feel competent in their role or when there’s ongoing friction about expectations and procedures.

Ensuring that employees can see a path for advancement is another way to foster workforce stability. The opportunities have to be communicated to them effectively – an effort that ideally begins as soon as new hires are brought on board or even earlier, during interviews.

One hotel group we spoke with has rolled out online learning modules that allow employees, at their option, to take training for different positions across the organization. This cross-training opportunity has proved to be popular, helping employees better understand hotel operations and see how they might advance.   Another solution we have noted is having QR codes available to employees which link to on demand training at the point of need.

Total rewards. A strong understanding of what employees want and need can help a company to develop effective rewards. Perhaps transportation to and from the job is a significant concern, especially given today’s higher prices for fuel and used vehicles. This may suggest that providing transportation or offering transit passes or pre-tax flexible spending accounts will be an effective benefit. In other situations, education discounts or tuition reimbursement might be highly valued by your workers.

Workforce research conducted by Grant Thornton provides another example. We found that personal debt is a significant driver of employee stress. A smart employer might provide assistance with credit card or utility bills, or make a professional financial planner available for budget counseling. Surveying your own employees about stresses and needs can be an effective way of demonstrating concern and designing appropriate rewards.

To be sure, employers have to keep a close eye on the prevailing wage in any market where they operate—especially now. In the September AHLA survey, 81% of respondents say they have increased wages.

An organization that underpays may find it’s simply training employees for its competitors. You might bring new hires on board only to see them jump to a new opportunity as soon as they gain some experience. But, wages are not the only thing to watch. The non-wage rewards in a package are less easy to quantify and therefore may be harder for employees to compare—helping to make them an effective retention tool.

Matching employee values. Employees want to know that the company they work for values its workers. This simple idea is gaining currency amid the increased emphasis on employee retention, and it favors the creation of an employee-first culture.

One way to demonstrate a robust commitment to employees is to state in policy that they are going to be able to work the hours they need or have been promised. Flexibility can help in this area as well. One advantage that hotels enjoy is that they are open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, which may make creative scheduling possible to meet the needs of specific employee.

People increasingly report that they want to work for an organization that reflects their values. This trend is especially pronounced among younger workers. A company that shows a commitment to its community through philanthropic efforts may reap a benefit in the form of increased trust among its employees.

One caution applies here, however. An employer’s talk must always be backed up with action. The company needs to make good on the customer experience it promises, follow through on its commitments to employee well-being, and demonstrate that its promises to the community will last. What’s put into policy should be put into action day-to-day.

Technology. Technology can be part of the solution as hotels grapple with the challenges of a tight labor market. There are many ways to substitute an online interaction for an employee interaction. Guests can order food online by aiming their phone at a QR code rather than calling a person for room service. Contactless check-in using an app or a kiosk can ease pressure on overworked front-desk staff. This is low-hanging, labor-saving fruit.

Mobile tipping is another technology that hotels should be considering. More people are going cashless when they travel. They are likely to appreciate a QR code that makes it easy for them to leave money for housekeeping or tip when their luggage is brought to the room—and employees will appreciate it, too. We have seen good technology solutions for this purpose become widely available.

Using technology to relieve stress on employees is a good thing, especially when it’s hard to hire more people. However, those employees need to be fully engaged when new systems are implemented. Change doesn’t always go smoothly – and new technology that changes how things get done needs buy-in from those who will be affected.

To be sure, substituting an app or a QR code for a personal interaction won’t always be appropriate in an industry grounded in different levels of service. Technology use needs to be consistent with the guest experience a hotel brand is trying to promote. There are places where a luxury experience demands a more high-touch guest interaction.