Hotel Industry to Younger Workers: We Feel Your Pain

With younger workers looking for change and balance, can hospitality managers embrace the new?

By Brian O'Connell March 17, 2020
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Hotel Industry to Younger Workers: We Feel Your Pain

​When Denise Maiatico, a 20-year hotel industry veteran, talks to young job candidates, she asks two questions.

"At the interview, I ask: 'Why do you want to work in the hospitality industry?' " said Maiatico, who's been a general manager with the Marriott and Hyatt hotel chains and is author of Hospitality and the Holy Spirit (Denise Maiatico, 2020). "And after 90 days, I ask: 'What would keep you from continuing to work in the hospitality industry?' "

The first question leads to enthusiastic responses about creating memorable moments for guests. The answer to the second can be more complex. 

"Traditionally, hospitality hours include long shifts, overnight coverage and an abundant amount of weekends, as well as working holidays," she said. "That staffing standard has become as unpopular as a hotel without Wi-Fi."

Maiatico says that managers in the hotel industry must make "significant changes" to keep up with the times and create an associate experience that's as enjoyable as the guest's experience. 

A Perception Problem

Staffing the nation's hotels, motels and resorts involves working around a multitude of challenges—a negative-perception problem, high turnover and, for now, a historically low unemployment rate.

"Demand for hotels has never been higher, but we are also facing the tightest labor market in a generation," said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), based in Washington, D.C. 

Moreover, hospitality industry managers have a tough time recruiting, and keeping, much-needed younger workers.

In a survey of 2,842 people conducted by Hcareers, a hospitality-focused job board, and BW Research, a market research firm in Carlsbad, Calif., 90 percent of respondents from Generation Z (ages 15 to 23) were not aware of hotel jobs in their local area, and less than half viewed a career in hospitality as one they could be proud of.

The optics aren't in the industry's favor, as Millennials view the hotel and lodging industry as stuck in a time warp—requiring long hours with few benefits and showing low tolerance for a younger employee's need for work/life balance.

"The days of being expected to work six days a week, 12 hours a day at a hotel or restaurant as a manager—younger generations aren't willing to do that anymore," said Ann Lara, career services coordinator between the career center at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the university's Collins College of Hospitality Management. "Entry-level job seekers are demanding a better work/life balance and more flexibility in their schedules. They have a different set of values than previous generations, they're more vocal about what those values are, and they will leave a company that doesn't match those values."

Getting Creative with Young Hospitality Career Talent

There are measures that hotel and restaurant managers can take to accommodate younger employees, said Amanda Nichols, senior manager, retail, hospitality, and food service practice at Kronos Incorporated.

Rethinking shift schedules and scheduling practices is a good place to begin, Nichols noted.

"For example, not all shifts have to start at the same time," she said. "By monitoring the traffic flow of an establishment to forecast labor needs, managers can easily identify key trends that can inform smarter schedules. Who says a server can't just work a three-hour shift during the lunch rush?"

At the same time, other workers may welcome the opportunity to earn the extra money that comes with a longer shift. Maybe they have student loans to pay off, or are saving for a vacation with friends, Nichols said.

Nichols also believes that the younger generation of hospitality workers is looking for more than just a job; they want a job with purpose.

"They want to work where they feel supported and can plainly see how a job opportunity today can turn into a career path," she said. "If hotel and restaurant managers can help their staff lay out clear career goals and a path to promotion—and if they are willing and able to identify and mentor top performers early on—then they will help to build a career culture within their organization, giving this generation the support and purpose that they crave."

Shedding Old Habits and Trying New Ones

Other hospitality industry veterans say the sector is already shedding its reputation as a tough taskmaster for younger staffers.

Scott Samuels is a longtime chief executive officer at Horizon Hospitality, an executive recruiting firm specializing in the hospitality industry in Overland Park, Kansas.

Samuels, a former senior manager at ClubCorp and Hilton Hotel Corporation, said that any hotel manager who's still forcing long hours down young employees' throats deserves Millennial scorn.

"Just do the math," he noted. "Six days a week with 12 hours shifts amount to 72 hours a week, and that's a big problem. If a hotel manager expects that level of commitment today, he or she is not keeping up with the times."

He said he knows of many hotels and resorts that have shifted to a five-day work week, with more paid time off, schedule flexibility and greater benefits.

"The management mindset needs to focus on what the workplace culture looks like for new, younger employees and providing a blueprint where the work gets done and employees enjoy their time on the job," he said. "Proper training and simply treating younger employees with respect are the most important steps a hospitality industry manager can take. Showing clear growth potential for younger workers also boosts morale, as long as those employees feel they're getting a good quality of life balance on the job."

Add to the mix a good set of communication skills and transparency between management and young staff, and a hotel is well on the way to attracting youthful talent.

Bringing Technology to the Forefront

There really isn't much room for telecommuting or other forms of digital distancing in the hotel industry. That doesn't mean the hospitality sector can't attract young career professionals using technology tools.

Yet many hotels don't communicate with their frontline workforce via mobile devices, said Joshua Ostrega, chief customer officer at WorkJam, an employee engagement app used by the hospitality industry. "Some are still using bulletin boards in a breakroom to share information with their frontline team."

The hospitality industry can attract and engage young workers by modernizing its communications strategy.

"This means using digital messages, social media-like communication, and applications that workers can access from their mobile devices," Ostrega said. "Using mobile technology, hospitality brands can seamlessly engage with their employees on topics such as scheduling, task management and training. Additionally, consistent interactions between hotel management and team members via a digital workplace platform can be foundational in helping young workers continue their career progression."

Recruiting in the Right Places

Lara, who coordinates employer showcases, applicant workshops and one of the largest hospitality career fairs in the country, said there's been an uptick in employer visits to her college and in college job postings, especially for entry-level roles. 

"Hotels have done a better job at creating fun and engaging recruitment campaigns than other hospitality employers," she said. "When employers come on campus, students are looking for a  personal connection."  

Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott all have student-employee ambassadors on campus, promoting their company at school before the recruiters even show up for an event. "Designating a person that the student can talk to, to get 'the real information,' is a very effective practice," Lara said.

Through its Careers at Hilton events hosted at local properties, Hilton has engaged with hundreds of thousands of high school students through job fairs, job-shadowing or career development programs.

"Our general managers love it," said Sarah Smart, vice president of global recruitment at Hilton in McLean, Va. "They get really creative and design events to showcase the diversity of the jobs at Hilton and the opportunity for career development and growth. Participants join Hilton for events ranging from resume clinics to networking, as well as presentations from current employees about their career paths in hospitality."

Hilton also has a partnership with nonprofit Jobs for America's Graduates to introduce young adults to a range of careers in the hospitality industry, including culinary arts, technology, sales, engineering and finance.

Programs include mock interviews, hotel tours, mentoring and skills training, career shadowing, and connecting participants with hotel management for real-world career experience.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC's Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide. Roy Maurer, talent acquisition editor for SHRM Online, contributed to this report.

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