By Shafeek Wahab
During the induction ceremony of the new Director General/CEO, Deputy Director General and the new Principal, held a few months ago, The Chairman of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) said: ‘With the target of achieving 2.5 million tourists by 2016, new properties totaling approximately over 20,000 hotel rooms would be built within the next three years, but what is lacking is the trained hoteliers to take up the positions’.
He went on to say that the responsibility for providing the nearly 4,000 craftsmen – ‘serving hands’ as he describes them, lies with the SLITHM. Several veterans of the hospitality industry keep lamenting that whilst hotels are coming up all over the country, the country is lacking skilled personnel to operate them and the resources to train staff.
Many are the view that the greatest concern is the bottom rung of the employment chain including the middle management level. This sentiment was likewise echoed by an ex President of the Sri Lanka Hoteliers Association when he expressed concern over ‘the lack of soft skills in personnel entering the hospitality industry in Sri Lanka’. Compounding the problem is the emerging post war era complaint from holidaymakers, that service levels in the majority of hotels have declined either due to lack of confidence, inadequate language and communication skills leading to the inability to comprehend the visitors requirements. Unprofessional standards and indifferent attitudes are also mentioned as contributing towards this dismal outlook.
Way back in July 2012, the SLITHM Chairman noted that ‘Sri Lankans have a hospitable nature but the technical and PR skills have gone down’, adding that ‘the gravity of the situation was in relation to the rising demand but believed that there was adequate time to train future staff for the new hotels that are likely to be established’. Late last year, at a brainstorming session, titled ‘Developing Human Resources for the Hospitality Industry’, the panelist presented many views that included training leisure sector employees in a wide range of soft and hard skills, to focus on developing professionalism in the industry as a priority, the need to revamp the curriculum of hotel school modules, to attract talented youth from established schools , monitoring and regulating the hospitality industry training institutes towards maintaining a high level of quality and standards, to initiating a focused programme of training whilst effectively using the traditional Sri Lankan smile to add value to the service delivery level.
Coping with the 2016 target
More recently, a report ‘Trying to Live Up to the Hype’ released by Capital Alliance ominously points out that the industry will lack the rooms and trained staff to support the 2016 forecast of 2.5 million arrivals.
The challenge for tourism and hospitality businesses lies in up-skilling our people at all levels, and lifting our productivity and proﬁt, so that the industry can attract investors and visitors. However, what we immediately need to do is to ‘bring in’ the necessary numbers to build, sustain and deploy a workforce that can sufficiently fuel the needs of the industry.
It is not merely a matter of ﬁnding people for the work that must be done, but of ensuring that people choose our industry over others, and have their choice conﬁrmed by feeling valued in rewarding jobs with coherent career paths and equitable salaries.
Attracting, selecting, training, developing and retaining the best talent are not new issues to face the hospitality and tourism sector. Statistically, the industry has a relatively high turnover rate with a perpetual cycle of recruiting / hiring and training that keeps HR professionals in the hospitality industry continuously busy, doing what they do historically, where recruitment is a push and pull (P&P) set of actions.
If you have a lot of [staff] attrition then you’re constantly having to put energy into retraining, retraining, retraining. That’s a cost borne by the establishment and the better the establishment the higher the cost because training is a priority (or so many claim), for the best establishments. Finding it difficult to attract potentially good people, or unwilling to pay a decent salary, most hotels employ people looking for a job in the hope that they can train them and a little further down the track it either works or it doesn’t - in the majority of cases it simply doesn’t, thus, triggering a decline in standards. Upmarket overseas tourists in particular come to expect high levels of service when they visit Sri Lanka, but the current situation is placing this expectation at risk. That’s not to say that there aren’t really good staff, but if you look at the total workforce I think we’ve got a critical mass of hotel employees, who are either very inexperienced, attitudinally indifferent or are plateauing.
We need to invest in people going into hospitality and the industry as a whole needs to look at why people are joining the industry and then leaving, or failing to opt in at all.
The not so obvious
The time for pontification is over. The industry is hemorrhaging workers at all levels and increasingly, there is talk of looking to an overseas workforce to staff the frontlines of our service industry. So, where does one go from here? Our industry operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week; meaning businesses cannot choose to simply close for a day. All those who are passionate about tourism and hospitality must come together, determined to take action to nurture the industry, and to devise a strategic approach to overcome the workforce shortages. In order to kick-start a turnaround in attitudes and, consequently, values, the catering, and hospitality industry needs to explore the following:
Awareness campaign to reawaken the interest of people to consider the Hospitality industry as another exciting career option. There was a time not too long ago when people joined the hospitality industry for its glamour.
Constantly promote and spread the message that the catering and hospitality industry isn’t just a ‘temporary job’ until something better comes along, and that it can in fact provide a truly challenging career with promotional opportunities at every level. Carry out national and/or regional campaigns promoting the beneﬁts of working in tourism and hospitality.
In order to raise the profile of working in hospitality we must start at the beginning, targeting schools and colleges where young people are making choices, often with little career experience or knowledge. Most people who rise to top hospitality management positions started out when young, in entry-level jobs like apprenticeships, technical support, receptionist or accounts payable. These entry-level positions are important because they build character and give you an opportunity to see the business from the ground up.
A holistic approach is required to attract people to join the industry and to encourage them to stay. One of the concerns with the move to a service economy is that service jobs on the low end of the occupational hierarchy tend to be bad jobs, while manufacturing jobs, even when theyre on the low end, tend to be good. Service jobs are considered “bad” in the sense that they are perceived to have low salaries, insecure employment, little chance for advancement, and limited benefits. Were talking here, about jobs in reception, cashiering, food service, housekeeping and the like.
We need to address such issues as paying a fair salary and recognising that people have lives outside work and we also need to retain our graduates and consider how much we have spent educating them. Too often we end up losing them to other, more immediately lucrative professions.
We should be attracting people from other service industries, such as retail, where there are transferable skills. After all, hospitality is a field where candidates can move up through the ranks at a young age.
Identify and secure sources of labour supply, from schools as well as from non-traditional labour pools, such as retired people and foreign students: e.g. connect with people currently not in the workforce but with potential to work, even for short spells, (such as parents at home, mature workers, even overseas teenagers of Sri Lankans who have migrated, and are willing to put in some work cum holiday during vacations).
Work with secondary schools and associated agencies such as Career Services to dispel myths and promote tourism and hospitality as a rewarding career to school-leavers. Let everyone know that It opens a door to the world. Every country in the world has a hospitality industry, and the skills you learn anywhere are readily transferable, meaning that a career in hospitality can very easily be the key to discovering new countries, new culture and new people. (This writer during his tenure of work in the hospitality industry had the opportunity of travelling overseas more than 60 times, visiting 16 countries in all).
Hospitality industry stars tell it like it is. Conduct a series of national workshops giving secondary students a taste of the skills and career paths on offer in the hospitality sector. Chefs and bartenders, to head into schools countrywide, as industry champions to embody and promote hospitality career paths, while passing on some of their skills and tricks of the trade. The workshops showcase the hospitality industry to the next generation, and assist the transition from school to training - be it via a tertiary institution or on- the- job.
The hospitality industry in Sri Lanka has just begun to come of age as a mainstream socio-economic sector, with recognition of its job creating importance. What is relevant today however is the fact that our industry needs to adapt and evolve perhaps more rapidly than other industries. Why? First – the hotel industry has always been largely reliant on an agile and nimble workforce who can endure the long and at times anti-social hours. Second – the pace of change at which the client base uses technology to make informed decisions fuels the need to ensure employees are “fluent” in the same language as the clients.
An 18 year old cook working with a 43 year old sous-chef, a 54 year old housekeeping supervisor working with a 22 year old room attendant, A 32 year old front desk manager, working with a 47 year old reservation associate - these are all realities within the hotel and hospitality sector, where multigenerational teams need to work effectively together. All four generations are in the workplace (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys), and often you may have younger generations managing older employees. Andrew Ugarte puts it across very pertinently, when he explains that ‘To continue encouraging young people to join the hospitality and tourism, the industry needs to change to meet expectations of upcoming generations. Jobs may have to be tailored to accommodate Generation Y employees’ personal lives — not the other way around. While Baby Boomers and Gen X have more fixed ideas about traditional work hours, Gen Y is more inclined to blur the lines between work and non-work’. He goes on to add, ‘Hospitality is a customer service driven industry, where employees need a welcoming manner and appearance. As a largely online generation, with less face-to-face experience than the generations before them, Gen Y can sometimes struggle to project an appropriate manner or achieve the level of grooming and appearance expected from many employers.’ The situation in Sri Lanka is no different – if not more problematic, when one considers the ‘English’ proficiency’ inadequacy factor, especially in the frontlines.
Old rules no longer apply
This is a problem that won’t go away. Today, employees hold all the cards, and the market is responding accordingly. The combination, of a workforce shortage and skills deficit is potentially explosive for hotels, which are already struggling to ﬁnd good people and keep them. The industry needs to respond to this challenge now. Hotels must now take retention management seriously because when more hotels come up and the ‘big guns’ move in, it might be too late to address this issue. When a position must be filled, many new operators may prefer to hire candidates who are currently holding a similar position in the field - even if it means paying more, and thus save the training and development expenses on new hires. No hotel can afford to lose its top talent to the competitors.
Similar to the hotel room ‘price wars’ one sees during low occupancy or recessionary times, we will pretty soon encounter acrimonious ‘staff wars’, even ‘star wars’ where hotels will have to battle to retain their high performers. In the short term, staff turnover means hassle and loss of productivity for employers constantly seeking new staff. When the search for new staff is prolonged or vacancies stay unfilled, it places additional stress / burn out on the others at work. Oftentimes the employees are asked to do more including working longer hours to fill in for the missing staff. Resentment increases among such employees, and some employees – especially the better ones leave the organization for brighter opportunities. Others may stay, but become less productive and unenthusiastic workers. In the longer term, it places a question mark over growth in the tourism and hospitality industry.
It’s time to take action
It’s time to take action. By owning our workforce problem, and taking collective action to ﬁnd solutions, we can chart a course that ensures the prosperity of our industry, just as it ensures the prosperity of our businesses. As an industry, we share the same goal: a sustainable tourism and hospitality sector that delivers a quality visitor experience and which contributes strongly to the Sri Lankan economy.
For this we need the right people and the right number of people coming into the industry, and staying on to build rewarding careers and contribute their expertise to the industry of tomorrow. There are no silver bullets that will remove the industry’s woes. This is not a problem that someone in Colombo can ﬁx with a stroke of a pen. It is an industry-wide problem, which can only be solved by industry, education and training providers, and Government acting in concert, and by individual businesses collectively examining what they are doing today, and what they can do differently tomorrow. We create the industry, every day, and our actions today and tomorrow will determine the industry we have next year, by 2016 and beyond.
(Shafeek Wahab has an extensive background in Hospitality Management spanning over 30 years of field experience. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)