Hospitality industry employers expect workers to return to the jobs they lost to the coronavirus crisis, say experts. But it will be a different world for both employers and the rank-and-file they fought so hard to recruit and retain before the pandemic decimated the lodging and restaurant sectors.

Hospitality workforce to shape shift in post-COVID-19 industry, experts say

Job recruiters expect workers to return as employers begin to slowly rebuild in a new world

“One does hope that the balance does return to normal, that hotel workers will come back simply because they have that connectivity to the industry.” Rosanna Maietta, American Hotel & Lodging Foundation

In reporting the increase in unemployment claims caused by the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has selected March 12 as its reference point.

That’s just a few days before the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt on the nation’s lodging industry.

It’s hard to remember that in January and February the hotel industry’s biggest challenge was recruiting and retaining employees, especially hourly workers.

Last July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the hospitality industry had 840,000 unfilled positions. The hotel industry was competing inside itself to find qualified employees. And it faced wage pressures caused by large retailers such as Walmart and Amazon.

What a difference a health pandemic can make.

Today, hotel industry competitors have teamed up to fight the invisible menace that’s decimated the lodging industry. Large companies such as Hilton, Marriott International and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts have partnered with Walmart, Amazon and other large retailers who need hourly workers to meet demands at their warehouses and stores.

Many of those workers will not return to the hospitality industry. But industry leaders say it’s more important that people have jobs than go home and wait for a return to normal.

Besides, no one really knows what normal will look like a post-coronavirus world.

At the end of March, 460,000 hospitality jobs were lost to the coronavirus pandemic, according to BLS. Approximately 14,000 of those jobs were in hotels. The rest were in restaurants and bars.

Overall, by April 16, the U.S. Department of Labor reported 22 million people had filed unemployment claims by the week ending April 11, and the nation’s jobless rate increased nearly a full percentage point to 4.4 percent.

We don’t know what the full picture for April looks like yet. But you can bet it’s not going to be pretty.

‘Hotels in Triage’

Ron Mitchell is CEO of Virgil Holdings which owns Hcareers, a hiring assessment and analytics platform to serve job seekers as well as human resource managers in the hospitality sector. Hcareers’ target niche is hourly workers in search of a career path.

Mitchell’s worked through several economic crises over his career, but he’s never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the U.S. economy, and the lodging industry in particular.

The downturn was so abrupt it caught the industry off guard. “And that context is really important to realize,” he said. “Hotels are really in triage mode, right now.

“It’s not unlike hospitals with a huge influx of patients. Hotels are in a similar state of panic and flex, from the largest management companies and brands to the smallest players.

“There’s not even a defined set of protocols as to how people are handling things.”

Mitchell is working to help the industry figure it out, but he sees no immediate resolution. “It’s just way too early.”

One organization helping dislocated workers is the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s foundation. Before the crisis, AHLF was dedicated to recruiting and training hospitality workers.

The key focus now is helping laid-off workers find jobs. It helped write job specs for the large retailers eager to hire dislocated hospitality workers, even if it means losing some of those hard-won employees when the industry revives.

“Our industry is all about our people,” said Rosanna Maietta, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Foundation. “We want to make sure our employees have what they need for today. We don’t want to stand in their way of getting another job and supporting their families. For us, the most important thing is making sure they have work when they want it and if they can get it.”

Until the pandemic, AHLF was recruiting high school students for its training programs and providing advanced training to existing employees.

That work “has come to a halt,” said Maietta.

Besides connecting hourly workers to jobs elsewhere, AHLF has shifted its priorities to help laid-off or furloughed employees use their down time to acquire new skills they can use when they’re called back into the industry.

The foundation is offering free online training certification in hospitality management courses. Several thousand people have signed up, Maietta said.

The continuing education programs will go a long way in helping furloughed workers stay connected to the industry. “It’s unknown when all this is said and done how many people will pivot back to the hospitality industry, obviously that’s our hope. The foundation is uniquely positioned to jump in and help make that connectivity.”

AHLF had planned several job fairs for April before the pandemic struck, and Maietta said it can easily launch such programs when the time is right.

“One does hope that the balance does return to normal, that hotel workers will come back simply because they have that connectivity to the industry.”

Meantime, Mitchell sees major hotel companies as well as hotel owners using software programs such as applicant tracking systems or ATS to stay in touch with furloughed workers.

It’s a smart move that encourages the displaced staff to return post-crisis.

Mitchell believes many industry employees will return but he doubts there will be as many jobs as before the COVID-19 crisis. He anticipates, as travel slowly revives, about 70 percent of hotel and restaurant jobs will return.

He advises those considering acquiring new skills during their down time to contemplate the jobs that will be accretive to hiring and advancement in a post-coronavirus world.

The Future is Hourly

Most jobs in the hospitality industry are hourly, and Desmond Lim knows firsthand how much hourly service workers depend on a robust economy.

When he was 20 years old, Lim emigrated to the U.S. from Singapore where his father was a delivery driver and his mother a hotel housekeeper.

Desmond Lim, co-founder of Workstream, a hiring app that uses texting to connect to job applicants, believes hourly workers will rule in the post-COVID-19 world. Lim is pictured with his parents who were hourly workers in Singapore. Lim, a graduate of Harvard and MIT Media Lab, is the first person in his family to complete college. Read his blog, “From Hourly Worker to Harvard.”

Lim worked hourly jobs to pay his way through college, graduating from Harvard and MIT’s Media Lab. He co-founded Workstream, an automated hiring platform aimed at reducing employers’ hiring time and connecting competitive job seekers to opportunities. It uses texting, QR codes and other forms of digital messaging to quickly connect employers to applicants.

Lim noted there are more than 60 million hourly workers in America. They are under-rated, he said. Which is undeserved because most companies hire hourly workers.

Workstream’s program is in demand these days as retailers and health-care providers ramp up hiring to meet needs generated by the COVID-19 crisis. Even gig workers, such as food and meal delivery drivers, are in high demand.

Looking ahead to immediate post-crisis, Lim sees demand in the lodging industry shifting toward workers who can do deep cleaning of hotel rooms and public areas.

“We are seeing hotels getting rooms very welled prepped” to do business post-crisis, he said. “In the past few days, we’ve seen businesses prepare for this by trying to hire cleaners and salvage crews.”

Marriott International announced Tuesday it plans to deep clean its rooms on a continual basis in post-COVID-19 world. The company has formed the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council to tackle the new viral threat to the industry.

Lim believes hourly workers will rule the day as America eases back into business post-pandemic.

“When the virus calms down we have more hourly workers than ever because hotels will be cautious with hiring full time people right away. They will hire on an hourly structure. That’s a trend I’ve been seeing as I talk to owners.”

Lim also expects hospitality employers to offer higher hourly wages than pre-pandemic and add health-care benefits.

Hotels’ competitors will come from the gig economy, Lim said, as consumers will continue with meal and grocery deliveries. “These gig jobs will only grow stronger,” he said.

As many job recruiters and training experts are helping the lodging industry navigate the crisis, Joel Carver of The Carver Companies has a unique point of view.

Carver has been in the hotel industry for 40 years. He founded Carver Companies and its subsidiary Carver Hotel Group about seven years ago to help management firms and hotel owners recruit and train employees, from executives to rank-and-file to temporary workers.

The mix gives Carver insight that the industry will recover in good time. But it will be a different world.

WATCH: Joel Carver, founder and CEO of The Carver Companies, shares what the hotel industry can learn from the COVID-19 crisis in this video.

Some hotel owners and managers are continuing to recruit during the slowdown while others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“As the recovery starts there’s going to be a graduated process of bringing people back,” Carver said. “Some people won’t want to go back into the positions they were in, some will go to different positions. A lot of people will be plugged back into their former boxes.

“But there’s going to be a fair amount of movement in the industry that we have not seen in a while,” he said.

Recovery will involve re-hires but also new hires as hotels “get stabilized and start putting the right people in the right positions at the right time.”

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