2022 February-March Analysis

Help Wanted. Hotels are open, but where are the staff?

There have certainly been layoffs, but there has been no Great Resignation in Georgia since the start of the pandemic. Covid exposed the population to such a degree of economic vulnerability that most workers have clutched anxiously at their jobs.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the hospitality sector, which was the first to take a hit in employment levels as Covid began its advance, and which has been struggling ever since to recover.

The slow gains in employment are not due to a lack of workplaces. Borders have reopened. Flights have been restored. And while tourist metrics are still a ways off from their peak in 2019, the flow of visitors has been steady. Help is definitely Wanted in Georgia’s hotels, but former hospitality industry workers aren’t so sure whether they want to return to their old jobs.

AmCham member hotels and the chamber’s Tourism Committee have been closely following the situation. In the coming months, the committee will be looking at ways to lend support to member companies in resolving the labor and skills shortage, and promoting the attractiveness of the sector to job seekers.

Hotels say they are operating well below their staffing needs. This table below illustrates the total number of employees employed in the HORECA sector between 2018 and 2021, split between accommodations (hotels) and food and beverage (cafes and restaurants). Surprisingly, unemployment lows in the HORECA sector were reached not in 2020 as might be expected, but in 2021, and are still far from recovering to their peaks of 2019.

Employment in the hospitality industry remains depressed for a number of reasons.

Former workers have lost faith that the sector can offer them a steady, reliable job. This is the result of the sector having been hit by multiple closures, AmCham’s Tourism Committee Head and Marriott General Manager Cameron McNeillie points out. There was the uncertainty of the breakout of the pandemic in early 2020, when staff preferred to #stayHome rather than face the unknowns of the virus. This was followed by worker layoffs as revenue collapsed. Periods of uncertainty during numerous Covid ‘waves’ have further contributed to the feeling of the lack of security and high staff attrition rates. Many former or potential employees, it would seem, now look at the prospect of going back to work in the people-facing hospitality sector as a losing bet.

McNeillie of Marriott Hotels says it is challenging to see the reticence of staff to return to their former workplaces “[because] Marriott and other hotels have invested a lot of time and energy into training staff over years. Many people have gone on to find other jobs, realizing their on-job and specific trainings were transferable to other roles even in totally different types of industries.”

Not helping matters, Covid has only exacerbated a pre-existing stigma in Georgia, as a part of which “families believe that their children and grandchildren are better off working in junior positions in the financial sector for example, rather than at perhaps better remunerating jobs in hospitality,” Jordi Kuijt of Silk Road Hospitality (Radisson Hotels) told Investor.ge.

Which is a shame, Kuijt points out, because this stigma is a ‘mismatch’ with the Georgian culture of hospitality at home, and this stigma could be overcome with awareness raising campaigns. For now, however, the stigma persists, “creating a vicious circle in which a lot of young people get trapped. [I say] trapped because young people are deprived of the chance to see that the hospitality sector has so much more to offer,” Kuijt says.

And there are plenty of opportunities to be had in hospitality. It is one of a handful of industries in Georgia in which dedicated workers can rapidly advance up the promotional ladder. Manager at Moxy Tbilisi Nano Urushadze is just one of the many Georgians in hospitality who have had this experience. “I started as a front desk associate, and am now a multi-property cluster manager for Tbilisi Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott and Moxy Tbilisi”, Urushadze told Investor.ge. Her experience of the hospitality sector is not unique; dedicated employees can expect to move quickly through the ranks of the hospitality establishments at which they work.

Covid fears aside, the hospitality sector is also facing challenges attracting talent because entry level positions often pay less than what one could earn working at, say, a call center (considered a fairly prestigious job in Georgia) or other similar jobs.

But there are (literal) payoffs to pursuing a career in hospitality, where there is tremendous opportunity for upward movement and promotion; these may be more limited when talking about call center or similar BPO jobs. Moreover, the hospitality industry generally also has a culture of hiring from within; this can be a strong source of inspiration to employees to stay committed to their workplace, who can work with the satisfaction of knowing that their talents will be recognized if the hard work is put

This article was prepared with the support of the USAID Economic Security Program.

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