Skills Shortages Return to the Front Line

The travel industry is facing a chronic skills shortage as the workforce ages, fewer people consider travel as a career, and talented staff leave the industry in search of better pay. Experts agree that perceptions need to change to lure new talent into the industry, but it’s not as easy as it sounds, as Louise Wallace writes.

Skills lightbulb low resBy Louise Wallace

The thorny issue of skills shortages has done the rounds in the travel sector as the workforce ages and new talent trickles through at a modest pace. Advocacy groups have been vocal on the subject in a bid to spur the industry into action and encourage younger generations to step foot in the profession, and yet it’s estimated that the Australian tourism industry is facing a labour shortage of over four times the national average.

The latest World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) report, released earlier this year, singled out workplace shortages as one of the greatest challenges facing the global tourism industry. And as other industry sectors continue to poach some of the top staff, the report painted a rather harrowing view of where the industry is heading: “Talent labour shortages where many hard to fill vacancies go permanently unfilled lead to below potential employment levels and growth in the near term, and foregone investment and growth in the longer term.”

Closer to home, accurate employment figures for the tourism sector are hard to come by, but the Australian Government has estimated that half of all travel and tourism businesses face recruitment, retention and skills shortages. Australia is in fact a high performer on the global stage, with the WTTC rating Australia among the top five countries with the least demand for skilled staff over the next 10 years. However, the Tourism and Hospitality Industry Advisory Committee issued a stern warning in its latest report, claiming the Australian industry is experiencing a “critical shortage” with up to 152,000 jobs expected to be vacant by the end of this year.

There are no hard and fast answers to combat the problem, and the reasons behind the shortages are many and varied. The WTTC claims that social issues which paint tourism as a “less attractive” option than other professions may be to blame. Low barriers to entry which attract transient and low skilled staff are another culprit, the report said, along with “uncompetitive pay” and lagging career development.

Travellers Choice CEO Christian Hunter weighed in on the topic at the group’s annual conference last year, branding skills shortages as a “major issue”. “We are not seeing the numbers of young people choosing travel as a career [and] numbers of students undertaking travel and tourism related qualifications are diminishing,” he said.

Express Travel Group HR and marketing services manager Jackie Gordon agrees there is an imbalance between talent and demand in Australia which is resulting in longer time to fill vacancies and difficulties finding competent workers – which in turn puts more pressure on existing staff. It’s also sapping time from employers who have to invest more effort into training staff to bring them up to par with existing employees, Gordon said.

inPlace Recruitment managing director Sandra Chiles echoed Gordon’s calls, but warned that the issue is nearing tipping point after failing to gain traction from higher up the chain. “Skills shortages have been happening for years, but it’s getting worse,” she told travelBulletin.

While there is little doubt that staffing issues are front of mind for many agency owners and managers, some insight into how the cracks appeared in the first place is worthy of discussion.

In Chiles’ view, skills shortages have emerged from lagging investment from already pressured agencies who simply don’t have the time or resources to take on trainees. And as agencies become increasingly strapped for time as more competition emerges, she says the industry could be in for a tough ride without adopting a cohesive industry approach.

“Employers want someone with a minimum number of years’ experience who is ready to hit the ground running. Due to low margins in travel agencies today, there is no money set aside in the budget to take on entry level staff. But travel and tourism companies need to budget for that trainee person and take them on board before the crisis hits,” she said. Chiles also suggested that taking on staff with skills that translate to tourism – such as call centres and customer service – could also help to bridge the gap.

A number of potential solutions have made the rounds, with more attractive salaries a common theme. But Chiles doubts that better salaries would make much difference, as low pay is not a “deal breaker” for good staff. Gordon agrees it is not the sole solution, but she concedes that higher salaries could help to lure more people into the industry and boost the profile of travel as a career.

“Salaries in the industry are generally lower than compared to similar roles in other industries, and entry level staff aren’t as attracted to roles in the industry as they were in the past,” she said, adding that the travel perks and free holidays of the past have lost their lustre as travel becomes more affordable. “Candidates now tend to work where they can earn more and afford to pay for a holiday.”

Gordon also pointed to the need to change the perception of travel as a career and to invest in staff to encourage them to stay within the industry. In her view, the most logical solution is to focus on attracting staff at entry level and committing to ongoing training programs. Certainly there is no snap-your-fingers solution, but Gordon says inaction will continue to put pressure on agencies. “Skills shortages are creating holes in the quality of service by having under-qualified staff in senior positions. As a result, more time and energy has to be invested into accelerating training for juniors and ensuring they are multi-skilled, not just focused on repetitive tasks,” she said.

AFTA is doing its bit to narrow the gap on skills shortages and encourage newcomers to consider a career in travel, but as AFTA Education and Training director Rick Myatt told travelBulletin, skills shortages are nothing new. “With around 4800 agents in Australia we will always have skills shortages and we will never catch up. But at least the industry is mindful of it and is doing what it can,” he said.

AFTA has developed a range of initiatives to bring industry newcomers up to par with employee expectations, and Flight Centre has been at the forefront of industry training, welcoming industry newcomers onboard and positioning FC Business School as a complete training solution for travel professionals.

Travel industry groups including Express Travel Group have also introduced their own in-house training solutions to combat the issue head on, but as Gordon stressed, easing skills shortages takes more than a few industry training platforms – a whole of industry approach is required. For an industry that has long been resilient to change, experts agree that acknowledging the problem is one of the greatest hurdles, followed by the implementation of training and recruitment strategies at agency level. The need to invest time and effort to training has been traditionally hard to swallow for time strapped agencies – particularly when there is no guarantee that staff will stay on the books – but as Gordon and Chiles put it, the alternative is to do nothing and risk losing talented staff to other professions


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