By Phil Bruno

The hospitality and tourism industry is currently in what a football or baseball coach would call a “rebuilding season.” We’ve had a rough past few years, but the industry is coming back. More importantly, it’s time to build a better bench of talent.

A lot of the industry folks I talk to think they have to go on a hiring spree to do this. They are desperate to attract new workers. Some of them come to me wanting to know the secret sauce of how to do that.

In response, I often ask them: Instead of attracting new workers, why aren’t you trying to win back the industry veterans who left?

To some, that sounds crazy. Why would they consider returning? Would anyone, once they’ve had a taste of other industries with 40 hours workweeks, benefits, and weekends off?

The surprising answer, believe it or not, is yes, they would. Employees will come back to the industry, if they are treated right.

And winning back employees who already left the industry is a winning strategy, because they will already have many of the skills needed for open positions. Let’s look at that winning strategy, and then consider what it would take to win them back.

Winning Them Back is a Winning Strategy

Winning back previous employees is the low hanging fruit of the employee shortage in the industry. If organizations can win back employees who already have experience and training, they won’t need as much onboarding. They can get to work and be profitable more quickly.

More importantly, having experienced employees come back will relieve some of pressure on current employees, who have utterly burned out trying to keep the ship afloat without proper staffing. Burned out employees are not in a position to train new people well, but they will be relieved to be working with someone who already grasps the basics of working in hospitality and tourism.

And this all needs to happen, pronto. Guest experiences are not going to be positive if businesses are understaffed and employees are overworked and burned-out. Those guest experiences are everything—as tourism goes, so goes the economic development of an area. To give a city or region a shot in the arm economically, we need travel and tourism to make a full comeback.

OK, so former industry employees are worth winning back. But will they answer the call?

Survey Says: They Will Come Back…if Things Change

I took a couple of informal surveys of hospitality and tourism employee groups online. I asked two basic questions: Why did you leave the industry? And what would make you willing to come back?

Naturally, there are many reasons why employees leave an organization or an entire industry. But after a few dozen answers, I began to see patterns in response to the first question. When employees left, the reasons boiled down to four things:

  1. Ridiculously bad pay. Not just low pay, but pay that was not even close to fair given the amount of time employees were expected to work, especially for early mornings, nights, and weekends. That was directly related to…
  2. Constantly being treated badly.  Employees felt they were in a thankless job, there to be abused by both management and by guests. Managers rarely “had an employee’s back.” Jobs were often thankless, too.
  3. Too much stress, too little time to deal with it. Employees often report that they cannot take the stress. With few lunch breaks and personal time off, they have no way to rest and recharge.
  4. Lack of a “life.” This isn’t just a lack of “work-life balance.” Former employees are saying there was no “life” beyond their work; the balance was so lopsided that the scale tips over. Long hours, lack of weekend time off, always being on call, and just generally overwhelmed meant no time for family and friends.

An important note: Not a single employee said that they did not want to work. Nor did anyone say they could get away with living on a government check. Indeed, some employees were actively looking for jobs, or had found a job, in other industries. In short, these people clearly wanted to work. They did not want long hours, stress, and abuse in exchange for low pay.

Turning Things Around

So what will bring back those industry veterans? Simple: If the situation were to change, they would love to come back to the industry. Consider:

Fair pay. Employees want fair pay for the work that they do, and that recognizes the skills they have developed over the years. They want overtime for extra hours worked. They want vacation time and bonus pay to reward them when a job is well done.

To be treated like human beings. So many employees mentioned that they wanted to be treated (and paid!) like human beings, not cogs in a machine just trying to make its numbers. They want recognition for a job well done, and training so they can advance and make their jobs into a career instead of something temporary. And there were several calls to managers and corporate leadership to “stop micromanaging everything we do.”

Less stress. Simple things like a regular lunch break and personal time off would do wonders for bringing down stress levels.

A chance at a social life. Employees would come back if hours were more flexible, or if there were a more consistent schedule. They want affordable child care. They want a reasonable amount of time off. And they want managers to respect that time off.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough: The people I corresponded with really wanted to work in the industry. They loved meeting new people and having those face-to-face interactions, both with guests and with other employees.

But they aren’t going to come back to the industry unless things start to change. Those changes need to be concrete and noticeable. People want to be treated better, to have their skills recognized, and their time respected. They want to be paid better and recognized for a job well done.

I’m not saying this will be easy. Doing the right thing seldom is. But now, we at least know what the right things are.

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Image courtesy of NOHK via pexels.