The Future of the American Travel Workforce

Staff shortages continue to trouble hotels, restaurants, airports, and more—but this could be an opportunity to rebuild a more diverse, dynamic travel industry.

The Future of the American Travel Workforce

Where have all the workers gone?

Illustration by Shutterstock

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of op-eds for AFAR by Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based organization representing all segments of travel in America. U.S. Travel’s mission is to increase travel to and within the United States.

It’s a big week for the U.S. travel industry: This is National Travel and Tourism Week (NTTW, May 1–7, 2022), a sort-of annual reunion of travel professionals across the United States to reflect on the year past—celebrating what the industry accomplished—and plan for the future.

There is much to celebrate: While international and business travel are still down, domestic leisure travel has nearly fully recovered to prepandemic levels.

While we’ll continue to work toward recovery, we know we can’t go back to the way things were. Effecting real change is largely dependent on our industry’s ability to rebuild and retain a diverse and dynamic workforce.

Through a fresh vision emerging from the pandemic years, America’s travel industry is preparing for a future that will be more sustainable, innovative, and secure.

A moment to rebuild

Employment statistics have been sobering: There were more jobs lost in travel and hospitality than in any other sector. The Leisure and Hospitality (L&H) sector alone accounted for 11 percent of prepandemic U.S. employment but represented a staggering 93 percent of all jobs lost as of March 2022.

While this is clearly a setback, it also presents an opportunity to rebuild to become more competitive with other industries. The travel industry generates good, well-paying jobs that provide stability and upward mobility to families in every pocket of America. Our industry can offer extremely competitive wages, which is crucial to rebuilding the travel workforce. In fact, average hourly earnings for L&H employees were 20 percent above 2019 levels in March—greater than the 14 percent increase for the private sector overall.

A path for upward mobility

This is also an industry in which workers can truly move up the ladder and gain valuable skills along the way. Travel builds a robust pipeline of talent through apprenticeships, mentoring, and hospitality management training programs. These efforts equip hospitality leaders with next-generation skills that instill a sense of purpose and mission.

I know this because I have directly experienced the tremendous upward mobility this industry creates. I took my first job as a pool manager at a Marriott hotel in 1966, then moved up through housekeeping and into sales. From there, I led sales and marketing jobs at hotels in 12 different cities before joining Marriott’s corporate headquarters in 1983 as head of marketing. Ten years later, an opportunity emerged to lead Marriott’s 10,000-person-strong global sales team. That first job I had at Marriott led me to a decades-long career built on invaluable and highly transferable skills.

So, how do we ensure others can benefit similarly from a career in travel?

Show workers the opportunities in travel jobs

The U.S. travel industry must do more to showcase this phenomenal industry to job seekers. As of November 2021, the labor force participation rate was nearly 62 percent—equating to 2.4 million fewer Americans in the workforce than at the same time in 2019.

While this is troubling news, it presents a unique opportunity. The travel industry is a supportive bridge for Americans looking to re-enter the workforce in a dynamic economy. When we are recruiting for new talent, we must convey to job seekers that travel jobs are highly accessible and flexible. Many entry-level workers can find work in travel—as front desk staff, housekeepers, lifeguards, and more. These jobs offer the much-needed training to cultivate essential soft skills, such as communication, dedication, confidence, leadership, flexibility, customer service, and problem-solving.

U.S. Travel Association recently forged a partnership with Tourism Diversity Matters to help attract a more diverse workforce and foster these skills. Tourism Diversity Matters was founded in 2021 to address the gaps of ethnic disparities within the tourism and events industry to engage, recruit, and retain a diverse workforce. Specifically, Tourism Diversity Matters leads an apprenticeship program that engages underrepresented college students by providing hands-on experience in tourism and hospitality. Training workers to be more productive and prosperous in the workplace doesn’t just serve the individuals—it will also benefit employers and the communities they serve.

Looking to the future

This National Travel and Tourism Week, I am proud to join colleagues across the country in envisioning the bright future and limitless opportunities for travel’s next generation. Travelers and the U.S. travel industry have endured so much during the pandemic, but this is a chance to reimagine the industry to be more dynamic, resilient, and forward-looking than before the public health crisis. It all starts with building a diverse and talented workforce.

>>Next: The Future of Hospitality Is . . .

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