Maine businesses will have to be creative this summer. Many of them are facing the possibility of being understaffed. The employee problem stems from an aging community and the inability to retain the youth of the state. Many would also say low salaries contribute to the situation. In addition to these issues, the tourism industry has other factors at play. Because the tourism industry in Maine is seasonal, offering jobs for half a year, or less, is an issue. The fairly recent lack of housing and work visas have compounded the problem. Last week the Portland Press posted an article about the troubles with the H-2B Visas. The H-2 B visa program has new restrictions in 2017. In 2016 an exemption was given allowing businesses to hire returning employees without affecting the visa cap. This year no exemption was made for returning employees. Henceforth, the perfect storm is brewing and businesses are scrambling for workers. Yes, it seems the cards are stacked against the tourism industry this year, but the tourism businesses are creative and I am confident they will be successful. Here are some of the ways I hear Maine tourism businesses will ride the employment wave.
- Advertise your opportunity as a career and not just a job.
Making your company’s position more attractive is important. Tourism has become increasingly popular as a career. The internet has created more opportunities for individuals to become part of the service and travel industry. Airbnb has glamorized the service industry by promoting hosting and experiences. If you can emphasize that service opens doors to other global and financial opportunities, you might be able to entice more candidates.
- Manage expectations for visitors and employees early on.
If you know you are going to be understaffed, then plan to be understaffed. If you own an Inn, look at the jobs closely and see if you can outsource or eliminate them. Can you hire a laundromat to do the laundry? Can you buy sheets that do not need to be ironed? Do not offer extras if you cannot guarantee delivery. Make sure your employees understand that more will be expected from them. With tourists, sugar coat everything. Put chocolates on the pillow and offer cookies in the afternoon. A smile goes a long way. As a manager, go the extra step to interact with the guests. Guests will have a harder time leaving a bad review if they felt they connected with you.
- Look to Puerto Rico
Unfortunately, I do not know much about recruiting employees from Puerto Rico. Here is a great article on the benefits of hiring from Puerto Rico, https://medium.com/@Parallel18/why-hiring-in-puerto-rico-makes-sense-for-your-startup-d96413f590c2. Before many looked to Mexico for jobs, they looked to Puerto Rico. Now that there are issues with international visas, employers are looking again to Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican Employment Service is an affiliate of the U.S. Employment Service, and Puerto Rican workers are referred to as “inter-state migrants”. No visas or passports are needed for these workers.
- Be Creative with work schedules and wages
I was pleased to see this article, Amid foreign worker shortage, Bar Harbor businesses turn to local labor, in the Bangor Daily News. The article addresses how some Bar Harbor businesses are dealing with the work shortage. The comments under the article tell an interesting story. Many Maine residents that are not active in the hiring process, do not understand the frustration that is being felt by Maine companies. Businesses would hire more locals but there are many factors at play. Starting at the top, Maine could be more business-friendly and create an environment that allowed more profits for businesses. Not everyone believes in the trickle down theory, but in the cash-strapped seasonal tourism business, I believe there is room for this concept. Expenses for Maine seasonal businesses are so high that there needs to be a little more wiggle room. Getting through a Maine winter and maintaining historic charming ships and houses is costly. If there were more exemptions or rewards for preserving these tourist lodging and recreation venues, there could be more profits to pay better wages. That aside, I was pleased to learn that businesses in Bar Harbor are looking at the community and being realistic about the help that is available. Part time and older is a great combination.
- Encourage the establishment to save the H-2B visa program.
The hospitality industry needs to encourage their senators, Angus King and Susan Collins, to move amended visa legislation forward. There are groups such as The H-2B Workforce Coalition and twitter feeds like #saveH2B. If a business is truly affected by the visa issues, they should be active in national efforts and retweet the hashtag often. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
In addition to these 5 items, it is important to be optimistic. Remember that we live in a beautiful State and if things get too hectic, we can just run up a mountain or take a boat out to a nearby island. Stay positive with your guests and your community. The comments in the above-linked articles show there is a disconnect between reality and the perception of the tourism industry. I appreciate that the employee shortage topic is getting a lot of publicity because it creates a dialogue in our community about wages and the quality of life. In addition to these great discussions, the State of Maine needs to help seasonal businesses stretch and grow revenue to create stability for wages and jobs. Hopefully, the discussion will not end when the tourists leave this October.
I look forward to the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce Tourism Summit this week and hope there are productive discussions.