by Barbara Peterson | March 09, 2020
A new hotel in Salt Lake City goes on a recruiting blitz for entry-level workers in order to staff up. The number of applicants who respond: zero.

A lodging group in Maine closes two of its inns because it simply can't find enough workers to keep the properties running.

Several New York City hotels replace room service with food-delivery apps, citing staff shortages.

What's behind these stories? The hospitality industry is facing a record scarcity of workers, in large part because of a sharp drop in the number of immigrant job applicants and employees. Guests are starting to notice the impact on everything from a shortage of front-desk staff to fewer F&B outlets. And industry executives are calling on the government to take action.

"We are at a critical moment for our industry," says Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. "Demand has never been higher, but we are also facing the tightest labor market in a generation." In remarks following President Trump's 2020 State of the Union address on Feb. 4, AHLA renewed calls for immigration reform, noting that "the domestic labor market alone cannot meet our workforce needs."

How serious is it? The U.S. Labor Department estimated recently that the leisure and hospitality industry has roughly 1 million job openings, a significant increase from about 600,000 positions in 2015 and 350,000 in 2009.

In 2018, the rate of immigrants coming into the U.S. declined by 70 percent, the biggest drop in more than a decade, which a number of analysts attribute to policy changes that have made it harder for foreign workers to get visas. With unemployment hovering around 3.5 percent, a 50-year low, the timing couldn't be worse for the hospitality business.

Immigrants account for 31 percent of the industry's workforce, although they make up just over 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Deloitte 2019 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook.

Hotels, restaurants, caterers and others integral to the meetings business are now struggling with how to fill essential jobs. Surveys confirm that this is a top priority for hospitality companies. In 2016, fewer than 25 percent of hotel members of the Washington (State) Hospitality Association cited recruiting workers as their biggest challenge; in 2018, more than a third named hiring as their top concern.

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