Global hospitality sector faces staffing crisis as people shun non-remote jobs

The UAE market alone is estimated to be worth $7.37 billion this year, while experts say the country is a prime destination for employees

The hospitality industry faces difficulty hiring as many job hunters are looking for positions that can be done remotely. Getty Images
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As the global hospitality sector grapples with a shortage of talent and artificial intelligence puts many out of jobs, experts say people remain integral to the industry’s success.

In the UAE, where the view is that "people are key in hospitality", Paul Bridger, chief operating officer of Rove Hotels, says they plan to hire more than 1,500 additional employees in the GCC region.

The UAE is a popular destination for workers to earn more than they would in their home countries, prompting a high supply of people looking for jobs.

"We’re super lucky in this market as we have access to talent across the world,” Mr Bridger said at the Hospitality Leadership and F&B Forum on the first day of the Hotel Show, a three-day trade event at Dubai World Trade Centre.

“Our colleagues in Europe don’t have the same benefits.”

A global talent shortage

Among the countries hit hardest by the crisis is the US, where there were 1.1 million vacant hospitality roles in October, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Meanwhile, the European Hospitality Industry Association estimates a 2.5 million worker shortage this year, with France and Spain among those worst affected.

India is also grappling with a huge demand-supply gap in skilled staff across the tourism and hospitality sector.

Yet the market remains strong, with a growth forecast of $4.67 trillion in 2023 to $4.99 trillion this year, a compound annual growth rate of 6.8 per cent, according to the Global Hospitality Market Report 2024.

The UAE market alone is estimated to be worth $7.37 billion this year and expected to reach $9.46 billion by 2029, according to Mordor Intelligence.

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There are several reasons cited for the talent shortage, not least the Covid-19 pandemic, as job losses led many to seek alternative careers. Changing workforce preferences have also had an impact, as younger generations prioritise flexibility and remote-work opportunities, which is incompatible with the demanding schedules of most hospitality roles.

Wage stagnation, limited career progression and a general skills gap are other causes for concern, experts say.

Embracing education and internships

Internship programmes and training opportunities will also make a big difference, said Philip Jones, a senior vice president of operations for global hospitality group Accor, which has more than 200 hotels in the Middle East and Africa.

“There’s a tremendous demand for interns.

“But we have a responsibility to interns, as we might get a short-term gain but then we lose them from the industry forever … if we do it right, we get the benefit of their intelligence and can bring them back to the industry.”

The Gulf is investing heavily in training and education across the sector.

In the UAE, a new hospitality academy from Swiss brand Les Roches is opening in September in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.

It will combine conventional hospitality education programmes with specialised Emirati-centric courses, including a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, as well as practical skills certificates across areas such as hotel operations, travel, tourism, transport and entrepreneurship.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been placing an emphasis on the hospitality sector since leisure tourism opened up in 2019. The kingdom is already home to a few hospitality schools, but last year the country’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb also announced the $1 billion Riyadh School for Tourism and Hospitality, which is expected to open in the under-construction entertainment mega-project Qiddiya in 2027.

In India, Oman and Saudi Arabia, there are plans to introduce hospitality into the general school curriculum.

“In 12 to 18 months, one of the key projects is bringing hospitality into the curriculum in lower grades and that’s happening in Saudi as we speak, in Oman I know it’s happening … then it will become part and parcel of your life,” said Mr Nayak.

‘We need to turn HR rules on their head’

Accor has launched its own programme in Saudi Arabia to take on 250 frontline professionals, many of whom don't have training.

“It’s a tremendous social elevator," said Mr Jones. "I had never worked in a hotel before, I didn’t go to hotel management school, but you start as a frontline professional and work your way up. We want to focus on that.

“We need to keep people’s hearts, minds and smiles engaged.”

Mr Bridger, who said Rove has reduced its finance team by 40 per cent by automating all invoice payments and payables, said AI can also help, although a human will always be needed to oversee the technology.

“We can take the more mundane stuff out with technology, then we ask, how do we keep people front and centre?

“We have to change the roles for the younger generation. Before, you had to stay in a role for a year before you could move, but we have to be flexible. It’s OK to be 24 and be a general manager. It’s OK to change a job after six months. We need to turn HR rules on their head a bit.”

The most humbling industry

Ultimately, it’s the guest experience that matters in this industry, said Vijay Raghavan, director of Arenco Real Estate, which owns a range of hotels across the UAE.

“Human-to-human interaction is what stands out. We can’t ask the guest to talk to a machine at check-in – they want a different experience, but we need a fine blend of both," he said.

This is where Gen Z struggles, however, added Mr Jones. “Today everyone spends time on devices and the level of knowledge for the younger generation is different. They’re not picking up social skills and not interacting with other people.

“Working in this industry allowed my emotional intelligence to grow, interacting with others.”

This challenge is particularly obvious in the Gulf, where it is not historically common for young people to be employed in hospitality roles before they graduate, said Amit Nayak, vice president of Hotel Asset Managers Association Middle East and Africa,

“The hospitality industry is one of the most humbling industries,” he said.

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Updated: June 06, 2024, 12:14 PM