After losing more than 126,000 jobs last year, Tennessee’s tourism industry faces labor shortage as travel rebounds


Tennessee’s tourism industry isn’t just trying to attract more visitors this summer as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

State and industry groups are also advertising to bring more workers to fill the nearly 50,000 available jobs at local attractions, hotels, restaurants and other travel-related businesses amid one of the greatest labor shortages in decades.

The Tennessee Department of Tourism Development has partnered with the HospitalityTN business group in an attempt to attract workers to the state’s growing hospitality and entertainment industry. The new “Come Work, Come Play” campaign launched Thursday urges potential employees across the country to come to Tennessee for a more friendly, music-driven and fun outdoor work and play environment.

“The good news is that demand is really back for tourism and leisure hospitality in Tennessee,” said Mark Ezell, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development, who said travel bookings in May had increased by almost 10% from record highs in 2019. “This has created a hospitality jobs crisis as a result and our supply of workers right now is not meeting the demand that businesses need. “

Ezell said the shortage of workers in the hospitality industry could be one of the largest in state history, with many restaurants and other businesses forced to limit hours of operation due to lack of workers available to staff their operations.

Tennessee’s tourism industry, which reached more than $ 23 billion in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, is the state’s second-largest industry behind agriculture. Last spring, when the pandemic shut down most travel and forced the closure of most schools and many businesses, employment in the hospitality and recreation industry in Tennessee fell last year by 126,000 jobs from March to April. Since then, more than 88,000 of those lost hospitality jobs have returned, but Ezell estimates the state needs up to 50,000 more workers to fully staff and meet growing demand.

Even with the gain of another 3,000 workers in Tennessee’s hospitality industry last month, employment still remains below 40,000 jobs from the level of two years ago, although many tourism companies are now reporting that they are busier than ever.

David Martin, COO of Chattanooga-based hotel chain Vision Hospitality, said employees are in high demand for positions that continue to be added in the industry.

“We still need employees across our organization to fill virtually every discipline in hotel and restaurant operations,” he said. “The current job market in general is difficult; there are not enough people willing to work when they are paid by the government at a rate higher than historical pay scales. “

Unemployment in May

* 4.1% in Georgia, against 4.3% in April

* 5% in Tennessee, unchanged from May

* 5.8% in the United States as a whole, up from 6.1% in May

Sources: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Georgia Department of Labor

The federal government paid unemployed people looking for another job an additional $ 300 a week this year as part of a stimulus package passed by Congress to limit the economic fallout from the pandemic. But those additional federal additional benefits will end in Tennessee on July 3, reducing unemployment benefits by more than 50% in Tennessee.

Right now, Martin said employers have to use contract labor at a much higher pay scale and often employ less skilled and experienced workers who are less productive, “which adds additional challenges to our business models. endowment “.

At See Rock City atop Lookout Mountain, company president Susan Harris said hiring for the attraction “has been a challenge this spring” and people are still being hired to help staff with the attraction. which promises to be a robust summer season.

“Visits to Rock City Gardens have been very strong in 2021, surpassing 2019 and we expect that to continue throughout the summer,” said Harris. “Families are looking for quality outings and experiences, and the Chattanooga area is a popular destination because of all we have to offer.

Ezell said employers say they are also raising wages for many hospitality jobs. But to fill all the vacancies, the state tourism agency has partnered for the first time with a state trade association in an attempt to recruit workers to fill the positions.

“Our most valuable resource is our people,” said Rob Mortensen, president and CEO of HospitalityTN, the state-trading industry group that helps sponsor the ad campaign that runs through August. . “This administration has grown in many ways over the past year, and this is yet another example of our governor and his team going beyond the call to action.”

Marketing agency VMLY & R created a digital campaign as part of the first such joint workforce development effort between the state government and a trade association. The ads promote the benefits of working in the Tennessee hospitality industry and will run in key Tennessee and out-of-state markets that show the greatest propensity for offshoring including Austin, Dallas, Las Vegas, Chicago , San Francisco, Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Washington DC

According to US Travel, 38% of Americans start their careers in a travel-related job. available labor and size.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday that employment in all industries increased by 5,000 jobs in May. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained stable at 5%, which was still lower than the comparable unemployment rate of 5.8% for the United States as a whole.

In the 12 months ended May 2020, non-farm employment in the state increased by 231,500 jobs. The leisure and hospitality sector has seen the fastest growth at 24.1% in the past year.

In Georgia, the unemployment rate fell last month by two tenths of a percentage point to 4.1% with the addition of 7,000 more jobs despite a slight decline in the size of the workforce. State.

“Although the unemployment rate has continued to decline over the past 13 months, the focus should not be on the rate,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “We have a serious workforce problem which is reflected in the monthly decline in the workforce. With the number of jobs listed in Employ Georgia combined with the number of employers I hear daily who are struggling to find employees, we must see our workforce strength increasing dramatically. “

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340

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