Caribbean Tourism Industry Suffering Worker Shortage

Money & Career News Travel

All over the world, tourism workers are leaving the industry to find more lucrative and flexible opportunities elsewhere, warned Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Hon Edmund Bartlett, at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA’s) Travel Marketplace in Puerto Rico on October 3rd.

The Caribbean, as the most tourism-dependent region in the world, is not unaffected by these recent trends. Now, after the pandemic is finally over and tourism is back in full force, retaining staff is one of the biggest challenges for companies in the tourism industry. And since the Caribbean small island states receive a large chunk of their GDP and foreign exchange currencies (like US Dollars) from tourism, the problem is of national interest.

Statistics illustrate how important the tourism industry is to the local job markets: The US Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Barbados all have about a third of the workforce employed in travel and tourism-related jobs. The Bahamas, too, depend heavily on tourism with a staggering 43% of jobs in travel and tourism. In the British Virgin Islands, every second job is to be found in those sectors. St. Lucia boosts even 70%. Aruba, as well as Antigua and Barbuda, lead the list with over 80% of total employment situated in tourism and travel.

The tourism industry includes a wide array of jobs. They range from hospitality, over gastronomy to the Beach economy and entertainment. Chefs, waiters/waitresses, and bartenders are common jobs in gastronomy. In the hospitality industry, people can work for example as bellmen, cleaners, front-desk clerks/receptionists, maids, hotel managers, and gardeners. Jobs on the beach include lifeguards, jet sky operators, and beach vendors. And we should not forget the entertainment industry and arts and culture, which play a big part in tourism-dependent island states in the Caribbean like Barbados.

A waiter in Barbados earns about $500 a month, and in St. Lucia $725. Hotel Cleaners in Barbados and Jamaica have to get around $600 a month. In St. Lucia, a monthly $400 must pay the bills.

According to Hon Edmund Bartlett, what pushes tourism workers away from the industry is lack of tenure, mobility, and portability, which in his eyes “highlights the need to professionalize the industry”.

To address this, he suggests investing in the development of human capital through training and certification. He argues that this will allow workers to demand more from employers.

Certification is definitely guaranteed to give certificate holders more negotiating power over salaries and other terms. However, the reason people with certificates can demand more is that the amount of people who hold these certificates is limited. Certificates introduce a barrier to entering the industry and thus make it harder for talent to get started working. Thus, rather than solving the worker shortage, certificates could actually worsen the situation by requiring even more from job seekers. And shouldn’t we make it easier for people to get into the tourism industry, rather than harder?

Workers are leaving the industry because they find more attractive opportunities elsewhere. In an efficient labor market workers will always flock to the best opportunities. That is important to ensure an efficient allocation of workers within the economy.

And given that tourism is such a lucrative industry, companies should react to the shortage by increasing salaries and offering more attractive terms. That is the free market view on the issue and there certainly is hope that companies will make their jobs more attractive to attract the workers they need to keep their businesses running.

Human Resource Managers must first identify the underlying reasons why workers become disillusioned with the industry. Once the root causes have been identified, they must be addressed with adequate solutions. The solution could for example come in the form of increased pay, more flexible working arrangements, more opportunities for growth within the company, or the effective reduction of stress in the workplace.

The public sector must ensure that young people have access to education that prepares them for a career in tourism. To ensure any curriculum or training teaches students the skills needed for the real-life job, it is important to listen to companies’ human resource needs. In this context, it is great to hear that St. Lucia’s Minister for Tourism Dr. Ernest Hilaire developed a public-private partnership that aligns the government with the tourism industry.

Tourism will remain the driving force of Caribbean economies and thus deserves the greatest attention possible. The current outflow of talent from the industry shows that employers must make working in the tourism sector more attractive. That should include better compensation and the addressing of employees’ dissatisfactions. Government has the role to ensure education is aligned with real-life needs to develop the human capital that can further advance the Caribbean’s tourism industry of tomorrow.